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Personal Relationships Powerful in Business Success, Says Author Tom Peters

In his keynote address at the 2012 IASA conference, the author of In Search of Excellence told the audience that he who serves the end-customer is the manager's customer.

When celebrated author Tom Peters took the stage to deliver the keynote at the annual IASA conference in San Diego last week, he promised the audience that during the succeeding hour he would “absolutely positively not tell you anything that you don’t know.” His role, he said, was to “tell you things that your grandmother told you that in the heat of battle you tend to forget.” That may have been a good summary, but Peters, co-author of In Search of Excellence, also shared insights into some developments your grandmother, in all her wisdom, may not have been able to anticipate.

Peters set the tone with a recommendation that if there was one book the audience should read, it should be Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. “It never gets old, because the reality is that regardless of the level of technical activities in which you’re involved… everything is 100 percent about relationships” Peters commented. “I could go home just on that recommendation of Dale Carnegie’s book because I would have earned my fee.”

Peters related a possibly apocryphal story in which famed hotelier Conrad Hilton was called to the dais during a formal event and asked what were the most important lessons he had learned during his long and distinguished career. “Remember to tuck the shower curtain into the bathtub,” he responded, whereupon he turned around and left the stage, according to Peters. Whether or not the story was true, it made an important point, Peters insisted: “You never make the money on the first transaction, but from number two through 102 — and that comes from the tucked-in shower curtains.”

Peters then turned to the theme of the priority of execution over strategy. In the pages of In Search of Excellence, he and his co-authored with Robert Waterman, readers were advised to “get the strategy right and the execution will take care of itself,” Peters noted. “We said, if you don’t execute and it won’t matter what your strategy is — there are a whole lot more implementation failures than there are strategy failures.” However, Peters acknowledged that his emphasis had shifted in the direction of the wisdom exemplified in Dale Carnegie’s book. The motto should be, he insisted, “People first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth.”

“CEOs are not paid to create strategy but find the people who can,” Peters commented. “They are not paid to write code but to find the people who can write the best code.” Peters quoted Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher saying, “You have to treat your employees like customers” – and noting that the airline had never lost a second to a work slowdown. Peters noted that once while in a wheelchair, a Southwest pilot had gone out of his way to push him down the jetway. On another occasion, a flight attendant sang a “customers, we love you song” in a great voice. The basic service of flying from point to point with that airline may not differ from others, “But these are the things you remember,” Peters emphasized. He later told a anecdote of a Kingfisher airline flight attendant asking a passenger whether she could clean his glasses. It was such small, but devoted actions that showed employee commitment, and inspired customer loyalty, he suggested.

[For more on this year's IASA show, see 8 Priorities for the 2012 IASA Annual Conference.]

Peters went on to note that today’s world of business and society regularly delivers up bizarre occurrences. He gave as examples a Brazilian bank using a biometric sensor that detects not merely an account holder’s finger print, but also bloodflow — on the assumption that thieves could have cut of the person’s finger. He also reported that South African athlete Oscar Pistorius had been approved to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games despite being a double amputee.

“Crazy stuff is going down…and it could become fundamental to your business,” Peters said. “How do you stay on top of it? You can’t, but at least you could try more stuff than the next guy.”

Peters reinforced the point of that strategy, quoting Wayne Gretzky as saying, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

“Above all avoid moderation,” Peters counseled. “These are immoderate times; moderate responses won’t do.”

In a business environment where relationships are more important than ever, a man’s world is giving way to a woman’s world, Peters argued, saying that young women in urban centers are already out-earning men by about 20 percent. By 2020 80% of middle managers will be women, he said.

“Men get off on specs; women get off on relationships,” Peters commented. “New studies show women managers outperform males by almost any measure.”

Peters quoted Richard Branson — whom he described as the crazy and successful British entrepreneur — as saying, “Business has to give people enriching rewarding lives or it’s simply not worth doing.”

Branson’s statement is not impractical or merely idealistic, Peters insisted, but rather presented a key insight into how businesses will succeed in the foreseeable future.

“For 20 years I’ve come to meetings like this and said ‘the customer comes first,’” Peters said. Apologizing for taking grammatical license, he added, “I’ve changed my tune: now I say, ‘if you want to put the customer first, you have to put the person who serves the customer more first.”

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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