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A reality check from the godfather of management

It was a couple of years ago.

My siblings and I were doing what the children of many aging parents do – de-cluttering the family home we grew up in… the aftermath of moving my Mom and Dad into a retirement residence two months earlier.  We were sorting through a predictable mix of photo albums, board games, assorted knick knacks.  And lots of books.

One title, in particular, caught my eye – a massive text, nearly 900 pages, from 1973.  It was Peter Drucker’s essential business guide for the modern manager. Its simple title?  Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

Turns out this heavyweight text was required reading for a management course my Dad had attended in the early ‘70s, sponsored by his employer, at what’s now the Ivey Business School.  It was part of Dad’s own journey of “becoming a better manager.”  Now here we were, almost 50 years later, and the text was still on the shelf.  (The book remains in circulation.)

So what of this guy, Drucker?

The name may not be familiar, especially if you’re under 50.  But Drucker, who died in 2005 at age 96, is considered the “godfather of modern management.”  As Nicklaus was to the golf swing in the ‘70s, as Picasso was to art – so was Drucker to many practical foundations of modern business.

As a consultant, educator and author he originated (or advanced) concepts like management by objectives, privatization and decentralization, strategic planning, the importance of marketing, and the “knowledge worker” (a term he coined in 1959).  Drucker even developed the first executive MBA program in 1971 at Claremont University in California.  He taught his last class there when he was 92.

Today, Drucker’s wisdom lives on in some of his more memorable quotes, including:

  • “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
  • “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.
  • “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service sells itself.”
  • “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
  • “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently something that should not have been done at all.”

Skimming through Drucker’s book that snowy Saturday was like stumbling upon buried treasure.  I was captivated.  Part of the book includes a section that Drucker later morphed into a short book of its own – the five most important questions any business needs to answer.

I love these questions for their directness and their simplicity. 

They’re suitable for any organization… of any size… in any category.  And they get right to the heart of what we’re up to every day.

Here they are:

1.    What is your mission?  (I prefer to call this “purpose.”  Simon Sinek calls it our Why.)  Whatever we call it, it’s our reason for existing – and needs to be about something deeper than making money or turning a profit.  It’s about the difference we make to the people we serve – how we change their lives for the better.  It should be easily explained to a 12-year-old, and short enough to fit on a T-shirt.  One of my favourite examples is TED:  to spread ideas.

2.    Who is your customer?   How precise are you in choosing who you serve?  Are you trying to be everything to everybody? Drucker wrote that answering this question “provides the basis for determining what customers value, defining your results, and developing a plan….”

3.    What does your customer value?  What do they care about most? What matters to them?  What are they prepared to pay for?  Many businesses assume they know all of this, yet they never directly ask the customer to confirm it.

4.    What are your results? How are you performing?  What’s your record?  Best-selling author Jim Collins called this description of our current situation “the brutal facts of reality.”  We need a clear, candid understanding of where we are right now before we can decide what to do next.  Leading to…

5.    What is your plan?  How do you deliver what your customers value – in sync with your purpose, and achieving the results you want?  You need a plan, a focused “roadmap” that encompasses your mission (why you exist), your vision (where you’re going), and the means to get there – right down to specific goals, actions, a budget, and a way to track your progress along the way.

To me, one of Drucker’s greatest qualities was this no-fuss-no-muss ability to focus on the fundamentals, the important things that matter most in business – like these five questions.

We’ve barely passed Groundhog Day – still early enough in the year to do our own Drucker, still more than enough time to make a real difference in our 2020.

So ask yourself:

  1. What’s your purpose? How do you make a difference?
  2. Who is your customer?
  3. Have you asked them what they value?
  4. What are your results so far?
  5. What’s your plan now?