tl;dr: Peter Drucker's Managing Oneself is a brief but seminal work that every young professional should read. By reading it and applying its principles, you will learn to manage yourself and so need to be managed by others less.
Drucker's book has seven chapters. Drucker digs into them with respect to understanding and managing oneself. My experience is that the more someone is able to manage oneself, the less one's manager usually feels the need to manage one. I will also reflect on how each question can be used to help you understand your manager, coworkers, and reports so that, inasmuch as they may need it, you'll be able to manage them.
Drucker starts with the observation that people mostly misunderstand their own strengths, which is problematic because we do not succeed using our weaknesses, but by using our strengths. To counteract this tendency, Drucker proposes the feedback analysis. The feedback analysis is accomplished by writing down a key decision as you make it, and recording with the decision what you expect the results to be. After a suitable period - typically on the scale of months to a year - review your decision and your expectations against what actually happened.
The feedback analysis is not only a powerful means of identifying your strengths, but also of building on them. While you can mitigate your weaknesses, the cost to turn them into strengths is probably prohibitive. Just work to take the edge off your weaknesses so that they don't drag you down - but really, focus on your strengths.
Drucker also encourages his reader to identify intellectual arrogance. This often takes the form of thinking to oneself, "If I don't know it, it must not matter much." Engineers think design is easy. Designers think code just writes itself. Salespeople think UX experts are fussy. You get the idea. His advice is to knock it off.
Knowing the things that I am good at and the things that I am not good at has helped me to volunteer not for responsibilities that sound exciting, but the responsibilities that I can execute very well. This in turn has helped build my reputation within my organizations. Appreciating others' strengths has helped me to appreciate them. Everybody likes to be appreciated and we naturally like the people who appreciate us.
"Too many people work in ways that are not their ways, and that almost guarantees nonperformance."
The above statement, in my experience, accounts for much workplace frustration. How many of us are managed by managers the way the manager likes or the way the manager thinks we need, but not the way that empowers us to knock it out of the ballpark every time. Additionally, if we've only ever been managed in ways that go against our own grain, we might never have learned which way our own grain goes.
What does Drucker mean, exactly? Well, he asks us to consider some questions. These in turn, help us get a sense of what he means by "how I perform".
- Am I a reader or a listener?
- How do I learn? Common examples are by reading, by listening, by writing, or by talking things out.
- Do I produce results mainly when I'm a decision-maker or when I'm an advisor? This doesn't necessarily reflect one's "proper" role in an organization, mind you. A CEO might make an "executive decision" by giving good feedback to his executive team and then empowering them to decide.
- Do I work well under stress, or do I need lots of structure and predictability?
- Do I work best in big organizations with lots of resources or small ones with lots of improvisation?
Drucker strongly and repeatedly advises against spending too much effort to change oneself in this regard. Say writes that our personal answers to these questions tend to be deeply ingrained. We'll spend our effort better by changing our locale rather than trying to be a better auditory learner.
While I don't argue with Drucker's thrust, I will add that I have had some success. Years of listening to audiobooks for work and pleasure have made me a decidedly better auditory learner. That said, doing, writing, and talking are definitely still the ways in which I most easily learn new systems and concepts.
Knowing this about myself has helped me manage myself and, by extension, need less management. When I was younger, a boss my tell me to do X, Y, or Z. I would forget in minutes. That must have been annoying for my managers. Now I take notes or send an email/IM confirmation of our discussion. Not only does this approach help cement my learning, but it also gives me something to rely upon if I later have to account for what I've understood.
By values, Drucker explicitly states that he does not mean ethics. Ethics is a part of a value system, he says - the part that doesn't change from person to person or situation to situation. Drucker is talking about other things we individually or as a group will value, setting aside purely ethical considerations. He gives the example of a company that does not promote from within because it prefers "bringing in fresh blood." The policies of preferring to promote from within versus promoting from without reflect deeper values. You can have a policy that strikes a middle ground. But these opposing policies that can be forged into a compromise at best, reflect deeper values. One policy speaks to a value of collective memory, of organic development, of developing ones existing employees. The other speaks to innovation, eagerness for radical departures, or perhaps the need for new thinking and new people. Clearly, if you value climbing a corporate ladder, this company is not the place for you.
Here's Drucker's key insight along these lines:
"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 the must be close enough to coexist. Otherwise, the person will not only be frustrated bu talso will not produce results."
Here's my list of some of the opposing values that are important to different people and organizations. Note, because we've set aside ethical considerations (so lying to customers is straight out, or should be), these values aren't better or worse than their opposites. In fact, each value-and-opposite-value pair is usually a balancing act, and the one we prefer is often a matter of necessity or context.
- process vs outcomes
- stability vs adaptation
- speed vs thoroughness
- frankness vs cautiousness
- empathy vs accomplishment
- dependability vs entrepreneurship
As you learn about the values that matter more to you at some point in your life, also consider which values seem to matter more to your coworkers and the organization as a whole. These considerations may shed light on sources of any exhaustion or frustration that you experience at work.
Drucker writes that as we get to know our strengths, how we perform, and what we value, it should become clearer to us where we do not belong at the very least.
