Drucker on Managing Oneself and Executive Effectiveness

(copyright) – Sue LaChance Porter 12/18/2009


Any cursory examination of the works of Peter Drucker will reveal him to be the “Father of Modern Management” and a “Social Ecologist”, but self-help guru is not one of his brand identities. Still Drucker’s books and essays on the subject could easily be seen next to those of the self help career management experts such as Stephen Covey and Ken Blanchard, and both admitted during Drucker’s centennial week celebration that Drucker was a shaping influence on their work and lives.   When you consider how much of Drucker’s work focuses on the individual and the role of the knowledge worker in organizations and in society, it’s not surprising that he made self management an area of research and writing.   In this paper I will explore Drucker’s perspectives on “Managing Oneself” and his pioneering influence in the field of self management and executive effectiveness.

Human Beings

Drucker saw that the human world or “society” was made up of organizations. Organizations can be private enterprises, social sector enterprises or government entities.  They exits to fulfill their mission and purpose and they are funded by both resources and human capital.  Drucker saw the human beings as the core of management.  In his seminal work on the topic he stated that management’s “task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”[1]   He describes management as a practice rather than a science.  This is a critical differentiation because it suggests that one must continue to adapt, learn and develop to be an effective manager.  Management is not a set of behaviors that can be memorized like the periodic tables.  There is no set recipe for managing people today because people are different from one another.  People bring a unique set of knowledge, skills, passion and drawbacks to any team.  Some are motivated by recognition, some by financial incentives and many are motivated by the opportunity to contribute their unique knowledge and skills toward a cause they believe in. Drucker declared that “One does not “manage” people. The task is to lead people.  And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual.”   Effective managers are able to work around the foibles and weaknesses of the people who work for them and leverage their strengths.  At times manager’s can be effective change agents for helping others overcome challenges or gaps in their skills.

Why Self Management?

Executives and managers may bring more specialized experience and knowledge to an organization –but they are only human.  It’s commonly recognized that people have a difficult time seeing their weaknesses, which is why people often refer them as “blind spots”.  Drucker would argue that it’s also difficult for people to truly understand their strengths.  After all, if you are good at doing something, it is not particularly difficult.  Others who do not have such a skill would recognize these things as talents.  So the reality is that it is very difficult for us to see ourselves in an objective light and to move beyond the limitations of our making.  Drucker’s work of the practice of “Managing Oneself” is a systematic way to approach self discovery and set out on a path of learning to be more effective in our life and work.  The benefits of the practice are not limited to executives and managers, as everyone should take responsibility for being the CEOs of their own careers.

Discovering Oneself: Five Questions

Drucker’s 1999 work called Management Challenges for the 21st Century he described how the knowledge age is one of abundant opportunity.  Since knowledge workers provide the intellectual capital which funds enterprise, today the savvy knowledge worker has an unprecedented opportunity to carve out a career niche suited to their passions and interests.  With this opportunity also comes responsibility because careers are not made today by simply doing what the boss tells you to do.

Sometimes the smartest career move you can make is to move on, sometimes it can be to go back to school and sometimes the best move you can make is to stay put.  The right move will be dependent on your strengths, passions and circumstance.  The right decision for you next move can be radically different for people even when they have exactly the same work experience and credentials.  But how will you know right path?  The one where you can make your greatest contribution?  Well, first you have to truly, objectively know yourself.  Drucker outlines five key questions that can help unlock the understanding and context for better managing career choices, decisions and activities.

1. What are my Strengths?

Today, if you are an educated citizen in a developed nation you have access to a vast array of opportunities for career success.  For some the problem of too much choice can lead to a career of starts and stops.  Drucker’s years of research and consulting lead him to believe that people are happiest when they are focused on where they can contribute the most, vs. where they can achieve the most.  So understanding the arena from which you can make your greatest contribution is especially of value.  This is not as easy as it sounds, and Drucker suggests that the only way to do it is through feedback analysis. He suggests that feedback analysis is in itself a practice that will help you to discover your strengths in two or three years.

There are several tools that are available today from which the knowledge professional can gather feedback on their strengths.  One of the most popular for managers is the 360 review.  This is a survey conducted by the managers staff, peers, management and may even include client relationships.  The feedback is synthesized in a way that protects the individual identities of the contributors, but also characterizes the feedback in terms the person’s role in the organization.  There are also self-directed interest surveys where the individual is offered a set of choices and they must indicate which of the two options they would prefer.  The distinction is that surveys like these are useful in determining interest levels in areas of study but do not measure expertise per se.  The peer review experiences are much more effective in giving feedback on perceived strengths as perceived by others.  The 360º process is also very effective in revealing blind spots or areas of weakness that they may not be aware of.

