Cheney/Peters: Part III

‘Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You’

Comfort leads to obsolescence and eventual ‘evaporation.’

May 18, 2012

If you’re comfortable with everyone on your executive team, “you’ve got problems, brother,” says management guru/best-selling author Tom Peters.

Comfort is a recipe for obsolescence, failure, and “evaporation, plain and simple,” he warns. Hiring some “disruptive” people can ward off complacency and inject an organization with fresh ideas and perspectives.

In the last of this three-part series, Peters tells CUNA President/CEO Bill Cheney what has and hasn’t changed since he published “In Search of Excellence” in 1982, details his next “quest to the unknown”—and reveals why he won’t be a nice guy when he addresses the America’s Credit Union Conference in June.

Cheney: What has and hasn’t changed about the business world since you published “In Search of Excellence” in 1982?

Peters: The basic human values are the same. The speed of change is absolutely enormous. You could wake up tomorrow morning and find 23 startups in your space that weren’t there when you went to bed—there’s always someone out there who’s living 2022 in 2012. But the bedrock hasn’t changed its shape.

The requirement to be fast on your feet, to learn new stuff, to grab hold of technology sooner than later, and to face a more competitive environment both locally and globally—that’s new.

Companies need to spend a heck of a lot more time on testing and trying new stuff and having the nerve to hire some people they aren’t comfortable with. If you sit down with your executive committee and you’re comfortable with every one of them, you’ve got a problem, brother.


We need some people who are disruptive—those who’ll roll their eyes when the CEO talks about an outdated project and say under their breath, “that’s so 2009”—which is a generation and a half ago. The alternative is obsolescence, failure, and, plain and simple, evaporation.

One thing that’s fascinating about American Express is that their customer service people today have a ton of data in front of them, but not a script. That’s a real difference from the average call center.

The idea is that the representative is supposed to “show a little leg”—show customers a little of who they are, and have a human interaction. That’s worth its weight in gold in 2012, and probably was in 1912.

My last seminar was to hospital CEOs, who are wondering how they’ll deal with the health-care legislation and who are beset with numbing changes in technology.

I told them, “It’s your house. You’ll be the CEO for the next five to six years and that will be the peak professional experience of your life. It’s your ship, so if you don’t get up in the morning determined to go all out to pursue excellence, you lose a lot of my respect.”

It’s offense instead of defense in the best sense. In established organizations there’s a tendency to shore up what you did yesterday rather than stick your nose into the very different air than existed fairly recently.

NEXT: Peters' next 'quest to the unknown'



Cheney: You dare others to “commence a quest to the unknown.” What’s your next quest?

Peters: Always a good question. There’s a wonderful Eleanor Roosevelt quote that’s among my top four or five favorites: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

When you’ve been promoted three or four times and you have some habits that have served you well over the last 10 to 15 to 20 years, it’s hard to wake up with the notion that you can change some fundamental assumptions.

I’ve gone all out in the last half dozen years to embrace blogging and tweeting; trying not to let the grass grow between my toes with technology. And I have the habit every two to four years of falling in love with a particular set of subject matter.

At the moment I’m fixated on operating improvements in health care. Given the amount of money you and I and the other 300 million people living in the U.S. spend on health care, we’re not getting a good return on investment given the sexy machines that are taking pictures of our body parts.

Again, it’s a modern world with intimidating machines—yet tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people die because doctors don’t wash their bloody hands.

Cheney: Scary thought.

Peters: Yes. All of the top doctors say rule No. 1 to being healthy is to stay out of hospitals—including theirs.

Cheney: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Peters: They might not know that since my wife is away, I started the morning by getting grain for the geese, letting the chickens out, and collecting their eggs. And when we finish this call I’m going to repair a fence.

Subscribe to Credit Union MagazineI’m not trying to brag that I’m a farmer, but I do live on a farm. It’s a nice change of pace when you spend most of the day thinking about how the pharmaceutical companies are misbehaving.

Cheney: I’m looking forward to your presentation at the America’s Credit Union Conference.

Peters: I’d like to reinforce that I won’t be a nice guy—and I mean that in the best sense. I’m going to be like the dog tugging on your coat who wants to go out.

I’ll love seeing everyone, but don’t tell me you can’t compete with the banks that are too big to fail. I don’t care about all of the new technology, when you get bigger you get slower. Nothing can reverse that, so there’s a great opportunity for credit unions.

Cheney: It has been nice talking to you. Good luck with the fence.

Peters: Thanks. It’s raining cats and dogs, and the temperature won’t go above 45. But the geese were in my wife’s garden last night so it’s life or death. The geese were hungry and unfortunately were eating August’s peas.

Don’t miss Tom Peters’ presentation at the America’s Credit Union Conference in San Diego, June 17-20.