The Excellence Dividend

The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last

by Tom Peters

Tom Peters makes a renewed call to excellence in the context of an increasingly data-driven and dehumanized world. His “putting people first” mantra is even more on point than it was when his seminal work In Search of Excellence was published in 1982.

“The primary defenses against AI-driven job destruction are widespread, relatively unconstrained creativity and novel organizational arrangements designed to produce products and services that will stand out in an automated world. I unequivocally believe that such creativity is antithetical to algorithmic optimization of human affairs.”

“So what is this Excellence Dividend? In short, businesses that are committed to excellence in every aspect of their internal and external dealings are likely to be survivors. They are better and more spirited places to work. Their employees are engaged and growing and preparing for tomorrow. Their customers are happier and inclined to spread tales of their excellence far and wide. Their communities welcome them as good neighbors. Their vendors welcome them as reliable partners. That in turn translates directly into bottom-line results and growth. And, AI and robotics notwithstanding, it translates into jobs that last and the likely creation of new jobs as well.”

“Excellence [is] reflected in the staff’s attitude toward the coming day… that translates into an emotional bond with customers and communities in a way that cannot—and I predict will not—be replaceable by algorithms in the foreseeable future. Excellence… is a human-driven affair, a state of mind, not a computer-generated exercise.”

“Excellent customer experiences depend entirely on excellent employee experiences! … ‘Give-a-shit-ism’ … is arguably Key #1 for an environment featuring productive, innovative employees and, thence, happy customers.”

“Excellence is not a metric. It is a state of mind, a way of being… The point here is not to dismiss numbers. It is that numbers should not be the default tail that wags the dog. Numbers are abstractions. Numbers are derivative of real action.”

This book is not about lofty ideas like vision and transformation—it’s all about execution. “Excellence is a moment-to-moment way of life. Or it is nothing at all.”

Peters calls organizational effectiveness his career obsession. “I fervently believe that in most any organization of, say, more than a dozen people, the #1 issue that causes delays, implementation failures in general, employee angst, and customer ire is failures of cross-functional communication and integration… It is, alas, fair to say that our INTERNAL barriers, not our competitors’ cleverness, are the principal impediment to effective execution and, hence, competitiveness.”

“Management is about the essence of human behavior, how we fundamentally arrange our collective efforts in order to survive, adapt, and, one hopes, thrive and achieve excellence individually and organizationally… The leader’s enthusiasm and her skill at dispensing enthusiasm is the Great Leadership Differentiator.”

“Culture is the chief’s obsession or it’s pretty much nothing at all. Culture is shaped by the casual comment the boss makes to the receptionist as she walks through the door in the morning. Culture is shaped by three casual comments—no more than thirty seconds each—that the boss makes as she walks the twenty-five yards from the receptionist’s desk to her office. Culture is shaped dramatically by the tone and quality and care put into the six e-mails the boss responds to in the fifteen minutes after she gets to her desk. Culture is shaped by every twitch and blink and comment the boss makes at the morning meeting… You want the driver to shovel a snowy walk or the call-center agent to form a bond with a policyholder? Create a culture where such acts are cherished.”

Peters recommends hiring for these attributes: listening, caring, smiling, saying thank you, being warm, nice, empathy, enthusiasm, character, curiosity, no jerks, and no shitheads. “Use these words—damn it!—not HR gobbledygook equivalents.” He adds: “Curiosity could legitimately be called the #1 way in which we individually and collectively differentiate ourselves in the Age of Automation.” An employee must also be a “superb teammate.”

Inspired by Susan Cain, author of Quiet, Peters notes that “employers gravitate, starting with the hiring process, toward the noisy ones. And that’s a colossal mistake, especially depriving ourselves of the services of the nearly half of the population of ‘the quiet ones’ who tend to think before they open their mouths and in general bring to the table a different and invaluable approach to their work.”

“Effective evaluations emerge from a series of loosely structured, continuing conversations, not from filling out a form once every six months or year.” Peters warns that programs focusing on “high-potential employees” tend to demotivate the other 95 percent.

