If You Want To Gather Honey

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Peters and Waterman talk constantly about “charged-up people,” “productivity through people,” “the rock-bottom importance of making the average Joe a hero and a consistent winner.” The anecdote from In Search of Excellence that everyone seems to remember has to do with the manager of a hundred-person sales force who rented the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey for an evening. While names flashed on the huge electronic scoreboard, the members of the sales force ran through the players’ tunnel onto the field of the stadium, where they were greeted by a wildly cheering crowd of executives from corporate headquarters, family members, and friends. The company was IBM.

Organizations that excel are “full of hoopla,” Peters and Waterman conclude. But this is not news to anyone who has spent ten minutes reading Dale Carnegie. The farm boy who conquered New York talks about the blue ribbons that his father won for his hogs and pedigreed cattle. “The hogs didn’t care about the ribbons… . But Father did. These prizes gave him a feeling of importance.”

At Hewlett-Packard, Peters and Waterman observe approvingly, top executives select managers on the basis of “their ability to engender excitement.” Carnegie devotes several pages to the career of Charles Schwab, whom Andrew Carnegie (no relation) paid a million dollars a year to run U.S. Steel at the turn of the century. Schwab said, “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among the men the greatest asset I possess.” How did he arouse enthusiasm? “I never criticize anyone…. I am anxious to praise but loath to find fault…. I am hearty in my approbation and lavish in my praise.”

If you are a busy executive who does not have time to read In Search of Excellence , then you need an executive summary. Stripped of superfluous detail, here it is—in a nutshell—courtesy of Dale Carnegie: “Last season a man with 314 employees joined one of these courses. For years, he had driven and criticized and condemned his employees without stint or discretion. Kindness, words of appreciation, and encouragement were alien to his lips. After studying the principles discussed in this book, this employer sharply altered his philosophy of life. His organization is now inspired with a new loyalty, a new enthusiasm, a new spirit of team work. Three hundred and fourteen enemies have been turned into three hundred and fourteen friends.”

Most managers would prefer not to be bullies, so they feel a surge of excitement when a pair of prestigious experts proclaim that nice guys may indeed finish first.

Carnegie is fun to read, and so are Peters and Waterman, but much of the fun rests upon our eagerness to believe that if only we are nice to people, our problems will go away. Most managers would prefer not to be bullies, so they feel a surge of excitement when a pair of prestigious experts proclaim that nice guys may indeed finish first—or as Peters and Waterman put it, “the good news comes from treating people decently and asking them to shine.”

In recent months there have been signs that the enthusiasm initially generated by In Search of Excellence has begun to wane. In an article in the Harvard Business Review , Daniel T. Carroll charged that Peters and Waterman had underestimated the significance of factors such as proprietary technology, government policy, and national culture and character. Then, on November 5, 1984, Business Week hit the newsstands with a cover that featured, in giant black letters, the ominous headline OOPS! Only two years after Peters and Waterman cited them as “excellent,” Business Week reported (with what struck me as a hint of glee) that fourteen of their forty-three model companies have run into trouble. Several thousand words of penetrating analysis led to the inarguable but not terribly useful conclusion that “the excellent companies of today will not necessarily be the excellent companies of tomorrow.”

Over the past few years much has been said about the shortcomings of American management. The search for answers had led in many directions, including the one that gave us In Search of Excellence . It is an interesting book that deserves to be widely read. But at bottom it has little to add to the lessons that Dale Carnegie taught to a whole generation of Americans half a century ago. The most sophisticated minds in one of our most sophisticated management consulting firms have rediscovered, with prodigious effort, insights that have been available all along in a book that most modern executives feel too sophisticated even to think of reading.

In the two years that I spent in the M.B.A. program at one of our nation’s best-known business schools, not one word was said in praise of praise. So far as I know, you will not find How to Win Friends and Influence People on the list of required reading at any business school in the country. Yet it would be a reasonable choice. If they are asked to gather honey, young managers ought to be capable of some response beyond poking their calculators into beehives.