How to be an Employee : Peter Drucker’s classic career advice

Being an employee is an art, says Drucker.  And he says getting fired from your first job may be a good thing!

Isn’t that interesting?

Peter Drucker wrote on this topic almost forty years back.

The Basic Skill 

He starts off by asking, ” What can you learn that will help you in being an employee?”

The answer, unsurprisingly, is communication. Drucker calls it a basic skill which very few students bother to learn. This one basic skill is the ability to organize and express ideas in writing and in speaking.

For Drucker, an early start is beneficial.

” The foundations for skill in expression have to be laid early : an interest in and an ear for language; experience in organizing ideas and data; in brushing aside the irrelevant; in wedding outward form and inner content into one structure; and above all, the habit of verbal expression. If you do not lay these foundations during your school years, you may never have an opportunity again.

You should take courses in the writing of poetry and the writing of short stories. Most of you won’t become poets or short-story writers – far from it. But these two courses offer the easiest way to obtain some skill in expression. They force you to be economical with language. They force you to organize thought. They demand of you that you give meaning to every word. They train the ear for language, its meaning, its precision, its overtones – and its pitfalls. Above all they force you to write.”

Four Decisions : What kind of Employee

Drucker asks us to make four choices on the kind of employee we want to be.

First : Is Security for You?

Drucker asks, “Do you belong in a job calling primarily for faithfulness in the performance of routine work and promising security? Or do you belong in a job that offers a challenge to imagination and ingenuity – with the attendant penalty for failure?”

And continues.

“The decision between secure routine work and insecure work challenging the imagination and ingenuity is the one decision most people find easiest to make. You know very soon what kind of a person you are. Do you find real satisfaction in the precision, order, and system of a clearly laid-out job? Do you prefer the security not only of knowing what your work is today and what it is going to be tomorrow, but also security in your job, in your relationship to the people above, below, and next to you, and economic security? Or are you one of those people who tend to grow impatient with anything that looks like a “routine” job? These people are usually able to live in a confused situation in which their relations to the people around them are neither clear nor stable. They tend to pay less attention to economic security and find it not too upsetting to change jobs.

There is, of course, no such black-and-white distinction between people. The person who can do only painstaking detail work and has no imagination is not much good for anything. Neither is the self-styled “genius” who has nothing but grandiose ideas and no capacity for rigorous application to detail. But in practically everybody I have every met there is a decided leaning one way or the other.”

Drucker points out that large organizations do not offer challenge and risk to those who seek it, especially in fields like banking and insurance and the same is the case with industries like the railways, government, engineering companies and public corporations. There are functions like buying, selling, and advertising where there is an emphasis on adaptability, imagination and trying out new things. Small businesses, contrary to popular perception, pay close attention to routine, though they also have room for the innovator or imaginer.

Second : Big Company or Small? 

Drucker asks, ” Do you belong in a large organization or in a small organization? Do you work better through channels or through direct contacts? Do you enjoy more being a small cog in a big and powerful machine or a big wheel in a small machine?”

And he continues.

“There are two basic differences between the large and the small enterprise. In the small enterprise you operate primarily through personal contacts. In the large enterprise you have established “policies”, “channels” of organization, and fairly rigid procedures. In the small enterprise you have, moreover, immediate effectiveness in a very small area. You can see the effect of your own work and of your decisions right away, once you are a little bit above the ground floor. In the large enterprise even the person at the top is only a cog in a big machine. To be sure, his or her actions affect a much greater area than the actions and decisions of the person in the small organization, but his or her effectiveness is remote, indirect, and elusive. In a small and even in a middle-sized business, you are normally exposed to all kinds of experiences, and expected to do a great many things without too much help or guidance. In the large organization you are normally taught one thing thoroughly. In the small one the danger is of becoming a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. In the large one it is of becoming the person who knows more and more about less and less.”

Drucker further asks whether we derive more satisfaction out of being associated with a well-known organization or whether being a well-known, important figure in our own small pond matters more.

Third : Start at the Bottom or ?

Drucker asks, ” Should you start at the bottom and try to work your way up, or should you try to start near the top? On the lowest rung of the promotional ladder, with its solid and safe footing but also with a very long climb ahead? or on the aerial trapeze of “a management trainee” or some staff position close to management?”

Normally, we believe every job starts at the bottom rung. But, Drucker makes a finer point here. There are some job positions that are placed low on the chart but the people occupying them work alongside those at the top. And the closer association makes a difference.

Over to Drucker.

“In every organization, even the smallest, there are positions that, while subordinate, modestly paid, and usually filled with young and beginning employees, nonetheless are not at the bottom. There are positions as assistant to one of the bosses; there are positions as private secretary; there are liaison positions for various departments; and there are positions in staff capacities, in industrial engineering, in cost accounting, in personnel, etc. Every one of these gives a view of the whole rather than of only one small area. Every one of them normally brings the holder into the deliberations and discussions of the people at the top, if only as a silent audience or perhaps only as an errand boy. Every one of these positions is a position ‘near the top’ however humble and badly paid it may be.”

