Saturday, November 22, 2003

Speaker urges flexibility


Author Tom Peters tells crowd to re-imagine careers

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Tom Peters revs up a Xavier University audience Friday.
(Tony Jones photo)
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NORTH AVONDALE - Now that we've pushed envelopes and thought outside of boxes - some of us anyway - author Tom Peters wants us to reboot our outmoded notions of careers and what it takes to succeed in business.

Speaking to a ballroom full of guests Friday at a Xavier University appearance sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, Peters covered ground from his new book, Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age. Threading through his remarks was the theme: Change for the better or don't for the worst.

Peters said the evolution of the U.S. economy hinged on change. What's happening today, he said, is the "opening chapter" of change that will be even more traumatic than in the past.

"You tend to be pretty smug, but the reality is that this change is in fact penetrating every corner of the global economy," he said.

Peters cited a recent University of California study that said 14 million U.S. service jobs are at risk of being shipped to India, where comparably educated, lower-paid workers transact business in English via satellite. Many of those jobs, he said, are high-paying jobs that Americans had planned to make their careers.

"We are coming out of an 80-year con job," Peters said, roaming from table to table with a wireless microphone, "and the con job was: Come out of the University of Cincinnati and Xavier with a four-year degree, and God owes you 40 years of uninterrupted employment at a big company. Hey sucker, it's over!"

Peters cited the career of his own father as an example of what not to expect - 41 years in the same office on the same floor of the same building in Baltimore.

"I would slit my throat in public if I had the same office on the same floor for 40 years," said Peters, whose own career took him from the Navy to a White House job to a management consultant job before he wrote In Search of Excellence in 1982. "He was a good guy at home, but he was brain dead at work from 9 to 5."

In his new book, and in his talk Friday, Peters says that people and companies both need to look at themselves in new ways.

People should not be "cubicle slaves," but entrepreneurs who chart their own lives, take chances and deliver what people want. Companies, he said, should stop conducting "six-month witch hunts" for those who make mistakes. Instead, they should "screw around vigorously" - trying new things - and recast themselves, as UPS did with its "brown" campaign and Harley-Davidson did with the selling of a lifestyle instead of motorcycles, he said.

Excellence, Peters said, is about keeping your competitors awake at night, thinking about your next move. "It's not about some dumb jerk financial criteria," he said.

Workers who don't adapt to the new environment might just find their jobs going to India or China.

"What do you do about that?" Peters said. "The answer is clear as a bell to me, albeit not easy. You do what the hell your great-great-grandfather and your grandfather did, right? They tossed him out of the farm, and he figured out he'll work in a factory. They tossed him out of the factory, and he figured out he'll work in a white-collar tower. And we now need to pursue higher-value-added jobs, which are the only reason for our existence in an insanely high-wage nation. It's nastier than it was in the past."

Peters pays homage to women in his new book. They make more purchasing decisions, they make better managers and they network more than men, he said. Smart companies, he said, cater to female consumers - and put more women in executive jobs.

At that point, Peters referred to his "pornography" collection of Fortune 500 company annual reports and their galleries of "shockingly old white males who were famous for having been famous long, long ago." He noted that the lone woman occupies either the human resources or corporate communications job, while the lone African-American holds the other.

"I am not into affirmative action and I am not into quotas, but what I do believe, passionately, that if the board of directors bears no resemblance whatsoever to the market being served, something stupid is going down," he said.

Although Peters lives in Vermont, his company, Tom Peters Co., is based in Loveland and employs 15 people there.

E-mail jmcnair@enquirer.com



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