BEST OF HBR
We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity: If you've got ambition and
smarts, you can rise to the top of your chosen profession, regardless of where
you started out.
But with opportunity comes responsibility. Companies today aren't managing their employees'careers; knowledge workers must, effectively, be their
own chief executive officers. It's up to you to carve out your place, to know
when to change course, and to keep yourself engaged and productive during
a work life that may span some 50 years.To do those things well, you'll need
to cultivate adeepunderstandingof yourself-not only what your strengths
and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what
your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution. Because
only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence.
by Peter R Drucker
Success in the
comes to those who
know themselvestheir strengths, their
values, and how they
istory's great achievers - a
Napoleon, a da Vinci, a Mozart - have
always managed themselves. That, in
large measure, is what makes them
great achievers. But they are rare exceptions, so unusual both in their talents
and their accomplishments as to be
considered outside the boundaries of
ordinary human existence. Now, most
of us, even those of us with modest endowments, will have to leam to manage ourselves. We will have to leam to
develop ourselves. We will have to place
ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution. And we will have to
stay mentally alert and engaged during
a 50-year working life, which means
knowing how and when to change the
work we do.
What Are My Strengths?
Most people think they know what they
are good at. They are usually wrong.
More often, people know what they are
not good at - and even then more people are wrong than right. And yet, a person can perform only from strength.
One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.
Throughout history, people had little
need to know their strengths. A person
was born into a position and a line of
work: The peasant's son would also be
a peasant; the artisan's daughter, an
artisan's wife; and so on. But now people
have choices. We need to know our
strengths in order to know where we
HARVARD BUSTNESS REVIEUi
The only way to discover your
strengths is through feedback analysis.
Whenever you make a key decision or
take a key action, write down what you
expect will happen. Nine or 12 months
later, compare the actual results with
your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 to 20 years now,
and every time I do it, 1 am surprised.
The feedback analysis showed me, for
instance-and to my great surprise-that
I have an intuitive understanding of
technical people, whether they are engineers or accountants or market researchers. It also showed me that I don't
really resonate with generalists.
Feedback analysis is by no means
new. It was invented sometime in the
fourteenth century by an otherwise totally obscure German theologian and
picked up quite independently, some
150 years later, by John Calvin and Ignatius of Loyola, each of whom incorporated it into the practice of his followers. In fact, the steadfast focus on
performance and results that this habit
produces explains why the institutions
these two men founded, the Calvinist
church and the Jesuit order, came to
dominate Europe within 30 years.
Practiced consistently, this simple
method will show you within a fairly
short period of time, maybe two or
three years, where your strengths lie and this is the most important thing to
know. The method will show you what
you are doing or failing to do that deprives you of the full benefits of your
strengths. It will show you where you
are not particularly competent. And finally, it will show you where you have
no strengths and cannot perform.
Second, work on improving your
strengths. Analysis will rapidly show
where you need to improve skills or acquire new ones. It will also show the gaps
in your knowledge -and those can usually befilled.Mathematicians are bom,
but everyone can learn trigonometry.
Third, discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it. Far too many
people - especially people with great
It takes far more energy to improve from
incompetence to mediocrity than to improve
from first-rate performance to excelience.
expertise in one area-are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that heing bright is a substitute
for knowledge. First-rate engineers, for
instance, tend to take pride in not knowing anything about people. Human beings, they believe, are much too disorderly for the good engineering mind.
Human resources professionals, by contrast, often pride themselves on their ignorance of elementary accounting or of
quantitative methods altogether. But
taking pride in such ignorance is selfdefeating. Go to work on acquiring the
skills and knowledge you need to fully
realize your strengths.
It is equally essential to remedy your
bad habits-the things you do or fail to
do that inhibit your effectiveness and
performance. Such habits will quickly
show up in the feedback. For example,
a planner may find that his beautiful
plans fail because he does not follow
through on them. Like so many brilliant
Several implications for action follow people, he believes that ideas move
from feedback analysis. First and fore- mountains. But bulldozers move mounmost, concentrate on your strengths. Put tains; ideas show where the bulldozers
yourself where your strengths can pro- should go to work. This planner will
have to learn that the work does not stop
when the plan is completed. He must
Peter E Drucker is the Marie Rankin find people to carry out the plan and exClarke Professor of Social Science and plain it to them. He must adapt and
Management (Emeritus) at Claremont change it as he puts it into action. And fiGraduate University in Ctaremont, Cali-nally, he must decide when to stop pushing the plan.
fornia. This article is an excerptfromhis
At the same time, feedback will also
book Management Challenges for the
reveal when the problem is a lack of
21st Century (HarperCollins, 1999)102
manners. Manners are the lubricating
oil of an organization. It is a law of nature that two moving bodies in contact
with each other create friction. This is as
true for human beings as it is for inanimate objects. 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
Comparing your expectations with
your results also indicates what not to
do. We all have a vast number of areas
in which we have no talent or skill and
little chance of becoming even mediocre. In those areas a person - and especially a knowledge worker-should not
take on work, jobs, and assignments.