It is important for us to know which opportunities for us to seek and which to decline.
Then he writes something that may shock many readers:
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 - hardworking and competent... - into an outstanding performer.
If Drucker's claim is even half-true, then knowing the answers to these questions takes on an enormous importance for one's career.
While Drucker starts this section by stipulating a simplistic view of the 1960s and social change around career expectations, he makes other good points. His key gist is that we should not look to our employers to plot out a career path for us. In my experience, there is at least a whole generation of office workers who feel jilted because they were passed over for a promotion; rather than seeking the promotion elsewhere, out of a sense of insecurity or perhaps a false sense of loyalty, they stay at their employer. In the fullness of time, they are often passed over again.
Employers don't do this to be mean. They do it because math is harsh. If you have a team of eight people, only one can be the manager. When the manager goes elsewhere, her role may be filled internally, but only one of the remaining seven can take the role. The others are passed over. It's just math. The company has to pick the person that they think will be best for the role: seniority, experience, skill, expertise on the team aren't the only or even most important factors for picking someone who can coordinate the team to produce results. A passed-over employee, meanwhile, feels treated unfairly, given his seniority, experience, skill, and expertise, often thinking he knows why the old manager was bad, but never really developing the skills to make himself into good management material, and never taking the perceived risk of looking outside the company for that promotion.
If you want to shine, you need to contribute what the broader team needs. When you do this, people will notice not only your contributions, but your ability to identify real needs. Look for the intersection between the accomplishments your career needs and the results that your company needs. This is the making of a manager.
Drucker points out, mind you, that these kind of plans don't usually work out if they are planned in too much detail or too far in advance. Go for results that are visible and especially for results that are measurable.
Another key insight starts this section:
Managing yourself requires taking responsibility for relationships.
In my experience, this insight is especially true when the other party to the relationship is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for him- or herself. The most universal example is relating to a child. The child cannot take responsibility for their share of a relationship, so adults must do so for the child: providing explanations about what is or isn't fitting in a situation, encouraging good conduct, and discouraging bad conduct.
Here's a secret I've learned. Most 'adults' are emotionally about 16 years old. A mentor of mine told me that folks stop growing up when they start insisting to others that they are grown up. We usually start telling adults to shove off when we are in adolescence. The good news is that if we will seek out mentors and admit that we still have useful things to learn, we can start getting more mature again.
When dealing with bosses, employees, and coworkers, if you really want to shine, you must learn to take responsibility for your part of each of those relationships, and often, to help them with their share of the relationship.
The first key part is observation and a sort of allowing others to be who they are. Drucker writes, is to "accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are." They have strengths, preferred ways of getting things done, and values that matter to them. "Each person works his or her way, not your way."
There are a lot of dim bosses out there that don't get this. If you understand this, though, and are willing to try to work to others' styles, you will flex and stretch and grow, and you will not be one of those bosses. You will be the employee that everyone wants on his team, you will be the manager that everyone wants to work for.
You can start as an employee by observing your manager and her way of working, identifying her strengths and concerns, and seeing when she is most effective. This can be a matter of career life or death. As you get better at this approach, you will be able to more easily apply it to coworkers and reports, whom you often know better than you know your boss.
The other key part of responsibility for relationships is communication. Drucker writes that as a consultant among his client companies, the single most common source of friction he encounters is failure of communication. The most commonly under-communicated information is what different people are working on. We may sit next to someone who works on an entirely different project with wildly different needs and even different working hours.
It is vital that we spend part of our time each week making sure that key stakeholders are aware of our work. Key stakeholders include bosses, those interested in particular projects, and those helping us work on those projects. It's important to keep even direct reports informed so that they can take ownership and bring their skills and knowledge to bear on questions that may arise.
Drucker's book concludes with a section entitled The Second Half of Your Life essentially about what to do during retirement and by extension what kinds of things non-retired people might do in our free time. He draws attention to three common approaches:
- Second career. Often, pivoting accomplishes this. If you are the VP of Sales at a tech shop, try pivoting to VP of Sales at an agricultural supplier. The key thing about a pivot is that you keep one dimension of your work (or life) anchored while changing up another dimension.
- Parallel career. This often means taking on a part-time job or starting a cottage industry as a "side gig". Experienced executives might join the board of a women's crisis shelter, Drucker offers, or a young advertising specialist might learn to code and combine skill sets.
- Social entrepreneurship. Social entrepeneurs focus on how to add value to society using the skills, experience, and connections they've developed. If you can afford to live on and even reinvest your investments, this approach might take the form of starting a nonprofit. If you're still mid-career, I would offer that you might do volunteer work or help an existing non-profit to develop new avenues for helping folks in need. For instance, you might offer career-counseling services to a homeless shelter.
Drucker's book Managing Oneself feels somewhat dated here and there, especially in his cultural references. Don't let that stop you from a careful reading, though. My experience is that the book is very prescient and probably applies now even more than when he first wrote it. The key takeaway for me is that you can learn to manage yourself, and that by doing so, you will need to be managed by others less, and will be better at managing them as well.