Twenty years ago management guru Peter Drucker was late in life, and turned his attention inward to develop a Harvard Business Review article that has become a classic: ‘Managing Oneself.’ Drucker was a scholar, writer, teacher and consultant with a curious and wide-ranging mind, and his writing integrated thinking in economics, history, sociology, psychology and the arts into original positions on the role of management. He is rightly called ‘the father of modern management.’ By the time this reflective piece of writing came out in 1999, he had published 34 of his 39 books and his ruminations at age 85 on the importance for managers of corporations to also manage themselves represented a new direction for the venerable sage.
The genius of the article had two dimensions: it cut through the cant and complexities of organizational psychologists and OD practitioners on the topic using common parlance, and it put an important executive audience on notice that their lofty positions in the hierarchy didn’t excuse them from an essential task of the leadership job; that, in fact, this task was Job One.
Drucker knew most every Fortune 500 executive’s coffee table had a copy of HBR on it. His new article said the executive washroom better have a mirror in it, and they’d be wise to take a look into it on a regular basis.
Time has passed and the practice of management has evolved. The article defines managing oneself in terms that seem prosaic, even simplistic today. As one writer observed awhile back about Drucker: one can learn more—and more deeply—from watching him think than from studying the content of his thought. The lesson we should all take from ‘watching Drucker think’ in this article is that the obligation to manage yourself is core to one’s success as a leader.
To fulfill this requirement today, thoughtful leaders must in my view answer four fundamental questions.
- Who am I?
- Who are they? These others, the ones I’m working with
- How are we doing together?
- How’s this working for us?
The four are best viewed as two pairs – the first pair focused on identity (Who am I? / Who are they?) and the second pair focused on the contexts for revealing identity – the interpersonal relationship between manager and subordinate (How are we doing together?), and the relationship of both manager and subordinate to career / life / destiny (How’s this working for us?). I’ll take each of these pairs in turn.
Answers to the first pair of questions, Who am I? and Who are they?, partake of the same essence, and the pairing is key. In Drucker’s words, ‘the first secret of effectiveness is to understand the people you work with and depend on.’ Over the years, an assessment industry has developed with a broad range of competing analytical frameworks and training approaches around this fundamental question of identity. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, DISC and Strengths Finder are prominent here, but the ‘Big Five’ Factors Model, the Enneagram and a host of Org Psych name brand others (Birkman, Benzinger, Belbin, Hogan, Kiersey etc) parse the subject differently and compete for executive attention.
While each has its proper use, there is a fallacy in using any of these to provide the whole answer to Who am I?, though their practitioners may try to convince you otherwise. In organizational life, a practical inquiry into ‘who am I / who are they’ must consider these three elements for both self and other:
- What you’re good at – what are your strengths, and what aspects of the work do you most enjoy doing
- How you operate – how do you process information, how do you prefer to play in conversations, what’s your interactional style
- What you want – what are your fundamental motivations, and what are your career and life ambitions
Assessment industry tools measure parts of these with arguably great analytical rigor and undeniably in great detail, but searching beyond the hype for truth exhausts the patience of busy leaders, making them prey for assessment consultants. On the face of it, workable answers to these questions could come from an hour’s reflective consideration and a blank piece of paper. Such was certainly Drucker’s encouragement to the busy executive.
The best advice I can offer is to recognize the quest for these answers is lifelong; get started with something that appears useful, keep your critical judgment turned on, and keep going.
My own journey is perhaps instructive. I began years ago with the Myers-Briggs test (I am an ENTJ for those of you keeping score at home) which gave me a strong appreciation for differences in how people operate – how they engage with the world, gather and process information, and come to decisions. All the members of a group I belonged to took the test and explored its meanings over a period of time in the context of our work. Our scores went a long way toward explaining the natural alliances and especially the head-butting we experienced as the group did its work. The container of an intact work group with a trained practitioner was critical for the success we enjoyed.
To that I’ve added tours through the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (helped explain different approaches taken to analytical work tasks by project team members), and DISC (not much there for me; seemed simplistic after working with the MBTI), to build out my sense of how people operate.
I received insight into what I’m good at from Strengths Finder (gave a useful enumeration of and tips on how to leverage my personal strengths in an organizational context), and I’ve taken guidance from various managerial style instruments over the years in specific organization settings.
This year I’ve added the Enneagram at the encouragement of a friend who’s found great value there, to take a deeper look into how I operate, and am digging into a body of knowledge about the 9 fundamental personality types in this ancient system, and what it means if I’m a 5 (Investigator) with a 4 wing (Iconoclast)! More in-depth study is required of this one, and I’m ready for it.