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 organizationsconcentrate on making incompetent
performers into mediocre ones. Energy,
resources, and time should go instead
to making a competent person into a
How Do I Perform?
Amazingly few people know how they
get things done. Indeed, most of us do
not even know that different people
work and perform differently. Too many
people work in ways that are not their
ways, and that almost guarantees nonperformance. For knowledge workers.
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
Managing Oneself • BEST OF HBR
How do I perform? may be an even
more important question than What are
Like one's strengths, how one performs is unique. It is a matter of personality. Whether personality be a matter of
nature or nurture, it surely is formed
long before a person goes to work. And
how a person performs is a given, just as
what a person is good at or not good at
is a given. A person's way of performing
can be slightly modified, but it is unlikely to be completely cbanged-and certainly not easily. Just as people achieve
results by doing what they are good at,
they also achieve results by working in
ways that they best perform. A few common personality traits usually determine how a person performs.
When Dwight Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of tbe Allied forces
in Europe, he was the darling of the
press. His press conferences were famous for their style - General Eisenhower showed total command of whatever question he was asked, and he was
able to describe a situation and explain
a policy in two or three beautifully polished and elegant sentences. Ten years
later, tbe same journalists who bad been
his admirers held President Eisenhower
in open contempt. He never addressed
the questions, they complained, but rambled on endlessly about something else.
And they constantly ridiculed him for
butchering the King's English in incoAm I a reader or a listener? The first herent and ungrammatica! answers.
thing to know is whether you are a
Eisenhower apparently did not know
reader or a listener. Far too few people that be was a reader, not a listener.
even know that there are readers and When be was Supreme Commander in
listeners and that people are rarely Europe, his aides made sure tbat every
botb. Even fewer know which ofthe two question from the press was presented
they themselves are. But some examples in writing at least half an hour before a
will show how damaging such igno- conference was to begin. And then Eisenrance can be.
hower was in total command. When he
became president, he succeeded two listeners. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry
Truman. Botb men knew themselves to
be listeners and both enjoyed free-for-all
press conferences. Eisenhower may have
felt tbat he bad to do what bis two predecessors had done. As a result, be never
even heard tbe questions journalists
asked. And Eisenhower is not even an
extreme case ofa nonlistener.
A few years later, Lyndon Johnson destroyed his presidency, in large measure,
by not knowing that he was a listener.
His predecessor, John Kennedy, was a
reader who had assembled a brilliant
group of writers as his assistants, making
sure that they wrote to him before discussing their memos in person. Johnson kept these people on his staff-and
they kept on writing. He never, apparently, understood one word of what
they wrote. Yet as a senator, Johnson had
been superb; for parliamentarians have
to be, above all, listeners.
Few listeners can be made, or can
make themselves, into competent readers - and vice versa. The listener who
tries to be a reader will, therefore, suffer
the fate of Lyndon Johnson, whereas the
reader who tries to be a listener will suffer tbe fate of Dwight Eisenhower. They
will not perform or achieve.
How do I learn? The second thing
to know about bow one performs is to
know how one learns. Many first-class
writers - Winston Churchill is but one
example -do poorly in school. They tend
to remember their schooling as pure
torture. Yet few of their classmates remember it the same way. They may not
have enjoyed the school very much, but
the worst they suffered was boredom.
The explanation is that writers do not,
as a rule, leam by listening and reading.
They leam by writing. Because schools
do not allow them to team this way, they
get poor grades.
Schools everywhere are organized on
the assumption tbat there is only one
right way to leam and that it is the same
way for everybody. But to be forced to
leam tbe way a school teaches is sheer
belt for students who leam differently.
ferent positions on each one. He rarely
asked his associates for comments or
questions; he simply needed an audience to bear himself talk. That's how he
leamed. And although he is a fairly extreme case, learning through talking is
by no means an unusual method. Successful trial lawyers learn the same
way, as do many medical diagnosticians
(and so do I).
Of all the important pieces of selfknowledge, understanding bow you
leam is the easiest to acquire. When I ask
people, "How do you leam?" most of
them know tbe 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 n on performance.
Am I a reader or a listener? and How
do I learn? are the first questions to ask.
But they are by no means the only ones.
To manage yourself effectively, you also
have to ask. Do 1 work well with people.
Do not try to change yourself-you are unlikely
to succeed. Work to improve the way you perform.
Indeed, there are probably half a dozen
different ways to learn.
