TOM Peters, the American management guru who first stirred controversy in the corridors of enterprise with his 1982 blockbuster In Search of Excellence, spoke in Edinburgh yesterday on the dangers facing white-collar workers and their companies in today’s cut-throat global environment.
An audience of 450, ranging from student entrepreneurs to Wiseman Dairies chief executive Robert Wiseman, attended The Scotsman-sponsored event to hear Peters praise financial officers who can "play the City", and lament the "formidable" lost talent of Jeff Skilling, the former Enron chief executive who was recently indicted on 36 charges in the US.
Drawing on his controversial 2003 work Re-Imagine!, Peters warned: "Increasingly, we are watching the senior ranks being decimated - organisations being flattened. Job security, even for vice-presidents and senior managers, is extremely precarious these days."
He pointed to the recent decision of Proctor & Gamble to outsource its human resources department to IBM, which in turn offshored it to India. The solution to executive "survival", he said, is "to create a series of projects that you can point to if you get booted out".
He added: "That’s why I talk about the importance of ‘branding you’. You’ve got to take charge of your career because if you don’t, your company ain’t going to do it for you."
Today’s firms, he said, must face up to the "urgent" threat from overseas competition. "They’ve got to have so much focus on being able to do damned near anything, anytime, anywhere. You’ve got to have a flexible structure and flexible people."
And companies must constantly try to create advantages. "That’s why I talk about the importance of having ‘the courage to act’." He cited IBM and its newly-built management consulting arm.
Tom Shepard, the chief executive of Dundee-based CXR Biosciences, asked Peters how he could square his advice to be constantly creative with the difficulties of executing those same ideas - "getting them out the door".
Peters said: "I worked with the infamous Jeff Skilling at Enron, and he was the most creative person I met in the seven years I worked at [consultants] McKinsey.
"And I’d hire him again today, but I’d also hire a thug of a chief financial officer.
"What you need is a chief creative officer, and a CFO who’s a thug with equal power right across the hallway. Jeff on a leash would have been formidable."
An executive from Schlumberger challenged Peters on his exhortation to managers to embrace mistakes as the inevitable outcome of taking more risks. "The stock market is not so forgiving," she said.
Peters answered: "That’s why you want a CFO who can play the City like a first violinist. I worked with a US$50 million US company who took enormous risks, way beyond their size. They had a genius of a chief operating officer who had fabulous relations with Wall Street. He showed that all the market doesn’t really like is surprise. It doesn’t mind failures.
"As long as you’re in the door two weeks before, to let them know you’re going to be 2p off this quarter, they won’t punish you for the failures."