Feedback systems need not be limited to feedback from others. Jim Collins, the author Built to Last and Good to Great describes on his website in what he calls the “journey to find your own personal hedgehog”.  He described tracking his activities at work as if he were doing keeping a laboratory journal to observe what he called ‘bug Jim”.  Over a long period of time he was able to scientifically track and continually reflect on himself.  He would make notes to himself when he was engaged in activities that he enjoyed things like explaining network computers to others. So he’d note in his lab book that “the bug called Jim likes to teach”.  He also noted that his abstracted self “bug Jim”, also liked data and analysis.  This feedback was valuable for him to recognize and understand that he had a passion for data analysis and teaching.[2]

So discovering your strengths is a deliberate practice that should evolve over time.  Ask people directly what they think you’re good at, but be prepared to listen, their answers may surprise you.  Besides feedback from others, make note of the activities and projects that you take on with ease.  Are these the types of activities that take skill or require special expertise?  Do other people find them   difficult?  If so, you may have discovered strength – so take note.  As one goes through the process they will also discover where one is not “particularly competent”.  While these are important to note, Drucker suggest that focusing on one’s strengths should be the starting point to improving results in oneself because “It takes fare more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence”[3]

          2. How do I Perform?

Drucker’s second question, when answered, suggests a way for the knowledge worker to truly understand their best operating environment and methods of performance. For example, some people learn best from reading, some from listening and some from learn best from writing.  Other questions to consider are whether or not you perform best when working with others; and if you perform best in as a key decision maker or in an advisory role.  How well do you function in stressful situations?  Do you work better in the morning or late into the night? These are important characteristics to understand about oneself because they are inherent in one’s being and very difficult to change.  It is important for knowledge workers to understand their peak performance style so that they can seek out opportunities and situations where they will perform best and perhaps delegate the tasks that are better performed by others who may have different strengths.

          3. What are my Values?

In all of Drucker’s writing throughout the years he emphasized the role of purpose. The third of Drucker’s questions might be thought of as purpose at the individual level.  The question “What are my Values?” is one that has critical importance when choosing which organization to partner with when seeking employment. The values of the knowledge worker (or employee) must be aligned with the values or the corporation.  If they are not, they are likely to experience unhappiness at best and be confronted with ethical dilemmas at worst.  This is not to say that there are limited ethical companies to work for– it is more subtle than that.  A person who is a phenomenal television producer may have an opportunity to work as a documentary producer for a celebrity talk show or for an investigative news outlet which highlights crime in the community.  Neither of these are morally offensive options and either may be great vehicles for the candidate to thrive in.  However, a person may be miserable in one of the other of these roles.  It will vary depending on whether or not they value the pageantry and fanfare of celebrity entertainment.  Or, they may find that the day in and day out effort it takes to cover neighborhood crime and the stories of victims to be debilitating.  The important question is “does opportunity fit my value system?”– Because unless the answer is not yes, it is the wrong opportunity.  Drucker said in a 2005 interview with Bruce Rosenstein “Skills one can acquire, values No. And the people I’ve seen that are really unhappy are in a position where the values of the organization don’t fit them.”

          4.  Where do I belong?

This question is one that seems basic to the human condition as is evidenced by its ubiquity in popular music.  But, Drucker in his wisdom suggests that we not tackle that one until we have a good handle on the prior three.  Indeed, knowing one’s strengths, values and methods is a good start on determining the answer to the fourth question.  However, it is not meant to suggest that the answer will be obvious, it is not.  But what the question allows a person to really think through opportunities and knowing oneself, means that they should be an able to comfortably predict whether or not opportunities presented will align with their best performance characteristics, values and talents.  In a way this question provides a way for a person to frame the direction of their career.  Clarity of purpose is important when signing on to an organization or to a cause.  It matters because what one does, and how effectively one performs becomes a part of a person’s brand.   What will your brand be like if you are in an advisory job but your nature is to be the decision maker?  Will you be at peak performance? — Probably not.   What if you are an excellent political analyst, but an extreme introvert?   Would you belong in a role where that requires regular public speaking?

Sometimes there are no definitive answers to such questions. Becoming the CEO of one’s own career means that you have to look at the big picture and adapting accordingly.  A CEO’s job is to make sure the organization runs effectively so and that means that it’s critical that their companies are run profitably.  Sometimes that means that people can’t always hold out for the perfect gig. It may make sense to take on a role that will help you develop a skill and cover expenses while working toward that dream job.