These explorations have helped with ‘What I’m good at’ and ‘How I operate.’ My understanding of ‘What I want’ started years ago with an investigation of basic human motivation. For this, the work of David McLelland in the 1970s and ‘80s on the big three human needs – achievement, affiliation and power – was especially helpful. (Click here for a useful explanation and for comparisons with alternative theories of motivation.) To that core personal understanding, I added the specifics of personal ambition, targeting my path up the corporate ladder to partner and practice leader in a large consulting firm. Since my entry into private practice almost ten years ago, I’ve added hopes and dreams for my clients’ accomplishments in their respective worlds to ‘What I want,’ and it has enriched my understanding of this ‘Who am I / Who are they’ pair of identity questions. Sometimes I can imagine more for them than they think possible, and the conversation around that is instructive and exciting.
The second pair of questions, ‘How are we doing together?’ and ‘How’s this working for us?,’ the ones that address the context for the exercise of identity, are the province in organizations of the human resources function. In larger companies, there are performance management and career review processes that address these questions in a formal way, and I recommend them highly for growing organizations of 100 people or more. With their process burden appropriately scaled to the size of the organization, they invariably deliver value to both individual and entity, despite the predictable protestations of those allergic to forms. To them the message is: buckle down, do the work; you’ll get as much out of it as you put into it.
But going back to the simplicity of my source here, the executive willing to look in the mirror, supplied with a blank piece of paper, I’ve found a simple two-part rubric can provide sufficient structure for a very meaningful means of answering ‘How are we doing together?’ and ‘How’s this working for us?’: Plus / Delta.
Plus is for positive, what’s going well, what do we want to continue / do more of and leverage as we go forward. Applied to the manager-subordinate relationship, Plus provides an opportunity to recognize strengths fueling accomplishment on the job, effective ways of providing managerial support in doing the work and growing in the job, and fluidity in accommodating differences in interactional styles. Applied to the relationship of both manager and subordinate to career / life / destiny, Plus provides an opportunity to reflect on two key elements: how the work in this job allows for development of skills and experiences that support the subordinate’s career advancement primarily, but also in turn for the manager, and also how this job fits into the desired longer-term career trajectory of each.
Delta is the Greek symbol for change, what do we want to do differently going forward, what would make things better, what different approach would have a positive impact and become a Plus during this next period of time. [Notice it doesn’t address what is a weakness, went wrong or was done poorly – that’s useful for job performance feedback, but a distraction from the active process of managing yourself.]
Applied to the manager-subordinate relationship, Delta provides an opportunity to propose corrections that would posit an ideal, to set higher standards and aim for them; an opportunity to take all the objections off the table by asking for what you want – incredibly powerful! Applied to the relationship of both manager and subordinate to career / life / destiny, Delta provides an opportunity every time it’s used to dream up the ideal job – what would make it better next time, what could I see myself doing next. Thoughtful consideration of these questions by both manager and managed gets both engaged in co-creating a future each would be excited to see.
Simple, simple, simple. It’s all there in just two words: Plus / Delta.
Put this all together and it gives you all you need for managing yourself – knowing yourself and effectively managing the interplay between these two key relationships – to other people, and to your ambitions.
Comments? I’d like to hear your thoughts. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. I can’t resist adding a coda to this month’s posting, and it concerns my ‘meeting’ with Peter Drucker some years ago, shortly before he wrote this article. I was traveling across the country to meet with a client on the West Coast and landed in a hub city – Cincinnati or Salt Lake City if I was flying Delta, Dallas or Chicago if it was American – and as I exited the ramp to change planes, I saw an elderly couple standing across the way near the announcement board. As I approached the board to locate the gate for my transfer, the inner wheels of recognition whirred and I thought: I know that guy. I paused before the board and could use my perusal of it to look at them again unobserved. They had obviously just arrived as well, were putting on their coats and such, and the wife’s tender regard for her husband’s well-being was touching. You could almost hear her say ‘let me straighten your coat’ ‘did you check for your wallet?’ ‘do you have your ticket?’
I knew in that moment it was Peter Drucker, and she must be his wife of many years, Doris – how dear. Where are they going? I wondered. Do they need any help?
Just as these thoughts came to mind, a younger man about my age came up from behind and collected them, and, to my everlasting chagrin, off they went, the moment of possible connection receding quickly into the past.
Would that I’d had the chance, after so many instances of being guided in business by him, to help him find his way through the busy-ness of an airport!