I received the most significant business advice of my life more than 30 years ago and it continues to inform my approach to strategy, business, and content creation to this day.
When I moved to Los Angeles many years ago, I desperately wanted to attend the MBA program at Claremont Graduate University for one reason — Peter Drucker taught there (in fact, the school was named for him). If you’ve never heard of Peter Drucker, discovering his books and articles might be the most important thing you can do for your career!
I applied for entry to the college but was told I was too young to be accepted to this prestigious program. I would not quit that easily, however, and went through an appeal process, arguing that they needed my youth (27 at the time) to add to the diversity of the program! Incredibly, I was admitted! Perhaps my tenacity amused them.
Peter Drucker was one of a handful of people I have known who could distill vast complexity into simple wisdom. The scope of his knowledge and business advice was breathtaking. He would sit on the edge of his desk and lecture for three hours straight without a break, and without notes. He generally lectured about one of his books. My favorite was Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a remarkable book that still holds up today.
My best business advice
Professor Drucker taught via the Harvard case study method. We would be assigned to read a long, detailed, real-life business case and then dissect it in class to discover the true nature of how the business worked.
The students in this class were high-flyers — the brightest senior business executives in the Los Angeles region — and they were always trying to “solve” the business case. Nothing made Professor Drucker angrier than that! “What makes you think you’re smarter than the people in the case?” he would ask, “Smarter than people who have worked in their industry for decades? How can you be that arrogant?
“Your job as a business leader is not to provide the right answers. It is to provide the right questions.”
Over and over, he would pound this truth into our heads until it became part of our DNA. And he was so right … so profoundly right. There is not a week that goes by that I don’t think of some lesson from Professor Drucker, but this was the most important of all.
Teasing out the answers
Even today, I approach my consulting assignments like solving a case study puzzle. Of course I’m not going to have all the solutions to these complicated problems. I consult in pharma, high tech, banking, and CPG to name a few industries. And I’m good at what I do, not because I’m an expert in those fields but because I am humble and tap the wisdom of my customers. The solutions are always there for me to discover.
Think of the power of leading people to the most effective solution, not by pontificating and telling them what to do, but by distilling the issue down to the essential question and letting them discover the answer themselves.
Adopting a strategy of professional humility is anathema to our modern Western culture. We may associate humility with weakness, when in fact it can be our greatest strength.
Like most young people starting out in business, I felt a need to know all the answers, especially when I was promoted to a leadership position. But from Professor Drucker I learned that being vulnerable, involving others in the process, coming up with a better solution together, sharing the weight of decisions – those are all benefits of humility. Being deeply human, instead of trying to wear the Superman cape of traditional leadership, is powerful and liberating.
Asking questions instead of providing answers has been important to my career in three ways:
- As a business leader, it helps me tap into the power of a team of true experts to find the best answers. The world is changing so fast, I can’t possibly keep up with everything. And I don’t have to if I know the right questions to ask.
- As a consultant, this approach allows me to apply my skills to a broad scope of industries – from high tech to meat processors. I don’t need to be an expert in every business. I just need to ask the right questions that leads to the answers!
- As a content creator, I follow my curiosity and pose questions to a global audience. Getting smart responses from my readers has helped me create better classes, speeches, and books. Essentially, I am crowd-sourcing wisdom.
Asking the right questions instead of having the right answers is so simple, but like most of Peter Drucker’s wisdom, it distills a complex world to its elegant essence.
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