Drucker Rules for the Ambitious


January 2018 | William A. Cohen, PhD, Major General, USAF, Ret.


It is one thing to be able to contribute to humankind in challenging work, but that ability is worthless if you can’t demonstrate it. Drucker would have said that it is a societal obligation to make it so. That is, for the maximum number of others to know about and to take advantage of your contributions. Drucker learned from his work with General Motors that he could contribute to organizations from his knowledge and methods of analysis. Yet he did not advance in academia in the usual fashion and his success with organizations as a consultant as an academic was not achieved in the ordinary way. Fortunately, the ideas and methodology he used were effective in reaching his reaching the pinnacle of his profession.

The Methodology Drucker Used to Achieve 
The usual steps recommended for an academic success and an eventual “Father of Modern Management” title would probably be first completion of a terminal degree in management, that is a doctorate; then acquisition of a “tenure track” position at a top research university. Drucker started by obtaining a PhD in law, not management.

In academia in the U.S., a “tenure track” position is one that leads to tenure at a university and is not a temporary or contract position. A tenured position is a contract of lifetime employment with the university from which the professor can only be terminated for a serious offense such as “moral turpitude” which covers sins from sexual harassment through first degree murder.  

Acquisition of tenure is the next step. The common model for the period of probation is six years until a “new” professor is recommended for and reviewed for tenure.  Of course, tenure may be on infrequent instances granted early. More often, it may be deferred indefinitely or deferred for an additional fixed period of trial before it is given. That’s a lot more common than getting early tenure or even attaining it on the first attempt when a professor is eligible.  The non-tenured professor may be given three chances at achieving tenure through an annual tenure and promotion board’s review. Frequently there are three levels of boards of review any one of which can veto the recommendation of a lower board. So, one starts with approval at the department level, proceeds to the School level (the school of business, for example). And if the candidate has been successful so far, it goes to the university level. A board usually cannot overturn the rejection of a lower board.  Finally, it goes to the President of the university, who makes the final decision, thumbs up or thumbs down. The primary determinant for tenure at top universities is important research published in peer reviewed research journals which have an established reputation as being of high quality, not books.

Drucker did not follow this usual, well-traveled path. He did complete a terminal degree at the University of Frankfurt in international law, but that was about it. He used his PhD and initial books such as The End of Economic Man to obtain a position teaching politics and philosophy at Bennington, then a small girls school lacking not only the typical multiple schools or colleges, each headed by a dean, but according to Drucker’s wife, Doris, any dean at all. “It was too small,” she told me. he became well-known as a business thinker and consultant when he capped his authorship at the time by writing Concept of the Corporation. He was able to negotiate a tenured full professorship of management at New York University, a highly respected university, not as prestigious as Harvard, but certainly enough to satisfy his ambitions at the time well enough. This was pretty good for a professor coming from a small girl’s school in a different discipline with few if any “research,” preferable quantitative, articles in academic journals.  He remained at New York University for 22 years, building a worldwide reputation and authoring a further ten books focused on management and business. Although he was one of the first business authors to recognize the difference between marketing and sales he may have written only one article for an academic research journal. This was on that topic and was a “think piece” for The Journal of Marketing. 

However, he wrote books and became one of the most prolific authors for the Harvard Business Review, which is not an academic research journal, writing article after article such that HBR has published many of his articles in book form by collecting them by topic on some of the hottest issues of the day. This was not a strategy usually taken by academics, but in Drucker’s case it was successful. Through HBR, and Wall Street Journal, for which he wrote a weekly column for twenty years, and his books he became the most well-known management professor in the world. These two media are read less by academics and are sometimes not even given the credit that they deserve by tenure and promotion committees at research universities, but these two publications are read extensively by practitioners. And that was important to him. 

Now well-known, Drucker left New York University to come to California and was awarded a tenured position as a full professor at Claremont Graduate University in a college eventually named for him. An examination of Drucker’s career to success yields his way to achievement as an academic.

Drucker’s Rules for the Way to the Top
Drucker followed several rules which included ideas from strategy, sales, and marketing.

  1. Hit’em Where They Ain’t
    Drucker called the first rule “Hit’em Where They Aint.”  Named for an old-time baseball player, “Wee Willie Keeler,” who made the Baseball Hall of Fame not by hitting home runs, but by his batting average which holds records even today, eighty years later.  His strategy was simple: hit the ball to parts of the field not well protected by opposing players either because the player was less skillful or had a habit of not fully covering a part of his assigned area on the baseball field. Every batter tried for fame by hitting the thrown pitch of a ball with his bat as hard as he could and trying for a home run. Wee Willie Keeler instead strived to hit the ball to areas of the outfield that were ill-protected. He “Hit’em Where They Ain’t.” It’s like the now famous, “Blue Ocean Strategy.” Go where the competition is not.
  2. Take the Lessons from one Industry and Apply Them to Another
    Drucker maintained that major advances in any field or in industry usually came from someone bringing it from another field or industry and he applied this principle. For example, in his book Management Challenges for the 21st Century he wrote “the management of people is a marketing job.” He did not mean only to incorporate the persuasion of a salesperson, he meant the whole of marketing including considerations of all marketing aspects that must be included in the management situation including marketing strategy and planning.
  3. Be Your Own CEO
    Drucker maintained that you need to be the one in charge of your career. This means that you look at the facts and do the analysis and you make and take responsibility for the decisions which you make. If you think that you need additional training or education, you don’t sit around waiting for someone else in your organization to make that decision to send you somewhere to get it. Take whatever action to get what you think necessary yourself. Don’t take actions or various jobs solely because others have been successful that way. Think it through and make your own decisions. Drucker frequently attempted the impossible and achieved the extraordinary as an outcome 
  4. Follow the Way of Innovation
    Make your plans to be a change leader and innovate as you proceed on your journey. You must innovate. It is essential for your progress and like an organization that does not innovate, no matter how successful that you are currently, you will ultimately fail if you do not.
  5. Apply the Concepts of Marketing and Sales to Your Career
    Drucker meant these should be applied as if coming from another industry. He devoted an entire course once to a subject that he called “Marketing Yourself to Your Boss.” He was serious about this. I still recall him saying that you first had to agree with your boss on what your job was and if possible to get it in writing, and then you were to discover how your boss preferred to communicate. Drucker said that all of us prefer to communicate in one of two ways: either in writing or verbally. He went on to say it was critically important to communicate with the boss in the way in which he or she preferred.  

He did not recommend participating in office politics and even avoided faculty meetings almost entirely for this reason. If you want to emulate Drucker and have an interest in reaching the very top, consider how you might apply these rules in your own career. They can be followed by anyone who has the ambition and willingness to go as far as the can in a profession. 

*Adapted from the forthcoming book: Peter Drucker’s Way to the Top by William A. Cohen (LID, 2018)


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William A. Cohen, PhD
Major General, USAF , Ret., President



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