Managing Oneself

The first point to know about this article is that Peter F. Drucker goes hard at using “oneself” and the article is not better for it. The content is meant for direct application by the reader but the author twists his language to attempt and not use “you”. But this is simply a stylistic critique.

Drucker’s conceit is that many people now pursue careers as knowledge workers which requires more self direction. Drucker claims that this direction requires knowing your own strengths, learning style, and values. To me, these ring true.

However, Drucker spends a decent portion of the article making the case that individuals “should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence.” The point being that those are resources that could be put into further improving a strength. To me this reads strange compared to a few paragraphs earlier where Drucker says “Go to work on acquiring the skills and knowledge to fully realize your strengths” in the context of engineers generally avoiding human interaction. While the socially inept engineer is a stereotype it is not without a general basis in reality. Many of the engineers I have worked with are lovely people but do struggle with general socialization and can be awkward in many situations. That is fine! But to many such people they will consider their social skills a weakness and one where they “have no talent or skill”, so how are they to fill those gaps without expending time in a place they are currently incompetent.

The learning style point is one I really love. Drucker encourages readers to figure out how they best ingest information and get prepared. The examples are of famous people that are either readers (those who best consume data via reading (self explanatory)) or listeners when preparing, and then discusses that learning new material can be even different from the preparation. As in, some people will learn best by writing, like the process of putting something on paper ensures it is committed to memory even if the paper is never referenced again, and others doing, and any other means of learning. Drucker postulates this insight may be your greatest lever for impact: if you can expand your base and be ready the most efficiently then you will be in the best position for opportunities.

The values point is an interesting one but pretty short. Drucker claims that morals/ethics are set regardless but that values are the way opportunities are evaluated. I would argue that morals may not be so universal because if they were I imagine we might not be facing as many of the great societal schisms that seem to be opening. I’ll be honest, I don’t have a lot to offer on the values front. I believe they matter and is in fact the reason I left an employer before but have no personal guidance to offer.

The last point I’d like to touch on is that Drucker makes it clear that you are responsible for getting the ways that others work yourself. Drucker explicitly states that “It is incumbent on the people who work with them [bosses] to observe them, to find out how they work, and adapt themselves to what makes their bosses the most effective.” This feels wrong. Drucker does suggest that individuals should give others information regarding their learning and working styles, but seems to leave the overall onus on reports instead of managers. Something that we do at The Browser Company is we have a couple documents that each new employee writes: an intro doc that gives some basic information (name, contact info, pronouns, etc) and another called your user manual. That second is intended to spell out the exact properties Drucker has discussed: what are the most effective communication practices for you, how can you collaborate together the best, and what work patterns do you use.

I’d like to contrast Drucker’s suggestion that reports gather and conform to their boss’ methods to that suggested by Liz Wiseman in Multipliers. In Multipliers the high level gist is that leaders that make others conform to them generally do not get as much from their teams as those that identify and challenge those they lead. Drucker provides an example of a chief executive that takes many hours each of his direct reports’ time so that he can talk at them as he works through a problem and “He rarely asked his associates for comments or questions”. Wiseman, I think, would classify this executive as a “Decision Maker” that instead makes others feel less than by not taking any input. This would be contrasted with a “Debate Maker” who gathers input and allows (even encourages) everyone to take part in a decision while also ensuring that participants come to a conclusion. Another part of the article then demonstrates the “Challenger” approach to leadership (a good one) from Multipliers because a hospital executive set a lofty and ambitious goal that forced the team to grow. This kind of goal enables the team to exceed their own expectations which can then build momentum for even greater successes.

All told, “Managing Oneself” by Peter F. Drucker is a solid directive on how to prepare yourself for success. It proposes that knowing your learning and preparation methods will put you in the best position to use your strengths, that communicating those methods to others will help everyone, and that you alone are responsible for ensuring your values align with the work you do. Drucker does on occasion place too much onus on those with the least power in an employer-employee dynamic which does not concur with more recent, and longer, treatises on collaborative relationships.