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Book Review | The Little Big Things: 163 ways to Pursue Excellence

by: J.w. Carpenter
published: October, 12th 2017


Finance You! Book Reviews

by J.W. Carpenter, Executive Director of Birmingham Education Foundation

 Book Review The Little Big Things: 163 ways to Pursue Excellence

Author: Tom Peters

Score (Read / Skip / Trash): READ IT!!!

Before we begin, let me just clear some things up. Am I writing this book review because I think you need my opinion and that I am better than you? Of course, I do. But that’s not the primary reason. The primary reason is that I have to work really hard to stay good at my job. It is a daily struggle that I sometimes win and sometimes lose. One of the best tools in my metaphorical toolbox (Note: In real life, I am lousy with tools) are the books that I read from people a lot more experienced and a lot smarter than me. I am hoping these reviews are helpful to you and introduce you to some books that you might not otherwise pick up. 

Thanks to the good people of Harvard Business Review, I am able to knock off one book per week while also reading for pleasure, achieving mediocrity as a parent, and not exercising. Before you start denouncing my review, first read this article which is immensely helpful. Then, you can denounce me even more efficiently. If you have reached your article limit for the month, just subscribe. It’s worth it! 

The first book I’m reviewing is The Little Big Things: 163 ways to Pursue Excellence by Tom Peters. I’m starting here for a few reasons. First, if I were trapped on a desert island and I could pick only one author’s collection to help me organize, motivate, and manage other castaways, it would be Tom Peters. He’s prolific, experienced, and practical (and a great Twitter follow, @tom_peters). His writing continues to be the most influential on me as a manager and a leader. The reality is that as busy managers, it is sometimes hard to take good ideas that you read and implement them right away (certainly an area of growth for me). This book is very accessible and you can apply the principles you glean from it the day you read it if you read it in the morning. One suggestion: Have an index card or notebook with you while you read. Write down the pages or sections that you want to revisit. 

In all of his writing, Peters stresses excellence, and does a great job discussing it in the second section of the book. This book has to do with the day to day, inside the box execution necessary to achieve excellence as a leader and a manager. A few highlights that meant a lot to me: 

Little (p. 1 -7): In the first four ways, Peters reminded me of how much the little things matter. At the Birmingham Education Foundation, we pride ourselves on inside the box execution and this was a great reminder and advice on how to focus on that. 

Failure (p. 52-54): I think about failure a lot, but here Peters stresses celebrating failure, which pushed my thinking about my individual work and my team’s. 

Trying the most stuff (p. 215-217): “She or he who tries the most stuff…wins!”. In the non-profit space, it’s easy to become conservative and want to only pursue the things you know how to do so as not to disappoint constituents, especially donors. The bigger the problem, though, the more things you have to attempt to get it right, especially if nobody has solved the problem before. This gives you a great opportunity to celebrate failure, because by trying a lot of things, you will be failing a lot on your way to success. 

The Top 50 “Have Yous” (p.421 – 429): “Have you called a customer…today?”. Peters is probably at his best when he is stressing the lessons in how to treat people from teammates to customers to strangers. Here, he gives you 50 ways you can stay connected to the most important people to your business. His point: by constantly communicating, you are far more likely to know what your customers and your team needs and what you need to do better to meet those needs. At the Birmingham Education Foundation, we need to make sure we’re listening to students, educators, families, investors, volunteers, and community leaders, which is a lot of work but very worthwhile to achieving our mission. 

I could go on and on about this book and about Tom Peters generally. If you’ve never picked up a business or trade book, start here. You’ll find his advice extremely helpful as you are working to achieve your goals. 

J.W. Carpenter Executive Director  jwcarpenter@edbirmingham.org

J.W. Carpenter has served as Executive Director of the Birmingham Education Foundation (BEF) since September 2013. Before coming to BEF, Carpenter served as the founding Executive Director for Teach For America Alabama-a branch of the nationally-recognized organization committed to providing and advocating for high quality education for students in low-income communities.

Prior to his role with Teach For America, Carpenter was a litigator for the Birmingham law firm of Walston, Wells, and Birchall, LLP. Carpenter earned a B.A. in Political Science from Boston College and J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center. He serves on the boards of A+ Education Partnership, Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, Operation Hope-Alabama, and k12 Lean Labs, and is also a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Birmingham, the PARCA Roundtable, and the GEAR UP-Birmingham Advisory Board. He was named Top 40 under 40 in Birmingham in 2010, and is an alumnus of Leadership Birmingham, Leadership Alabama, and Leadership UAB. In 2016, Carpenter was selected for a weeklong fellowship in Strategic Nonprofit Management at Harvard by the Alabama Association of Nonprofits and the Birmingham alumni chapter of Harvard Business School.

Birmingham Education Foundation

The Birmingham Education Foundation (Ed) is dedicated to increasing the number of students in the Birmingham City Schools that are on the path to college, career, and life readiness.


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