In theory ... Excellence

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

It was 1982, the year Tootsie broke cinema box office records and Madonna made her debut with the single Everybody. In the world of management theory, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman published a book called In Search of Excellence, which went on to become one of the most widely read management books of recent times. To have a copy tucked under your arm was as hot a business mannerism as brandishing a car phone the size of a log or wearing huge shoulder pads.

Peters and Waterman (not to be confused with music producers Stock Aitken Waterman) donned their Inspector Clouseau hats and investigated what made certain companies so damn successful. They settled on a shortlist of 62 mega-companies that included IBM and Wal-Mart and found that these "excellent" organisations shared common characteristics - characteristics that charities would do well to take on board.

They can be summarised as: treat your customers and staff as people, and keep things simple. Excellent organisations also make sure managers work for their money and don't just spend their time issuing orders in the corner office. It's hardly revolutionary stuff, but during the loadsamoney 80s, the humanising theory of Peters and Waterman was a refreshing wake-up call to corporations, mired in strategy and process, that viewed employees as little more than a cost to the bottom line. More importantly, it's just as relevant today as it was then.

To dissect the theory more thoroughly and apply it to the third sector, an excellent charity gets close to its people - its volunteers, staff, beneficiaries and funders. The purpose of this is to truly understand what those people want from you. As for keeping things simple - you're a charity, not a retailer or a social club, so maintain your focus on what you should really be doing. Finally, managers need to get their hands dirty with the rest of them - get out there and shake that tin. It's all good advice, but hardly earth-shattering, no matter how few managers apply it.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today 

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