  1. What Should I Contribute?

Drucker’s final question is one that is the most game-changing of all because the question is not one that first comes to mind when thinking of one’s career.  But Drucker had the benefit of decades of consulting with top executives and observing what made them and their company’s successful.  He noted that many people focus on what they can accomplish vs. what they can contribute.  Consequently they become more engaged in activities than results.  In his 1967 book called The Effective Executive, Drucker states:  “The focus on contribution turns the executive’s attention away from his own specialty, his own narrow skills, his own department, and toward the performance of the whole.  It turns his attention to the outside, the only place where there are results.  He is likely to have to think through what relationships his skills, his specialty, his function or his department have to the entire organization and its purpose.”[4]

Self Management and Time Management

In this age of information overload, one of the biggest challenges the knowledge worker faces is Time Management.  One could say that there is a whole industry of writers; teachers and practitioners dedicated to helping people develop this critical skill.  In December 2009, a search for the term “time management’ resulted in about 35,832 book titles on the Amazon.com web site and roughly 10.3M web results in Google.   In 1967 Peter Drucker was the first to write about time management and knowledge work.  He asserts that effective executives do not plan their work, they plan their time.  Time is the most valuable resource we have; we cannot manufacture more of it so it is critical that knowledge workers understand where their time goes and how to use it most effectively. To this end he outlined a three-step process do drive effectiveness which include: 1) recording time; 2) managing time and 3) consolidating time.[5]

1.    Recording Time

It is amazing to think about time as a raw material.  Certainly all aspects of productivity and change require time, but its market characteristics are com­pletely inelastic.  The laws of supply and demand do not apply to time as no matter how much demand there is for more time, the supply never increases.  Time is a limited quantity and depending upon how it is consumed, it can produce different results.

People often think they are allocating more time to certain critical tasks than they actually are.  That is because when a critical task needs to be com­pleted it becomes top of mind.  The time spent thinking about getting to the task while being pulled in other directions, is not really accomplishing the task.  Drucker’s research on the subject showed that people could not rely on their memories to tell them how much time was allocated to complete something.   Keeping a time-log is the first step in learning to manage your time.  This is not the same thing as planning; it is simply observing what activities consume time over a period of days or weeks. Once the log has been filled out it can be quite re­vealing and most people are surprised to learn what they really spend time on.

2.    Managing Time

The time log tells you about the past so that you can better plan the future.  Drucker asks “Which of these activities on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better?”  Answering this question is the first step toward effective delegation.   In my own experience, I have asked myself “What is the worse thing that can happen if I delegate this activity to one of my staff?”  If the answer is a disaster that is not reversible I would hold on to it, but most of the time I pass along the work.  This has been a valuable tool for me because it often has the benefit of enabling a team member to acquire a new skill and has freed me from a great deal of tactical product management activities.  In the process, I have found that I have developed skills in teaching through the delegation process.  Delegation is not about dumping work, it is about growing the capacity of your organization to generate results.

If you asked a bunch of knowledge workers what a “time waster” is you will get a wide range of answers.  Besides media consumption (which could fill a book), the most common types of time wasters are likely to fall into the category of “other people”.  So this is an interesting conundrum because as knowledge workers, working with others is part of what makes us productive. So it seems that it’s the quality of the interaction that matters.  How does a knowledge worker know when they are having a “quality interaction?”   Drucker suggests that executives should start the analysis with themselves by asking “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?”  And, that they should not be surprised or put off by any answer they receive as this question asked in earnest can truly provide the leader with profound insights.  They will not only free up their time and others’, they will garner the respect of team for caring enough to ask.

Besides media consumption and people demands, there are two other major types of time wasters: information and activity systems.  If information is the lifeblood of the knowledge society, misinformation is its cancer.  Acting upon mistaken assumptions is one of the biggest time wasters and most ubiquitous.  When does data become knowledge?  How do we know what information is pertinent to a business decision and what is noise?  Information quality including its aggregation, analytics and dissemination practices need to be a core competence of every organization.  The effective executive must continue to question information sources, rationale and quality else the organization as a whole will confuse activity with productivity.

Another time waster comes when activities outlive their usefulness.  We see this in government programs a great deal, but business organizations are not immune to the phenomenon.  A daily meeting that was critical when a business was in ‘crisis mode” is simply not necessary when information, decisions or actions call for a longer time interval.  An organization has to ensure that people’s time is allocated to the things that matter to the business.  If the business is overstaffed, activities may be generated to “kill time” and that is a dangerous practice because it consumes capital inefficiently.  Killing time is not mentioned in the mission statement of any organization whether they are in the business, government or social sectors. It is the opposite of managing for results.