There are people, like Churchill, who
leam by writing. Some people leam by
taking copious notes. Beethoven,for example, left behind an enormous number of sketchbooks, yet he said he never
actually looked at them when he composed. Asked why he kept them, he is
reported to have replied,"If I don't write
it down immediately, I forget it right
away. If I put it into a sketchbook, I never
forget it and I never have to look it up
again." Some people leam by doing. Others learn by hearing themselves talk.
A chief executive I know who converted a small and mediocre family business into the leading company in its industry was one of those people who
leam by talking. He was in the habit of
calling his entire senior staff into his
office once a week and then talking at
them for two or three hours. He would
raise policy issues and argue three dif104
or am I a loner? And if you do work wel!
with people, you then must ask. In what
Some people work best as subordinates. General George Patton, tbe great
American military hero of World War II,
is a prime example. Patton was America's top troop commander. Yet when
he was proposed for an independent
command. General George Marshall,
the U.S. chief of staff-and probably the
most successful picker of men in U.S.
history - said, "Patton is tbe best subordinate the American army has ever
produced, but he would be the worst
Some people work best as team members. Others work best alone. Some are
exceptionally talented as coaches and
mentors; others are simply incompetent
Another crucial question is. Do I produce results as a decision maker or as
an adviser? A great many people per-
form 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, selfconfidence, and courage.
This is a reason, by the way, tbat the
number two person in an organization
often fails when promoted to the number one position. The top spot requires
a decision maker. Strong decision makers often put somebody they trust into
the number two spot as their adviserand in tbat position the person is outstanding. But in tbe number one spot,
the same person fails. He or she knows
wbat tbe decision should be but cannot
accept the responsibility of actually
Other important questions to ask include. Do I perform well under stress, or
do 1 need a highly stmctured and predictable environment? E>o I work best in
a big organization or a small one? Few
people work well in all kinds of environments. Again and again, I have seen
people who were very successful in large
organizations flounder miserably when
they moved into smaller ones. And the
reverse is equally tme.
Tbe 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.
What Are My Values?
To be able to manage yourself, you finally have to ask. What are my values?
This is not a question of ethics. With respect to ethics, the rules are the same for
everybody, and the test is a simple one.
I call it the "mirror test."
In tbe early years of this century, the
most highly respected diplomat of all
the great powers was the German ambassador in London. He was clearly destined for great things - to become his
country's foreign minister, at least, if not
its federal chancellor. Yet in 1906 he
abmptly resigned rather than preside
over a dinner given by the diplomatic
corps for Edward VII. The king was a
HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW
Managing Oneself • BEST OF HBR
notorious womanizeT and made it clear
what kind of dinner he wanted. The
ambassador is reported to have said,
"1 refuse to see a pimp in the mirror in
the morning when 1 shave."
That is the mirror test. Ethics requires that you ask yourself, What kind
of person do I want to see in the mirror
in the morning? What is ethical behavior in one kind of organization or situation is ethical behavior in another.
But ethics is only part of a value system - especially of an organization's
To work in an organization whose
value system is unacceptable or incompatible with one's own condemns
a person both to frustration and to
Consider the experience of a highly
successful human resources executive
whose company was acquired by a bigger organization. After the acquisition,
she was promoted to do the kind of
work she did best, which included selecting people for important positions.
The executive deeply believed that a
company should hire people for such
positions from the outside only after exhausting all the inside possibilities. But
her new company believed in first looking outside "to bring in fresh blood."
There is something to be said for both
approaches - in my experience, the
proper one is to do some of both. They
are, however, fundamentally incompatible-not as policies but as values. They
bespeak different views ofthe relationship between organizations and people;
different views of the responsibility of
an organization to its people and their
development; and different views of a
person's most important contribution
to an enterprise. After several years of
frustration, the executive quit - at considerable financial loss. Her values and
the values of the organization simply
were not compatible.
Similarly, whether a pharmaceutical
company tries to obtain results by making constant, small improvements or by
achieving occasional, highly expensive,
and risky "breakthroughs" is not primarily an economic question. The results of either strategy may be pretty
much the same. At bottom, there is a
conflict between a value system that
sees the company's contribution in
terms of helping physicians do better
what they already do and a value system
that is oriented toward making scientific discoveries.
Whether a business should be run
for short-term results or with a focus on
What one does well even very well and
successfully - may not fit
with one's value system.
the long term is likewise a question of
values. Financial analysts believe that
businesses can be run for both simultaneously. Successful businesspeople
know better. To be sure, every company has to produce short-term results.
But in any conflict between short-term
results and long-term growth, each company will determine its own priority.
This is not primarily a disagreement
about economics, lt is fundamentally
a value conflict regarding the function
of a business and the responsibility of
Value conflicts are not limited to business organizations. One of the fastestgrowing pastoral churches ...
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