Born in Baltimore in 1942 with a lacrosse stick in his hands, and residing in California (mainly Silicon Valley) from 1965–2000, Tom and his wife Susan Sargent now live on a 1,600-acre working farm, "always under construction," in Vermont. He is a civil engineering graduate of Cornell (B.C.E., M.C.E.) and earned an MBA and Ph.D. at Stanford; he holds honorary doctorates from institutions that range from the University of San Francisco to the State University of Management in Moscow. In the U.S. Navy from 1966–1970, he made two deployments to Vietnam (as a combat engineer in the Navy Seabees) and "survived a tour in the Pentagon." He was a White House drug-abuse advisor in 1973–74, and then worked at McKinsey & Co. from 1974–1981, becoming a Partner and co-founder of the now gargantuan Organization Effectiveness practice in 1979.
Along with Peter Drucker
and Michael Porter
, the 3 "gurus" are said to have shaped the idea of modern management more than any others over the last six decades.
- Drucker is said to have "invented" management as a discipline worthy of study—in particular, he gave management of large firms the essential tools to deal with their post-World War II enormity, complexity, and growing global reach.
- Porter developed leading thought in competitive strategy, the competitiveness and economic development of nations, and the application of competitive principles to social problems such as health care, the environment, and corporate responsibility. He is generally recognized as the "Father of the Modern Strategy Field", as has been identified in a variety of rankings and surveys as the "World’s Most Influential Thinker" on management and competitiveness.
- Peters, in turn, led the way in preparing management for the current era of staggering change, and is considered "the Father of the Post-modern Corporation".
In 1982, with the publication of In Search of Excellence
, Tom and Bob Waterman
helped American firms deal with a crushing competitive challenge to their primacy by getting them away from strategies based on just the numbers, and re-focused on the basic drivers of all successful businesses throughout time: people, customers, values-"culture" ("the way we do things around here"), action-execution, a perpetual self-renewing entrepreneurial spirit.
As "obvious" as these ideas are, they were, are, and always will be the bedrock and differentiator of excellent enterprise—and subject to constant and remarkably rapid slippage if left untended for even a moment. As a result, Tom in 2008 still unabashedly hammers and hammers and hammers again on these always fresh ideas. If anything, he is more adamant than ever, in a "flat world," that the "eternal basics" must be kept front and center—must be any leader's abiding obsession.