Offered ten years ago, Peter Drucker's wise counsel is even more relevant and timely in today's turbulent economy.
Extracts from Peter Drucker’s “Managing Oneself”
Published in Harvard Business Review March-April 1999
Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves—their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.
“Far too many people—especially people with great expertise in one area—are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.”
“Manners—simple things like saying “please” and “thank you” and knowing a person’s name or asking after her family—enable two people to work together whether they like each other or not. Bright people, especially bright young people, often do not understand this. If analysis shows that someone’s brilliant work fails again and again as soon as cooperation from others is required, it probably indicates a lack of courtesy—that is, a lack of manners.”
“One should waste as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. And yet most people—especially most teachers and most organizations—concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer.
How do we learn?
“The first thing to know is whether you are a reader or a listener. Far too few people even know that there are readers and listeners and that people are rarely both…. Few listeners can be made, or can make themselves, into competent readers—and vice versa. The second thing to know about how one performs is to know how one learns…. Schools everywhere are organized on the assumption that there is only one right way to learn and that it is the same way for everybody. But to be forced to learn the way a school teaches is sheer hell for students who learn differently. Indeed, there are probably half a dozen different ways to learn…. Of all the important pieces of self-knowledge, understanding how you learn is the easiest to acquire. When I ask people, “How do you learn?” most of them know the answer. But when I ask, “Do you act on this knowledge?” few answer yes. And yet, acting on this knowledge is the key to performance; or rather, not acting on this knowledge condemns one to nonperformance.”
How do I perform best?
“To manage yourself effectively, you also have to ask, do I work well with people or am I a loner? And if you do work well with people, you then must ask, in what relationship?… Some people work best as team members. Others work best alone. Some are exceptionally talented as coaches and mentors; others are simply incompetent as mentors. Another crucial question is do I produce results as a decision maker or as an adviser? A great many people perform best as advisers but cannot take the burden and pressure of making the decision. A good many other people, by contrast, need an adviser to force themselves to think, then they can make decisions and act on them with speed, self-confidence, and courage. Other important questions to ask include, do I perform well under stress or do I need a highly structured and predictable environment? Do I work best in a big organization or a small one? Few people work well in all kinds of environments. The conclusion bears repeating: do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. But work hard to improve the way you perform. And try not to take on work you cannot perform or will only perform poorly.”
“To be able to manage yourself, you finally have to ask, what are my values? This is not a question of ethics…. What is ethical behavior in one kind of organization or situation is ethical behavior in another. But ethics are only part of a value system—especially of an organization’s value system. To work in an organization whose value system is unacceptable or incompatible with one’s own, condemns a person both to frustration and to nonperformance…. Organizations, like people, have values. To be effective in an organization, a person’s values must be compatible with the organization’s values. They do not need to be the same, but they must be close enough to coexist. Otherwise, the person will not only be frustrated but also will not produce results.”
Where do I belong?
“…[M]ost people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong…. Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person—hard-working and competent but otherwise mediocre — into an outstanding performer.”
What should be my contribution?
“Very few of the people who believed that doing one’s own thing would lead to contribution, self-fulfillment, and success achieved any of the three. But still, there is no return to the old answer of doing what you are told or assigned to do. Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?”
“Managing yourself requires taking responsibility for relationships. This has two parts. The first is to accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are. They perversely insist on behaving like human beings. This means that they too have their strengths; they too have their ways of getting things done; they too have their values. To be effective, therefore, you have to know the strengths, the performance modes, and the values of your coworkers…. The second part of relationship responsibility is taking responsibility for communication…. Organizations are no longer built on force but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not necessarily mean that they like one another. It means that they understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity. It is a duty.”
“There are three ways to develop a second career. The first is actually to start one. Often this takes nothing more than moving from one kind of organization to another…. The second way to prepare for the second half of your life is to develop a parallel career. Many people who are very successful in their first careers stay in the work they have been doing, either on a full-time or a part-time or consulting basis. But in addition, they create a parallel job, usually in a nonprofit organization, that takes another ten hours of work a week. Finally, there are the social entrepreneurs. These are usually people who have been very successful in their first careers. They love their work, but it no longer challenges them. In many cases they keep on doing what they have been doing all along but spend less and less of their time on it. They also start another activity, usually a nonprofit…. People who manage the second half of their lives may always be a minority. The majority may “retire on the job” and count the years until their actual retirement. But it is this minority, the men and women who see a long working-life expectancy as an opportunity both for themselves and for society, who will become leaders and models.”
“In effect, managing oneself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer. Further, the shift from manual workers who do as they are told, to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves, profoundly challenges social structure. Every existing society, even the most individualistic one, takes two things for granted, if only sub-consciously: that organizations outlive workers, and that most people stay put. But today the opposite is true. Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile. The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.”