The best ways to develop excellence in others is through positive reinforcements

Tom Peters speaks about research that shows positive reinforcement is 30 times more powerful, in general, than negative reinforcement.

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The new golden rule for business leaders: be positive and encouraging. 

How would you summarize your legacy in one word?  

Living business management legend and bestselling author Tom Peters discovered his one word legacy early in his career sparked by imagining what ballet and business might have in common. He first used his one word legacy as the title of a high stakes presentation in what might now be considered one of McKinsey & Company's most inspiring and enduring pieces of thought leadership.  

The one word that changed everything for Tom Peters and for the thousands of organizations and individuals he's interacted with in the 43 years that followed is Excellence. Excellence is not just a message. Tom emphasizes Excellence is THE message.  

Excellence Now: Extreme Humanism is Tom's 19th book. Towering bookshelves set the stage for our virtual visit about what every leader needs to know to be excellent now. Karen Mangia, vice president, Customer, and Market Insights at Salesforce, spoke with Tom Peters about his new book and advice for business leaders in the next normal. 

Karen Mangia (KM): Leading amidst the chaos and personal and economic anguish brought on by COVID-19 is an immense challenge, as we've all experienced. How do leaders cope -- and perhaps even thrive -- as they move forward with their efforts to serve their team members, the communities in which they are embedded, and the planet itself amidst this uncertainty?

Tom Peters (TP):  A couple months into the pandemic, I started hearing from leaders around the world. They were looking to me for wisdom -- for guidance -- to find a path forward in these uncertain times. The abundance and the urgency of those inquiries lead me to create what I refer to as the Leadership Seven, COVID-19 edition:

  1. Be kind
  2. Be caring 
  3. Be patient 
  4. Be forgiving 
  5. Be present 
  6. Be positive 
  7. Walk in the other person's shoes

KM: You coined the phrase Extreme Humanism. What does that phrase mean, and how can leaders exemplify Extreme Humanism?

TP: Extreme times call for an extreme response. And what we all need to do right now is to practice being extremely human. We need to practice the courage to show up as our authentic selves. We need to practice the courage that comes with being real -- chatty children, barking dogs, and all. Everything and everyone that shows up on our video screens is an opportunity to be extremely human. One of my favorite books is Kindness in Leadership. Practicing kindness as a leader is the best strategy to tap into our humanity and to deepen relationships and trust. Being kind is at the core of being extremely human. Being extremely human is at the core of being a great leader.

KM: That reminds me of your six word story -- the six words you say best summarize your life and the six words that should be the North Star for every leader now.  

TP: Hard is soft. Soft is hard. What I mean by that is "hard' (plans, numbers, spreadsheets, organization charts, process maps) is "soft" (abstract, malleable). "Soft" (people, culture, relationships, world-altering design, commitment to excellence) is hard (enduring). Relationship development epitomizes the "Soft is Hard" idea. Hence, what I suggest is that every leader put a formal plan in place to guide your ongoing investment in relationships. What -- precisely -- is your formal Relationship Investment Strategy (RIS)? What is your RIS for today? For the week? For the month? We commit to strategies when we write them down. I suggest every employee in every organization draft such a plan.    

KM: You assert that Enterprise Excellence is about just two things. What are they?

TP: Enterprise Excellence is: People. Service. Excellence = Service. Service to one's teammates, service to one's customers and vendors, service to our communities. In a sense, service to humanity.

KM: You share in your book that you dream of an "excellence revolution" and are frustrated by the lack of progress.  What's keeping us stuck, and what's the catalyst for individuals and for organizations to spark an excellence revolution?    

TP: I got -- and get -- lovely feedback about the transformative power of excellence, but have been enormously frustrated by the lack of an "excellence revolution." While any number of leaders have bought in to the concept --especially in small- and medium-sized enterprises -- un-balletic enterprise performance has remained the norm.  We're lacking the skillful choreography of excellence as a practice, as an expectation, of every employee enterprise wide.

KM: Each one of us could launch an "Excellence Revolution" right now - as soon as we conclude here - by following your version of "The Golden Rule."

TP: My version of the golden rule -- a rule that anyone can follow is: Always positive. Rarely negative. The research shows that positive reinforcement is 30 times more powerful, in general, than negative reinforcement.  And I believe that golden rule is even more true in today's virtual world.


How could you implement Tom's Golden Rule in your next conversation? What would it mean to your organization to launch and to sustain your own "Excellence Revolution?"

In the second part of our series, Tom Peters will share his secrets for excellence in people practices. From hiring to promotions to stakeholder engagement, progress is possible.


This article was c-authored by Karen Mangia, vice president, Customer, and Market Insights at Salesforce. Her work focuses on strategies for personal and professional success, and she regularly works with executives, managers, and future leaders at companies of all sizes globally. She launched two new books in 2020: Listen Up! How to Tune In To Customers, And Turn Down the Noise and Working From Home:  Making the New Normal Work For You -- both from Wiley. She has been featured in Forbes and regularly writes for Thrive Global and ZDNet. Committed to diversity and inclusion, she serves on her company's Racial Equality and Justice Task Force. She is a TEDx speaker and the author of Success With Less, a book that chronicles her own personal journey through a life-threatening health crisis. Her high-impact keynotes help organizations to access the future of work via innovative insights around the voice of the customer.