Advice for Succeeding in a New Assignment: Lessons From Peter F. Drucker

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Peter Drucker's Approach to Succeeding in a New Assignment/Job

Some people get promoted into new positions because they did something right in their former position. Others are now suddenly, and without warning, equivalently being promoted (or given new responsibilities) due to the collapse of commercial activity in a large number of organizations.

Yet, it’s not intuitively obvious to most people that a new and different job requires a different behavior, a different focus and a new set of skills. Savvy senior-executives realize it is their responsibility (if they advance an individual to a more responsible position) to make sure the individual truly understands this.

This requires much discussion and guidance. Forcing the new appointee to think through the assignment–and truly learn what needs to be learned–can ultimately pay big dividends.

This is very easy to say; Hard as nails to successfully make happen. It takes work to obtain performance and results. And work, to yield results, has to be thought through and done with missionary zeal. This requires direction and method.

But, besides the typical yo-yo nods from the employee that he/she understands or has thought through exactly what has to be done, it is more likely than not they have not completely thought through what they have to do to be a success at their new or enlarged job.

It is the executive's job to ask or guide the employee to do the right things. That does not mean it will be done.

At first, many new appointees are inspired by the challenge of the new opportunity and believe they will deliver sustainable excellence. But if they don't have what it takes (or the passion) to succeed in today's new business climate, yesterday's enthusiasm collapses into disappointment, cynicism and retreat.

An Enemy of Success–The Wrong Mindset

Not all employees take kindly to the need to learn new and different things despite their claims to the contrary.

Yes, they claim they want new opportunities but are unwilling or unprepared to internalize simple-to-understand mind liberating principles and practices that can be comprehended and sustained under the pressures, push and realities of today's new business climate.

Sometimes this can be classified as self-defeating behavior due to "mindset shutdowns." Jeremy Hunter of the Drucker School of Management calls this a “fixed mindset”:

"The fixed mindset does not learn. Instead, it seeks to support what it already knows. Furthermore, feelings of tension, threat and fear often accompany the fixed mindset… A stance of defense or attack is by nature stressful and makes productive interaction difficult…"

Some employees will blossom through this economic crisis. Others won't make it through the crisis. "Having learned to learn" is now perhaps the most important asset a professional, managerial & technical worker can offer.

All Development Boils Down to Self-Development

Given today's new business climate, we all have to learn new knowledges & among many other things, constantly improve our productivity through organized sharing of internal best practices to learn from the experiences of our peers.

New or enlarged assignments asks neither for heroism nor miracles from the appointee, certainly not theatrics. But it does ask for honest workmanship, committed effort, figuring out what to do and how to do it (assuming they've been given needed directions/methods), and, if required, continuous, purposeful innovation and creative imitation of competitor products/services that have proven successful.

Mindfulness training can go a long way in helping an individual charged with new responsibilities to shift their perceptions, that is, liberate themselves from self-defeating behavior and self-imposed boundaries.

It won't always work. Those with ingrained habits that prevent them from intelligently and diligently doing what's required, attending to the issues and details appropriate to his or her new job, doing even the little things in new and better ways, without the presumption of having to make rockets go off in the evening skies, might need more than just mindfulness training.

If the individual's strengths are not compatible with their new responsibilities, and if all that they can muster up is manufactured enthusiasm but inwardly refuse to self-learn, they will fail at their new assignment.

Digging Deeper Into New Assignments

Peter Drucker frequently used the following example: “When putting a man in as Division Commander during World War II, George Marshall always looked first at the nature of the assignment for the next 18 months or two years…

… To raise the division and train it is one assignment. To lead it into combat is quite another. To take command of a division that has been badly mauled and restore its morale and fighting strength is another assignment.”

It cannot be emphasized enough. Thinking through the assignment is not quite as simple as it seems. But if it is not done quickly and correctly, major promotions/new assignments turn out to be a disaster. And the usual blame game inevitably occurs.

Unfortunately, when opportunity knocks someone has to be home. Employees now given the equivalent of “battlefield commissions” have to change their mindsets, their work habits and be fully committed (not just involved) to succeed at their new assignment.

Drucker's Approach to Succeeding 

Drucker provided us with a memorable personal lesson relating to what is necessary to succeed in a new position.

Back in 1933, Drucker was working as a Securities Analyst in a large insurance company and then, a year later, joined a fast-growing private bank as the firm's Economist and Executive Secretary to the senior partners.

Initially, he worked exclusively with two of the younger partners, both in their mid-30s. Then, the oldest of the partners (a man in his 70s) called him into his office and said:

"… I understand you did very good securities analysis at the insurance company… But if we had wanted you to do securities analysis work, we would've left you where you were… You are now executive secretary to the partners, yet you continue to do securities analysis...What should you be doing now, to be effective in your new job? …"

Drucker relates, initially, how furious he was because he was being so highly praised by the other two partners. But, then, he realized the man was right.

From that experience, Drucker changed forever his behavior and his approach when confronted with a new assignment. Said Drucker:

“Since then, when I have a new assignment, I ask myself the question, ‘What do I need to do now that I have a new assignment, to be effective?’ Every time it's something different…

… Of the able people who are being promoted and put into a new assignment, not many become true successes. Quite a few are outright failures. A very much larger number are neither successes nor failures, they become mediocrities. A handful only are successes…

…Why should people who, for 10 or 15 years have been competent suddenly become incompetent? The reason in practically all cases I have seen is that people do what I did 70 years ago in that London bank… They continue in their new assignment to do what made them successful in the old assignment and what earned them the promotion….

…Then they turn incompetent, not because they have become incompetent but because they're doing the wrong things…”

The Accountable Knowledge Worker

Drucker repeatedly pointed out the necessity of making all knowledge workers (including, of course, knowledge workers with expanded job responsibilities or a new appointee) accountable for their performance.

Drucker considered it unacceptable for a knowledge worker assigned to a new task–or making their existing set of tasks more successful–to exempt themselves from accountability: "The assertion 'somebody else will not let me do anything' should always be suspected for a cover up for inertia…"

They may think no one notices. But they do.

Put differently, ideas are not good enough. Ideas are not deeds. Ideas are rarely converted into action unless the individual responsible has conviction, passion, required skills and the imagination to make it all happen.

Take-home message: In order to make the right things happen, you need people who are doers, not talkers.

Summary and Conclusions

Drucker's insights based on years of experience and disciplined observations are now needed more than ever before. 

Many people in the workforce have grown up in a period of relative economic stability and sustained prosperity. The turbulent times ahead make new job demands. Those not up to the challenges ahead will fall by the wayside.

Said Drucker: “Success in the new assignment does not require superior knowledge or superior talent but rather concentration on the things that the new assignment requires, the things that are crucial to the new challenge, the new job, the new task.”

Of course, it is essential that the individual has the appropriate knowledge, core competencies, skills and training to succeed. But individuals have to be responsible for their self-development. And it doesn't take long to develop the right set of skills if they know what the assignment requires.

Translated, this means the individual must be motivated and/or encouraged to acquire the depth of knowledge and skills required to carry-out the assignment. If they don't do these things or are not motivated to do such, sooner or later, it will be obvious to all.