3.    Consolidating Time

We are living in an interrupt driven society.  People like to believe that they are more productive when they have a lot on their plates and often brag about their ability to multi-task.  It is very common today to confuse activity with productivity.  Recent studies have shown that multi-taskers are not as productive as they think they are.  Several recent studies from the American Psychological Association show that the act of switching from one task to another actually hurts productivity and undermines our ability to learn and perform.[6]  Rather than consolidate time, these practices consume it, albeit inefficiently.  In addition to the loss of productivity, there are often huge physiological consequences to living under the constant stress.  Stress triggers the fight or flight response which impacts the ability to think clearly, relate to others or be creative.  Over the long term it can produce harmful physiological reactions such as high blood pressure, auto immune diseases and stomach ailments.  Stressed out people are not heroic, to others they appear rather crazed and irrational.  It can drive people to address the symptoms of stress with drugs and alcohol.  But at the end of the day, Managing Oneself is not about managing stress, it is much more.

When we talk about the concept of Managing Oneself, invariably the discussion becomes about taking time to be reflective, thoughtful.  Drucker’s consulting work enabled him to observe many executives and he noted that some of the most accomplished ones were disciplined about how they managed their discretionary time.  His experience meeting with one such executive for ninety minutes each month was especially productive because those meetings were never interrupted by a phone call, or visitor.  Drucker asserts that this executive accomplished far more in each meeting because he was fully present in them than execs in a month of meetings. To which he concludes:

“The effective executive … knows that he has to consolidate his discretionary time. He knows that he needs large chunks of time and that small driblets are no time at all.”[7]

Drucker goes on to point out that isn’t how the knowledge worker consolidates time that matters.  Some executives may choose to spend the early hours of the day meeting free; others may choose to work in a home office one day per week.  The key point is that managing oneself and one’s time is a practice and a discipline.  It isn’t hard work to accomplish this but it can be difficult at first to establish the habit of mindfulness.

In the past twenty years scientists have been studying the phenomenon of mindfulness and its impacts on the brain.  Research from the new field of neuro­plasticity shows that when individuals regularly practice mindfulness through meditation that they actually change how their brain functions.  For example, one study showed that people who regularly practice meditation have less memory loss as they age. The growing field of positive psychology also taps in to Drucker’s fundamental ideas on managing oneself.[8]

When Drucker speaks of consolidating time he is referring to the practice of allocating chunks of time to observation, reflection and attention.  Without mindfulness we can easily sacrifice our quality of life and wake up 30 years hence wondering where all of our time has gone.  Life on autopilot is a real issue for today’s over-mediated knowledge worker.  It is a dangerous practice that can create life of amnesia rather than a life filled with purpose and passion.

The Self Management Industry

Peter Drucker was an accountant, a journalist, a teacher and author and an executive consultant.  Most of all he was a phenomenal observer of people and a catalyst for ideas.  While most commonly known as the “father of modern management”, Drucker readily deserves labels for new schools of thought around teaching, the social sector and self management.

Many of today’s most prominent and successful business authors have dedicated their careers exploring and studying the field of executive effective­ness.  Jim Collins, author of the 2001 best selling book Good to Great suggested that at one point he considered titling the book  “Drucker was Right” because his research validated Drucker’s concepts captured in the five questions.  Stephen Covey’s book on The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People reinforces some of the core concepts that Drucker introduced 40 years ago.  Many others have extended the practice with helpful advice of their own.

Drucker was the pioneer in this field.  His work on individual effectiveness was born of his identity as a social ecologist.  Fundamentally he views the human being as the cornerstone of a functioning society.  People are social beings. They work together in organizations; effective management is necessary to foster the best results from the knowledge workers who comprise the firm.  Finally, to be an effective manager the individual must effectively manage oneself.  And Drucker believed that through practice, effectiveness can be learned.

[1] Drucker, Peter F. Management: Revised Edition   New York: Harper Collins. 2008 p.23.

[2] Collins, Jim  “The Journey to Finding a Personal Hedgehog” Video  http://www.jimcollins.com/media_topics/selfmanagement.html#audio=84

[3] Drucker, Peter F.  “Managing Oneself” Harvard Business Review.  Jan 2005, pp. 2-4.

[4] Drucker, Peter F.  “Know Thy Time”. The Effective Executive. New York: Harper Business Essentials. 2002.  Chapter 2.

[5] ditto

[6] Clay, Rebecca. “Mini Multitaskers” Monitor on Psychology  40.2 (200) p. 38

[7] Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker.  New York: Harper Collins.  p. 239

[8] Ruark, Jennifer “An Intellectual Movement for the Masses”.  The Chronicle Review.  August 3, 2009.