Peter Drucker (1909-2005) was one of the most influential and forward-thinking management theorists in the world (and continues to be). His books and articles have influenced generations of business people.
A favorite of mine is his classic Managing Oneself. Less of a book and more of a pamphlet, it offers deep insights into how to set yourself up for success. The premise:
We live in an age of unprecedented opportunity: If you’ve got ambition, drive, 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 knowledge workers’ careers. Rather we must each be our own chief executive officer.
To achieve this, Drucker lays out five core questions to ask yourself to help steer you towards high performance and self-management:
- What Are My Strengths?
- How Do I Work?
- What Are My Values?
- Where Do I Belong?
- What Can I Contribute?
By taking the time to explore and understand your answers to these questions, you can begin to build a life of excellence – both personally and professionally. I’m going to elaborate on each of these questions for the next few days.
What Are My Strengths?
“Most people think they know what they are good at. They are often wrong.”
Drucker observes that people did not previously need to know their strengths. There weren’t many options available to people prior to the 20th century. Parents were farmers? You’re a farmer.
Now people are awash in options. Almost anyone can go on to do almost anything. You could might be a lawyer, but you could just as easily become a consultant or a carpenter. I was speaking with my brother-in-law recently and he told me a about a friend of his that’s an electrical engineer – who had just moved from the East coast to Hollywood because he wants to be a screenwriter.
But just because you want to do something, or have a ‘passion’ for it, doesn’t mean you should.
You need to find your strengths. A lawyer is likely good at analysis, deconstruction, and critical thinking. Maybe not so great at statistics. But what if you’re passionate about learning statistics? You think it might help your career. Drucker would respond:
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.
Understanding Career Capital
You’re likely already good at something. Or have built skills and experience in certain areas. Instead of trying to pull up the low level skills you might possess, instead try focusing on improving the areas where you have already made progress.
It’s akin to the theory of career capital – “skills you have that are both rare and valuable and that can be used as leverage in defining your career,” as author and computer scientist Cal Newport describes it.
In Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, he gives the example of a woman who had a successful career in advertising and marketing. But inspired by moronic lifestyle gurus, she quit her job to follow her passion of practicing yoga. She spent $4,000 and took a 200 hour “instructor” course.
The downside of the passion mindset is that it strips away merit…launching a career that gives you control, creativity, and impact is easy…Career-capital theory disagrees. It tells us that great work doesn’t just require great courage [to follow your passion], but also skill of great (and real) value.
When [the woman] left her advertising career to start a yoga studio, not only did she discard the career capital acquired over many years in the marketing industry, but she transitioned into an unrelated field where she had almost no capital.
The result? The woman texts: ‘I’m at the food stamps office right now, waiting.’ It’s signed: ‘Sent from my iPhone.’
Practice Feedback Analysis
Instead of foolishly following your passion, focus on your strengths. A consistent way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis.
Every time you make a key decision, write down the outcome you expect. Several weeks or months later, compare the actual results, with your expected results.
What results are you generating? What skills are involved? Are there habits or behaviors that are interfering with generating results? What can you improve? Where do you have little competence, and where do you have tangible skills?
Regularly engaging in feedback analysis will allow you to discover your strengths and weaknesses. As you discover them:
- Concentrate on your strengths. Put yourself where you strengths can lead to results.
- Improve your strengths. Mozarts are born, but everyone can learn to play the piano.
- Discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance – and overcome it. Being naturally bright is not a substitute for learning and experience.
- Remedy your bad habits. Eliminate things that inhibit your effectiveness or performance.