A New Class of Heroes

A New Class of Heroes
Tom Peters

Who are our business heroes? T. Boone Pickens, takeover artist; Ivan Boesky, arbitrageur; Arthur Rock, venture capitalist; and the entrepreneurs: Steven Jobs, formerly of Apple, and Donald Burr of People Express. Inside the corporation, the heroes are Macy’s buyers, Hewlett-Packard’s engineers, Trammell Crow’s real estate deal makers.

I want to suggest another class of heroes: store managers at The Limited, Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, Giant Food and Mervyn’s; office park property managers at Trammell Crow; hotel managers at Marriott and Westin; sales branch managers at IBM; and customer service managers at Boeing.

I readily admit that I am a customer service fanatic. I am therefore a member of the minority of business people who emphasizes the following: in retailing, the store managers their associates over the buyer; in real estate, the property managers and maintainers over the deal makers; in the hospitality industry, the resident managers and support staffs over the architects; and in science and technology companies, sales service teams over engineers and product development groups.

Last January, In Search of Excellence was the subject of a public television special. My favorite few seconds of the 90-minute program featured Walt Disney Productions’ extensive training of the people who sweep the billion-dollar theme park. Whom are visitors willing to ask the dumbest, silliest questions imaginable? The person who’s not doing anything pressing–the sweeper. Disney knows that the sweeper has the most unstructured customer contact in the park. Therefore, he or she spends several days in a classroom being indoctrinated with corporate culture, as well as with the specifics of the job, before being let loose on the park tarmac–despite the fact that the job’s life expectancy is only a few weeks.

Almost 20 years after my stint in the Navy, I still buy all my insurance from the United Services Automobile Association (USAA). A major reason is the exceptional skill of the well-trained people who answer the toll-free number.

Another example of superior customer service is provided by IBM. With $50 billion in sales and 400,000 employees, it is surely a bureaucracy. But the sales branch managers and their teams are kings and queens of the hill. IBM people will do virtually anything to support the branch managers–the vaunted heroes, the driving force in this dynamic company.

Unfortunately, Disney, USAA and IBM are exceptions to the rule. To understand why, one must review history. Fifty years ago, seat-of-the-pants management was the norm. Store managers, smooth-talking salespersons and whip-cracking factory supervisors were the heroes. Seat-of-the- pants management was gradually replaced by management-by-analysis. The strategic planner, the marketer, the deal-maker, the engineer-designer and the fashion buyer replaced the store manager, salespersons and factory supervisors as heroes.

I have no desire to turn back the clock. But as usual, we have swung too far in the new direction–toward the thinker, leaving the doer in the wake. The doer’s job–even in a senior management role–has been disparaged; it’s not on the fast track for a young person launching a career. And the vice presidents for stores or sales find their advice denigrated along most executive rows.

Winning comes from balance–or at the margin, from a bit of imbalance–toward the execution jobs. In retailing today, the buying function is surely vital to success. But the winners understand that the store is where the ultimate transaction takes place, no matter how extraordinary the buyer’s flair. Imaginative deal-making is obviously crucial to real estate success. But sure- handed management of the long-term relationship with the commercial tenant is every bit as important. The cost of a lost tenant is astronomically high. Science and technology companies are dead without a stable of innovative engineers and scientists. Still, a huge share of the winners distinguish themselves on the basis of sales, service and customer listening skills.

Achieving the essential balance comes from focusing on the unsung execution jobs involving sales, service and customer listening skills. These are down-and-dirty jobs that are harder to glorify than is the role of the buyer, scientist, deal-maker, venture capitalist, arbitrageur, leveraged buyout specialist or takeover artist. Yet they can be made special. Begin by asking, “Have your sweepers been to school today?” Spend 25% of your time over the next five weeks visiting the first-line sales, service and in- store heroes–the people who ultimately make the difference between excellence and mediocrity, or between winning and losing.

“Published by permission of Tom Peters. Originally published on”
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