Most people intent on a career will choose the bottom rung of their specialty. Going by this choice, somebody might choose to join as an executive assistant to the marketing head rather than being a marketing footsoldier. People who opt for an MBA degree straight out of graduation without any job experience believe this will help them escape from starting out at the bottom.

Fourth: Specialist or Generalist?

Drucker asks, ” Are you going to be more effective and happy as a specialist or as a “generalist”, that is, in an administrative job?”

Drucker again.

“There are a great many careers in which the increasing emphasis is on specialization. You find these careers in engineering and in accounting, in production, in statistical work, and in teaching. But there is an increasing demand for people who are able to take in a great area at a glance, people who perhaps do not know too much about any one field – though one should always have one area of real competence. There is, in other words, a demand for people who are capable of seeing the forest rather than the trees, of making over-all judgements. And these “generalists” are particularly needed for administrative positions, where it is their job to see that other people do the work, where they have to plan for other people, to organize other people’s work, to initiate it and appraise it.

The specialist understands one field. The main concern of specialists is with technique, tools, media. Specialists are “trained” and their educational background is properly technical or professional. The generalist – and especially the administrator – deals with people. The main concern of generalists is with leadership, with planning, with direction giving, and with coordination… It is your job to find out, during your apprenticeship, into which of those two job categories you fit, and to plan your career accordingly”

The First Job

“Your first job may turn out to be the right job for you – but this is pure accident. Certainly you should not change jobs constantly or people will become suspicious – rightly – of your ability to hold any job. At the same time, you must not look upon the first job as the final job; it is primarily a training job, an opportunity to analyze yourself and your fitness for being an employee

… In fact there is a good deal to be said for being fired from the first job. One reason is that it is rarely an advantage to have started as an office clerk in the organization; far too many people will still consider you a “green kid” after you have been there for twenty-five years. But the major reason is that getting fired from the first job is the least painful and the least damaging way to learn how to take a setback.”

Drucker says to be fired so early on is easier to take than to be laid off at age forty-five. At that age, if you are facing such an adversity for the first time, you may struggle to bounce back.

Drucker ends this segment by saying, “Obviously you cannot contrive to get yourself fired. But you can always quit. And it is perhaps even more important to have quit once than to have been fired once.The person who walks out on his or her volition acquires an inner independence that they will never quite lose.”

When to Quit 

Drucker urges us to quit if we realize we have made the wrong choices in the areas described earlier. There are two more valid reasons for us to quit. The first is lack of training. The second is if there is no scope for promotion. Drucker says, “What matters is that there should be both adequate opportunities and fair assurance that you will be eligible and considered for promotion. Let me repeat : to be promoted is not essential, either to happiness or to usefulness. To be considered for promotion is.”

Your Life off the Job

Drucker signs off by giving sage-like advice on having a life beyond work.

His words.

” I have only one more thing to say : to be an employee it is not enough that the job be right and that you be right for the job. It is also necessary that you have a meaningful life outside the job.

I am talking of having a genuine interest in something in which you, on your own, can be, if not a master, at least an amateur expert. This something may be botany, or the history of your county, or chamber music, cabinetmaking, Christmastree growing, or a thousand other things. But it is important in this “employee society” of ours to have a genuine interest outside the job and to be serious about it.

I am not, as you might suspect, thinking of something that will keep you alive and interested during your retirement. I am speaking of keeping yourself alive, interested, and happy during your working life, and of a permanent source of self-respect and standing outside and beyond your job. You will need such an interest when you hit the forties, that period in which most of us come to realize that we will never reach the goals we have set ourselves when younger – whether these are goals of achievement or of worldly success. You will need it because you should have one area in which you yourself impose standards of performance on your own work. Finally, you need it because you will find recognition and acceptance by other people working in the field, whether professional or amateur, as individuals rather than as members of an organization and as employees.

This is heretical philosophy these days when so many companies believe that the best employee is the man who lives, drinks, eats, and sleeps job and company. In actual experience, those people who have no life outside their jobs are not the really successful people, not even from the viewpoint of the company. I have seen far too many of them shoot up like a rocket, because they had no interests except the job; but they also come down like the rocket’s burned-out stick. The person who will make the greatest contribution to a company is the mature person – and you cannot have maturity if you have no life or interest outside the job.”

Final Words

” You have no doubt realized that I have not really talked about how to be an employee. I have talked about what to know before becoming an employee – which is something quite different. Perhaps ” how to be an employee” can be learned only by being one. But one thing can be said. Being an employee means working with people; it means living and working in a society. Intelligence, in the last analysis, is therefore not the most important quality. What is decisive is character and integrity. If you work on your own, intelligence and ability may be sufficient. If you work with people you are going to fail unless you also have basic integrity. And integrity – character – is the one thing most, if not all, employers consider first.

There are many skills you might learn to be an employee, many abilities that are required. But fundamentally the one quality demanded of you will not be skill, knowledge, or talent, but character.”




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