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18 December 2000

A guru aims high on Prozac

Stefan Sternhears that, if you want to get to the top in management, you had best be a freak

By Stefan Stern

From all over the country they came, in the teeth of bitter winds and heavy rain, overcoming whatever delay and confusion the rail network could put in their way. The tired, huddled masses of Britain’s managerial elite fought their way to London earlier this month, like so many Lourdes pilgrims, to worship at the feet of One Who Might Have An Answer, the management guru Tom Peters.

The venue was the Royal Lancaster Hotel, Bayswater, and the punters had come, each paying up to £800 plus VAT, to see if Peters had any special insights into the harsh, chaotic world of business and organisational life.

Nearly 300 delegates convened for the 9am start. By their job titles, you shall know them: competence development managers mingled with corporate planning chiefs and directors of strategy and innovation.

We filed into the Westbourne Suite, and Peters was introduced. A comfortable-looking man, now 58, he could have been a genial college professor, in his grey trousers, glasses and charcoal tank-top. The only hint of showbiz was the large red exclamation mark on his left breast.

For anxious, overworked managers, Tom Peters is an instantly recognisable name. In Search of Excellence (co-authored with Robert Waterman and published in 1982) effectively invented the modern management book: bold, assertive, brash, evangelical. It has had many imitators, and yet few have equalled its sales (six million and counting).

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Our guru immediately establishes his informal style. Delighted to find a Tom Peters junkie in the front row, he declares: “You here again? One of us must be doing something wrong! Jesus, what’s the problem here?!”

Peters continues: “The old game is over . . . These are flaky, strange and totally weird times.” He quotes the authors (Schneider and Means) of a book called Metacapitalism: “The period 2000-2002 will bring the single greatest change in worldwide economic and business conditions since we came down from the trees.”

Gosh. The clear implication is that, if the game has changed so much, we had better be in the market for some bold and unconventional advice. And who better to deliver it than our own favourite guru?

Despite his elevated status, Peters has attracted plenty of criticism. Only two years after the publication of In Search of Excellence, business journalists delighted in pointing out that around a quarter of the companies he thought were “excellent” were already in severe difficulties.

Peters urges us to experiment, to take risks, to be prepared to fail. He cites Silicon Valley – “the highest business failure rate in the US”. He says that “fast, furious failures” lie on the route to success. He even quotes Churchill to a room full of Brits: “The secret of success is to go from failure to failure with great enthusiasm.” Peters is unequivocal: “If you look back on the past 12 months and can’t see failure, you’ve basically pissed away the year.”

After a brief break, there is a change of tone, a question and answer session, when it emerges not only that Peters himself is exhausted as we approach the end of the year, but that he is, as he puts it, “serotonin deficient”, and takes Prozac. He is happy to talk about it, because he doesn’t think it should be a taboo subject, although he knows that others are uncomfortable sharing such information. He describes himself as being “clinically depressed”.

Lunch – an enormous hunk of farmed salmon – is eaten fast, and we’re soon back for more of the Tom! experience (although there’s just time before we begin for one delegate to get her picture taken with her hero). Peters has regained his swagger, and we get three more hours of assertion, claim, expostulation and outcry.

Managers must be “dispensers of enthusiasm”, Peters tells us. We have to be ready for this fight. We should seek out diversity: “Never hire anyone without an aberration in their background.” The internet, social change, the end of hierarchy, the triumph of youth (and, Peters predicts, of women): everything has changed, and we must never stop selling ourselves. “I really think it’s a privilege to be here when we are reinventing everything,” he says. “I may be a crank, but these are cranky times.”

We are hit by slide after slide, and quotations rain down. Michelangelo gets the best response: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

And that was that – 5.20pm – home time. At the end of this roller-coaster day, what had we learnt? We had learnt that life was chaotic, confusing. We had learnt that crazy times call for crazy behaviour, that we need to hire and work with fellow freaks and that we had to be distinct, or extinct. The rest – putting all this into practice – was up to us.

Stefan Stern works for FTdynamo, a new management website