Wednesday, November 16, 2005

People Who Make An Impression

I think that most of us can reflect on various aspects of our lives and in looking at each segment come up with the names of those who have a significant impact or left an indelible impression.

Probably one of the easiest reflections comes from your education. There was a particular grammar school teacher you remember either because they took you under their wing or scared you to death, but either way you can still see and hear them as if it were yesterday.

You move onto high school or college, and there are usually two to four that stand out in your mind. “Role models” I think they call them, and for me at least, the impact they had on me remains today. Indeed, so powerful were certain teachers I had in high school, that despite any number of wonderful professors I had in college, it is my high school that I support when in comes to annual giving time. I know that had my high school not done for me what they did, the closest I would have come to college would be watching NCAA games on the tube.

It is, I think, the same way in business. There is usually one boss that stands out (for good or ill) or a colleague or two that are really special, and when it comes to professional development programs that we have attended, there are one or two speakers we have heard over the years that stick with you the same way as teachers, classmates, or colleagues.

Peter Drucker, who passed away last Friday, was one such person for me. I did not know him personally, but I vividly recall that early in my career I was given the chance to hear him speak at NYU. It has been too many years now for me to recall much of the specifics of his talk that day, but I sure remember the point he was making. Indeed, I never fotgot the image that he projected up on the screen out of my mind, and this was long before PowerPoint, so what I am talking about was a single black and white transparency that sat on top of an overhead projector that is now likely in the Smithsonian.

What he had put up on the screen was a list of the Fortune 50 at the time, and he began his remarks by saying that in 20 years only one or two would still be on the list. Young and impressionable person that I was, I thought he was crazy. It took me a long time before I realized how right he was, and it has stuck with me ever since. It isn't only that nothing is forever, but when it comes to business, his writings on marketing still ring remarkably true.

My guess is that many of us saw the piece in the WSJ on Drucker along with the side bar that quoted a number of his "lessons." While I had not seen or heard them in a while, when I read them again it reminded me of how much even my brief exposure to him had left such a profound impression. I found myself reading these "lessons" and realized that both had become basic beliefs in terms of how we have tried to run our business. These were:

"Management is about human beings." Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant."

"True marketing starts out...with the customer, his demographics, his realities, his needs, his values. It does not ask, ‘What do we want to sell?’ It asks, ‘What does the customer want to buy?’"

Thanks Prof. Drucker. Rest in Peace.


laurence haughton said...

Wonderful post Dave. I share your sentiments but am slightly conflicted. Let me explain:

It is now five days since Peter Drucker passed away and the tributes have filled the air like so many streamers and confetti at a ticker tape parade. According to columnists in journals and blogs Drucker was, “an American sage,” “the uber-guru,” “profound,” and “a visionary.” America’s two most fashionable business pundits agree. “[Drucker is] the right man for our times,” wrote one. And the other was just as reverential, “The most influential management thinker in the second half of the twentieth century.”

But I don’t see it.

If Drucker was “the most influential” shouldn’t he have changed a lot of executive behavior? If he truly was “profound” or the “right man for our times” wouldn’t he have a lot of followers who practice what he prescribed?

Peter Drucker is IMHO, as he himself once wrote about management sciences pioneer Mary Parker Follett, the “most quoted and least heeded” teacher of management.

Why he is so quoted is easy to understand. Pick up anything he wrote. I just went back and skimmed through 1964’s “Managing for Results.” You’ll find Drucker is incredibly insightful yet totally clear and practical. He’s no ivory tower theorist. Drucker explains exactly what to do and what not to do, giving systematic, logical, and consistent answers to all the fundamental challenges of management. If you are opining about management, he’s a perfect source to quote.

But as far as being heeded… I don’t think so. What company is managed according to his prescriptions? What leader follows his clear, specific advice? Frankly, is there anyone who gives him anything more than lip service?

Take just one of Drucker’s lessons. He criticized organizations who issued directives to “cut 5 or 10 percent from budgets across the board.” He said, “This is ineffectual at best and at worst, apt to cripple the important, result-producing efforts that usually get less money that they need to begin with.” Yet, when have you seen a company cut costs using Drucker’s clear distinctions between efficiency and effectiveness instead of the across-the-board cop out. And I’ll bet others can find 100 additional quoted and ignored lessons from Peter Drucker just like that one.

Years ago I was told “performance is the proof that the learning took place.” If that’s true I’m sorry to say that despite all the tributes, up to now, we’ve learned very little from Peter Drucker.

Dave Opton said...


Many thanks for your note.

Having spent 25+ years running around the corporate world before starting ExecuNet, I can certainly relate to the point you are making. When one finds themselves living through the Enrons, WorldComs, Aldelphia's, etc. it certainly is easy to feel pretty pessimistic, I can't argue with that.

On the other hand, and maybe I just consider myself very lucky, but I have to say that in the 14+ years or so that I was with Xerox, and while for sure I didn't agree with everything I saw there, as a company, I felt very good about their corporate citizenship as well as their personnel policies and management behavior.

When it comes to the teachings of Dr. Drucker, the standards he set I think were as much as anything else, things to which organizations should aspire. I am not sure that he would have felt that every company would get there.

I think there are lots of companies that don't get Enronlike PR that aspire to pretty lofty principals and work hard at trying to practice what they preach. I think this is particularly true of lots of small companies which have the advantage of being able to get everyone together in one room and where it is much easier to create an environment where people can not only feel that they are part of the enterprise, but can see the impact that they have on a daily basis.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.

David St Lawrence said...

There is an observable lag between the time important, life-changing data is available to society and the time that society responds to that data. This cultural lag has been observed to be as long as 50 years.

I had never read Drucker before and that was my loss. I now find that we held the same views in a vast number of areas.

I think we will see a continuing proliferation of his views through the medium of the blogosphere.