Peters is a proponent of robust training. “Great training is transformative… In the army, three-star generals obsess about training. In most businesses, it’s a ho-hum, midlevel staff function.”

The theme of the innovation section is “Whoever Tries the Most Stuff Wins!” With a nod to Michael Schrage of MIT Media Lab, he writes, “Serious play’ is not an oxymoron; it is the essence of innovation.” On the importance of prototyping, Peters quotes Michael Bloomberg. “While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make the design perfect, we’re already on prototype version #5… In business, you reward people for taking risks. When it doesn’t work out you PROMOTE THEM—because they were willing to try new things.”

Peters observes that design can be a differentiator “for good or for ill… Great design moves mountains and vaults market share to the heavens… The tiniest design boo-boo can enrage a customer… Design = care… Design = Elegance… Design = Thoughtfulness.”

“Focusing on the functional and emotional way in which we experience—connect with—a service or product is of surprising importance, and is indeed on an entirely different planet from ‘satisfaction,’ which, after all, is derived from ‘satisfactory’ (i.e. ‘not bad’)… Experiences that stick are about emotional engagement. And emotional engagement is about intangibles, about artistry, about surprise, about the smiles that the MINI Cooper S engendered.”

The leadership section begins with a chapter on listening. “Do something about your ‘habit interruptis’—and in the process turn a glaring weakness into no less than a towering strength.” Peters also quotes MIT professor Ed Schein: “‘Effective helping begins with pure inquiry.’ (Questions, not prescriptions, first.)”

Peters says the frontline bosses are the principal determinants of enterprise productivity, employee retention, product or service quality, the embodiment of corporate culture, and the champions of excellence and employee development. “The chiefs run the navy, and the sergeants run the army. And in private enterprise, the first-line supervisors/bosses serve the same role… [They] connect the aspirations of the business to the people who do the work. [They] animate and exemplify the culture of the organization.”

MBWA stands for Managing by Wandering Around. “The real meaning was that you can’t lead from your office/cubicle. You lead on the shop floor or, for that matter, in the customer’s or vendor’s place of business. You lead, damn it, by staying in direct touch with the action that matters.” (This idea is called genchi genbutsu in The Toyota Way and is also reinforced by Colin Powell in It Worked for Me.) “Face-to-Face is imperative.”

“While giving acknowledgement is a most desirable human trait… it is also a first-class profit/growth booster. Customer engagement is a direct product of employee engagement, and… those who feel significant are far more likely to go the extra mile (or nine) for their teammates and their customers.”

Peters points out two major underappreciated market opportunities:

  • In a Harvard Business Review article titled “The Female Economy,” Michael Silverstein and Kate Sayre report that women control $20 trillion in consumer spending. “‘In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined—more than twice as big, in fact…’ This section is not about ‘selling to women…’ Far more important than selling and marketing are the attributes of product or service itself… I think it is likely (certain?) that this is the greatest marketplace opportunity considered in this book. And the wonderful news is that most of your competitors are idiots on this topic.”
  • “On rare occasions, one comes across a remark—a single sentence—that completely reframes your worldview. What Bill Novelli, a former AARP chief, says below, from his book 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America, was for me one of those times: ‘PEOPLE TURING 50 TODAY HAVE MORE THAN HALF OF THEIR ADULT LIFE AHEAD OF THEM…’ The financial numbers are absolutely inarguable—the Mature Market has the money. Yet the advertisers remain astonishingly indifferent to them.”

Tom Peters Reads A LOT. I am impressed with the variety of books and periodicals he cites to support his points. He quotes an unnamed cofounder of a large investment firm who mentioned in conversation, “If I had to pick one failing of CEOs, it’s that they don’t read enough.”

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book.


Peters, Thomas J. The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the Tech Tide with Work That Wows and Jobs That Last. New York: Vintage Books, 2018. Buy from Amazon.com


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