Your Business

Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age

If you attended APEX 2014, you might remember Matt Church telling you to buy a hardcopy of
Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age,
written by the original thought leader, Tom Peters.

The reason Matt was so passionate about this book is because it challenges conventional thinking and asks the reader to completely re-design their careers and businesses in pursuit of the remarkable, which will ultimately lead to the potential for obscene profits for those who do.

The book (written in 2003 but unfortunately now out of print) is jammed-packed with valuable insights for our industry. Here, in part one of this series, I discuss Peters’ views on leadership. 

Re-Imagine! is out of print.

Before I get stuck into Peters’ view on leadership, it’s important I give you the background as to why he wrote the book in the first place. Right from the start, Peters argues, thanks to job offshoring, digitalisation (i.e. replacing people with technology), globalisation and security concerns, the world will continue to change at a rapid pace. He backs-up his statement with a number of statistics, including the view that 75% of white collar jobs will be gone in 15 years, but I think the following quote sums it up best:  

When I was growing up, my parents used to say to me: ‘Finish your dinner – people in China are starving. I, by contrast, find myself wanting to say to my daughters: ‘Finish your homework – people in China and India are starving for your job.

– Thomas Friedman, June 2004.

A case in point - when I first started as a financial planner in the late 80’s (yes), being “the expert in the room” with a client was relatively easy and important. The “expert” role is still relevant; however, with the ease of access to information, being “the expert” has potentially been outsourced to the internet. Clients have significant power through information and being technically strong is not a differentiator for advisers. In fact, for many clients the old role of the financial planner no longer exists, but a new high value role does!

If you don’t like change then you will like irrelevance even less!  

Don’t follow the leader

Instead of benchmarking, which Peters argues is a pointless exercise (as by the time you implement you only get to the place your leading competitors “were”), you should find ways to serve your customers in unexpected and delightful ways. To innovate, says Peters, is actually easier than following the leader. To illustrate his point, he refers to marketing legend Seth Godin who once said: 

The reason it’s so hard to follow the leader is this: the leader is the leader precisely because he did something remarkable. And that remarkable thing is now taken – so it’s no longer remarkable when you decide to do it.

– Seth Godin, February 2003

And how, according to Peters, do you do that exactly?

1. Hire insanely great and quirky talent.

2. Disrespect tradition

3. Be totally passionate (to the point of irrationality) about what you are here to do.

4. Have an utter disbelief for ‘normal industry behaviour’.

5. Have a maniacal bias for execution and contempt for those who ‘don’t get it’.

6. Be a speedy demons.

7. Up or out. (Meritocracy is Thy Name. Sycophancy is Thy Scourge).

8. Hate bureaucracy with a passion.

9. Be willing to lead the customer…and take the heat associated.

10. Reward excellent failures and punish mediocre successes.

11. Have the courage to stand alone.

12. Have a crystal clear understanding of the power of a good story (brand power)


I’ll expand on some of the other points in subsequent articles (some of these points are more obvious than others), for now let’s focus on the first one – hire insanely great and quirky talent.

Don’t hire people based purely on intelligence

Why? They’ve spent their entire lives following the rules – colouring within the lines if you will. People who fall into this category are unlikely to tackle the challenges your organisation faces in a truly innovative, category-changing way. That’s not to say that “smart people” are not relevant to your business – just make sure you understand everyone’s relative strengths, weaknesses and fit within your business. Change demands creativity, plus courage and commitment.

I’m sure we’ve all got examples of intelligent people who were scholastic superstars at school (or university), but who could not translate their “book smarts” into the real world. Conversely, people with the traits of courage, vision and leadership have succeeded throughout history. By way of example, Winston Churchill was a relatively poor student (he struggled at school and took 3 attempts to pass the entrance exam for the Royal Military College), but he came to be regarded as one of the greatest war time leaders of the 20th century.  His ability to play the leadership role – to galvanise his people around a common vision and purpose – is legendary.

Not convinced? Well, your business clearly reflects the people and leaders within it.  Therefore, consider carefully the team you have to help deliver your business success; Peters offers this pointed warning “Hang around dull people and you too will be dull.” 

Then ask “what do you think?”

Once you’re surrounded by people who are truly talented (check out the Strengths 2.0 book review for more information on identifying talent) the next step is to use what Peters describes as the three (plus four) most important words a leader can ever use – “I don’t know” and  “what do you think?”.

In doing so, you’ll engage your team – and garner perspectives you wouldn’t otherwise get.

If you’ve ever seen the TV show Undercover Boss you’ll understand what I am talking about. In each episode a high-ranking executive or business owners poses as an entry-level member of staff to uncover real challenges and solutions.

For example, by going under cover Tony Braxton-Smith, CEO of the Great Southern Rail, was able to make a number of simple yet company-wide changes to improve operational efficiency and customer service.  The people within the team knew many of the answers – or the questions to ask – so find ways to engage with and leverage your team.  

Finally, make a shortlist

A bias to action is a key plank of Peters’ philosophy (fail, forward, fast).  We all encourage our clients to make a plan and it’s incumbent on all of us to do the same.  How can we aim for excellence and achieve success without “activity” and without testing what and how we do things?  Failure is a cornerstone of learning – so learn fast. 

In the words of one CEO, “we have a strategic plan – it’s called doing something”.   

Peters also has a lot to say about the inadequacies of traditional education systems including business schools.  The “Ford model of education” - based on structured learning of facts - is fantastic if you plan to do the same thing for the next 40 years.  The challenge is to develop creativity and innovation - prerequisites if you are really planning to deal or drive change (and elements notably missing from nearly all degree/MBA courses).

In leading your teams, the following quote stood out as excellent advice for all leaders:

Make a short list of all the things ever done to you that you abhorred. Don’t do them to others. Ever. Make another list of things done to you and that you loved. Do them to others. Always.

– Dee Hock, October 1996

In the next article, I’ll explore Peters’ views on serving customers and why it’s more important than ever to make their dreams come true. 


July 2015