The Peter Drucker Way to Be an Employee

Timeless wisdom from the father of modern management's commencement address from 1964.




While there are advantages to virtual college commencement addresses, such as more widespread access, they are different from experiencing a powerful speaker in person.

On May 31, 1964, Peter Drucker gave the commencement address at the University of Scranton, in my home town of Scranton, Pa. The event passed without my notice: I was a young boy at the time and was not aware of who Drucker was.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Drucker Archives has posted an online digital copy of the June 1, 1964 Scranton Times article about Drucker’s commencement address, “410 Given Degrees at U of S: Graduates Termed ‘True Capitalists’ by Professor at NYU.

I’ve long had a photocopy of that article, which includes the text of his address, as well as how he was introduced. I later discovered that the latter lists his then-new book Managing for Results incorrectly as Managing for Profit, a title that I doubt he would have liked. In 2013, I wrote about his commencement address in my second book, Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way.

In May 1952, twelve years before he spoke at the University of Scranton, Fortune published his “How to Be an Employee,” which I described in my 2009 book Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life as “a charming article based on an ideal but undelivered college commencement address.”

Being a Drucker-Inspired Employee

College and/or high school courses on "How to Be an Employee" could deliver great benefits to society. Perhaps one reason that so many workplaces are dysfunctional and worse is that people learn how to be employees from (often negative) experience, and from observing people who are unworthy role models.

Such courses would not be easy to teach or take, but we could draw inspiration from Drucker’s article. It's included in the book People and Performance: The Best of Peter Drucker on Management, originally published by Harper’s College Press in 1977, and reissued by Harvard Business School Press in 2007.

The workplace, and the workforce, has changed considerably since Drucker’s article was published, yet it has a timeless quality applicable to the knowledge workers of today and the future.

Here are selected quotes from that article, all of which remain as relevant today as they were in 1952:

Communication

“This one basic skill is the ability to organize and express ideas in writing and speaking. But as soon as you move one step up from the bottom, your effectiveness depends on your ability to reach others through the spoken or the written word.”

Types of Employees

"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?”

Size of Company or Organization

“Do you derive a deep sense of satisfaction from being a member of a well-known organization—General Motors, the Bell Telephone System, the Government? Or is it more important to you to be a well-known and important figure within your own small pond?”

The Rise of the Generalist

“But there is an increasing demand for people who are able to take in a great area at one 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 judgments.”

Job Promotion

“Let me repeat: to be promoted is not essential, either to happiness or to usefulness. To be considered for promotion is.”

Beyond the Workplace

“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.”

In his University of Scranton commencement address, Drucker reminded the graduates of the responsibility to put their knowledge to work for the benefit of as many people as possible.

He said their years of education represented sacrifices from parents and money from taxpayers; and that it hadn’t been that many years since the days when most people left school at 14 to go to work.

He reminded his audience that hopes for a society “free from prejudice” and other injustices depended on them and similar graduates elsewhere, “the first generation of the 'knowledge revolution'.”

Drucker explored themes such as the shift from producing products to creating and developing knowledge; the relatively new demand in that era for educated people; and how the process of teaching hadn’t changed considerably in hundreds of years.

“But what education and knowledge mean to society,” Drucker said, “that has changed drastically, and within the lifetime of the older generation still living.”

Drucker ends his Fortune article on this back-to-basics note: “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.”

RECOMMENDED