by Peter R Drucker , HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW, JAN 2005 [abridged]
Most of us will have to learn to manage ourselves and develop ourselves. We will have to place ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution staying 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 – though more are wrong than right. Yet, a person can perform only from strength. One cannot build performance on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all.
Whenever you make a key decision or take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. 9 or 12 months later, compare the actual results with your expectations. I have been practicing this method for 15 - 20 years now, and every time I’m surprised.
Practiced consistently, this will show you within 2 - 3 years, where your strengths lie - and this is the most important thing to know. It will show you what you are doing or failing to do that deprives you of the full benefits of your strengths, where you are not particularly competent, and where you have no strengths or ability to perform.
#1: Most importantly, concentrate on your strengths. Put yourself where your strengths can produce results.
#2: Improve your strengths. Analysis will rapidly show where you need to improve skills or acquire new ones. It will also show gaps in your knowledge.
#3: Discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it. Far too many people - especially people with great expertise in one area - are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. Go to work on acquiring the skills and knowledge you need to fully realize your strengths.
Your bad habits - what you do or fail to do that inhibits your effectiveness and performance - will quickly show up in the feedback - problems like a lack of manners. Manners are the lubricating oil of an organization – simply saying "please" and "thank you", knowing people’s names, or keeping up with family news - enables two people to work together whether they like each other or not. Bright people, especially bright young people, often do not understand this.
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.
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 1st-rate performance to excellence.
Yet most people, teachers, and organizations concentrate on making incompetent performers into mediocre ones. Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer.
How Do I Perform?
Like one's strengths, how one performs is unique. A few common personality traits usually determine how a person performs:
Am I a reader or a listener? The first thing to know is whether you are a reader or a listener.
How do I learn? Many 1st-class writers do poorly in school because they don’t learn by listening and reading. They learn by writing. Some people learn by doing; others by hearing themselves talk.
Of all the important pieces of self-knowledge, understanding how you learn is the easiest to acquire.
Do I work well with people or am I a loner? And if you do work well with people, you then must ask in what relationship? Some people work best as subordinates; some as team members; some as coaches and mentors. Others work best alone.
Do I produce results as a decision maker or as an adviser? The number two person in an organization often fails when promoted to number one. Many people perform best as advisers but cannot take the burden and pressure of decision making. Others need an adviser to force them to think before they can make decisions and act on them with speed, self-confidence, and courage.
Other important questions to ask include:
Do I perform well under stress, or do I need a highly structured and predictable environment?
Do I work best in a big or small organization?
The conclusion bears repeating: Do not try to change yourself - you are unlikely to succeed. Work hard to improve the way you perform. Try not to take on work you will only perform poorly.
What Are My Values?
With respect to ethics, the rules are the same for everybody, and the test is a simple one.
I call it the "mirror test." What kind of person do I want to see in the mirror?
But ethics is only part of a value system - especially of an organization's value system.
To work in an organization whose value system is unacceptable or incompatible with one's own condemns a person to frustration and non-performance. They do not need to be the same, but they must be close enough to coexist.
A person's strengths and the way that person performs rarely conflict; the two are complementary. But there is sometimes a conflict between a person's values and his or her strengths.
Values are and should be the ultimate test.
Where Do I Belong?
Most people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-20s. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and What are my values?
Then they can and should decide where they do and do not belong.
Knowing the answer to these questions enables a person to say, "Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am."
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 a hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre person into an outstanding performer.
What Should I Contribute?
Throughout history, the great majority of people never had to ask the question: “What should I contribute?” And until very recently, it was taken for granted that most people were subordinates who did as they were told.
Then in the late 1960s, no one wanted to be told what to do any longer. Young men and women began to ask. What do I want to do? And what they heard was that the way to contribute was to "do your own thing." But this solution was wrong. Very few of the people who believed that doing one's own thing would lead to contribution, self-fulfilment, and success achieved any of the three.
But still, there is no return to the old answer of doing what you are told or assigned to do. Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?
It is rarely possible - or even particularly fruitful - to look too far ahead. A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific. So the question in most cases should be: Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half? The answer must balance several things.
#1 - the results should be hard to achieve - requiring “a stretch" – but within reach.
#2 - the results should be meaningful, making a difference.
#3 – the results should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable. From this will come a course of action: what to do, where and how to start, and what goals and deadlines to set.
Responsibility for Relationships
Very few people work by effectively by themselves. Therefore managing yourself requires taking responsibility for relationships. Here’s how:
#1: accept others as individual human beings with their own strengths, performance modes, values different from yours. Understand the people you work with and depend on! Working relationships are as much based on the people as they are on the work.
#2: take responsibility for communication. Personality conflicts mostly arise from the fact that people do not know what other people are doing. They do not know because they have not asked and therefore have not been told. People fail to ask because they are afraid of being thought presumptuous, nosey, or stupid. But they’re wrong. These questions are most helpful and essential.
Organizations are built on trust. Trust requires that people understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity and duty.
The Second Half of Your Life
We hear a great deal of talk about the midlife crisis of the executive. It is mostly boredom. At 45, they are very good at their jobs but are not learning, contributing or deriving challenge and satisfaction from the job, but are still facing another 20 - 25 years of work. That is why managing oneself increasingly leads to a 2nd career.
They have substantial skills, know how to work, need a community and maybe income. But above all, they need challenge. So some change organizations; others careers; still others keep working but develop full or part-time parallel careers or non-profit ventures.
But you must start early. If one does not begin to volunteer before ~ 40, one will not volunteer > 60. 2nd careers also provide a community during times of crisis. Finding a second area offers an opportunity for being a leader, being respected, and being a success.
Because individual workers are highly mobile and outlive organizations, they must manage themselves by thinking and behaving as their own CEOs.