Peter Drucker: Helping people manage their own talent development
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Peter Drucker: Helping people manage their own talent development

The best performance management comes from self-aware employees who manage their own performance and learning. Train more of your people in the right kind of self-knowledge and you can help them take charge of their talent development.

What exactly must employees be aware of? Well, according to Peter Drucker, possibly the most renowned management expert in the history of management, people need to ask five questions about themselves, and answer them thoughtfully and honestly:

  1. How do I learn? Some people learn very well through the common read-and-listen model of instruction. But that’s not always the case. Drucker gives the example of Winston Churchill, who was a bad student in a traditional school. As an adult, however, he wrote copiously and became a man of action, arenas in which he accomplished a great deal. He learned by doing. And then some people learn best by talking — by hearing themselves raise various ideas and possibilities, they’re able to pick the valuable nuggets from their own output and reject what are clearly bad ideas once they’ve been expressed aloud.
  2. Do I communicate better in writing or orally? Drucker cites the contrasting examples of two U.S. presidents. Dwight Eisenhower needed written briefs in order to formulate effective responses and decisions, and appeared flustered when obliged to answer off-the-cuff questions at press conferences. Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, was a great listener and orator in the Senate who wasn’t good at absorbing the copious written information that his staff sent him after he became president.
  3. Do I work well with people, or am I more of a loner? Some employees love the interplay of bouncing ideas off teammates, while others do better formulating concepts and plans in the quiet of their own minds. Some people are naturally sociable, while others are more withdrawn. Sure, loners can learn to improve their participatory skills, but that takes energy that might possibly be better spent on the task at hand.
  4. Do I produce better results as an adviser or a decision-maker? The history of the world — and specifically of organizations — is rife with people who were great as a top aide to a decision-maker, but stumbled when they were promoted to the top spot. Smart, dedicated, diplomatic advisers aren’t always willing to accept the responsibility of making the final decision.
  5. Do I perform well under the stress of the unexpected, or do I need a highly predictable environment? Different people tolerate rapidly changing conditions differently, and this is likely to fit — or unfit — them for certain jobs. To take an extreme example, a person who is a fine librarian might not necessarily make the best fighter pilot.

What about the answers?
Of course, if you’re going to train employees to ask these kinds of questions, the organization has to be ready to accommodate the answers. People may need to be put in different positions to best display their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

If, for example, an employee who’s assigned to a team decides she works better on her own, and can persuade you that she’s right, you may need to work with her to restructure her job. Another employee who has been the No. 2 man in a department may need a No. 1 job somewhere in the organization — a promotion you’ll have to sign off on — in order to perform at his best.

Sometimes, though, people can remain where they are, working on the strengths that they’ve identified in order to improve their performance in their current job.

Either way, employees who ask and answer Drucker’s five questions are well placed to maximize their contribution to the organization. It’s up to you as a manager to guide them through the process.

Source: “Managing Oneself,” an essay by Drucker in the Harvard Business Review publication “The Essential Guide to Leadership.”

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