Summary by James R. Martin, Ph.D., CMA
Professor Emeritus, University of South Florida
The purpose of this article is to provide some advice to today's knowledge workers who will need to know themselves, their strengths, weaknesses, how they learn, how they work with others, their values, and where they belong. It was originally published in 1999 and reprinted in the Best of HBR section in January 2005.
What are my strengths?
Before you can manage yourself you need to determine your strengths. Drucker recommends "feedback analysis" as the only way to discover your strengths. The idea is to write down what you expect to happen when you make a decision and then, a year or so later, to compare the results with your expectations. Follow this simple method consistently and within two or three years you will discover where your strengths lie.
After you have discovered your strengths, concentrate on them by placing yourself where your strengths can produce results. Then, work to improve your strengths by improving your skills and developing new complementary ones. Finally, discover where your intellectual arrogance produces a constraint to your performance and overcome it. Being bright is not a substitute for knowledge. Acquire the knowledge needed to fully realize your strengths and eliminate your bad habits, e.g., lack of social skills, manners, etc., but do not waste time trying to improve in areas where you have no skills. Improving from incompetence to mediocrity in your weak areas is not recommended.
How do I perform?
It is important to understand that different people work and perform in many different ways, i.e., how one performs is unique. Therefore you need to determine how you best perform. To do this the first thing to know is whether you are a reader, or a listener. A couple of examples are used to emphasize the point. Eisenhower apparently did not know he was a reader and as a result did not perform well in press conferences as President. He never listened to the questions from the press and would ramble on about some unrelated issue. Johnson on the other hand was a listener, but kept Kennedy's staff who prepared detailed memos for JFK who was a reader. Neither Eisenhower nor Johnson performed well in press conferences because they were attempting to perform in a way that did not fit their personal style.
How do I Learn?
The second thing you must determine is how you learn. An underlying assumption of the education system seems to be that there is only one right way to learn for everybody. Of course some people learn by reading or listening. But there are perhaps a dozen different ways to learn. Some people learn best by writing. Others are good note takers. Still others learn by doing, or just talking. Once you determine how you learn best, acting on that knowledge is the key to performance.
To manage yourself effectively you must also know whether you work best as a loner, a team member, as a subordinate, an advisor, or a decision maker. Are you an effective coach or mentor? Do you perform under pressure or do you need a highly structured environment? Do you fit best in a large or a small organization? Once you determine how you perform and how you learn, work hard to improve, but do not try to change yourself, or to accept work that you cannot perform or tend to perform poorly.
What are My Values?
Ethics is part of everybody's value system, but a person's ethical value system is not the issue addressed in this section. In terms of ethics, the rules and the test are the same for every one. Drucker calls it the "mirror test". You simply ask yourself what kind of person you want to see in the mirror? Then use your answer, along with the rules as a guide to your ethical behavior.
Ethics are important or course, but the main point in this section relates to whether your values are compatible with your organization's values. How does the organization view people? Does the organization place more emphasis on the short run or the long run? In terms of growth, does the organization emphasize quantity or quality? For example, does a church emphasize the number of new members, or the spiritual growth level of its new members, i.e., do they have to be converts before accepting them as parishioners? Another key is to recognize that your strengths and the way you perform may conflict with your values. In this case, your values should be the ultimate test.
Where Do I Belong?
After determining how you perform, along with your strengths and values, you should determine where you belong, or at least where you do not belong. If you perform best in a small organization, don't accept a job in a large company. If you are not a decision maker, don't accept a position where decisions are required. To become an outstanding performer you should only accept assignments that fit with your strengths, values, and the way you work.
What Should I Contribute?
To manage oneself, today's knowledge workers need to ask what should my contribution be in relation to what needs to be done? Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference? It should involve a stretch goal, but not an impossible goal, where the results will be meaningful, visible, and if possible measurable.
Responsibility for Relationships
Managing yourself effectively requires knowing the strengths, performance methods, and values of your coworkers, including your boss. It also includes communication with coworkers, i.e., subordinates, superiors, colleagues, and team members so that everyone knows what and how everyone else is contributing. This builds trust and cooperation between people who understand each other, and who depend on each other, and it is a necessity, and a duty.
The Second half of Your Life
Although most people may "retire on the job", those who manage themselves are more likely to begin a second career. Drucker discusses three ways to go about changing to a new career. First, you can actually start a second career by moving from one type of organization to another. Second, you can develop a parallel career such as working in a nonprofit organization on a part time basis. Finally, you can start a nonprofit organization, or as Drucker puts it become a social entrepreneur. A prerequisite for successfully managing the second half of your life is to start before you enter it. Today's uncertain environment makes it more important to find a second area where you can become a leader, be respected, and be a success. Knowledge workers outlive organizations, are mobile, are managing themselves, and are profoundly changing the social structure. Manage yourself and become a part of this revolution in human affairs.
Kamenetz, A. 2009. Who needs Harvard? Free online courses, Wiki universities, Facebook-style tutoring networks - American higher education is being transformed by a cadre of web-savvy edupunks. Fast Company (September): 84-89. (Summary).
Kaplan, R. S. 2008. Managing yourself: Reaching your potential. Harvard Business Review (July-August): 45-49. (Summary).
Martin, J. R. Not dated. Accounting Certifications. Management And Accounting Web. http://maaw.info/AccountingCertifications.htm
Martin, J. R. Not dated. Accounting Job Boards. Management And Accounting Web. http://maaw.info/AccountingJobBoards.htm
Martin, J. R. Not dated. Notes to those considering an Accounting Ph.D. Management And Accounting Web. http://maaw.info/ArticleSummaries/NotesforAccountingPhDStudents.htm
Martin, J. R. Not dated. Training programs for accounting graduates. Management And Accounting Web. http://maaw.info/TrainingPrograms.htm
Pappano, L. 2011. The master's as the new bachelor's: Call it credentials inflation. A four-year degree may not cut it anymore. The New York Times Education Life (July 24): 16-18. (Summary).
Roberts, L. M., G. Spreitzer, J. Dutton, R. Quinn, E. Heaphy and B. Barker. 2005. How to play to your strengths. Harvard Business Review (January): 74-80. ("You may have more to gain by developing your gifts and leveraging your natural skills than by trying to repair your weaknesses. Here is a systematic way to discover who you are at your very best." When using the Reflected Best Self exercise, you seek only positive feedback.). (Summary).
Schoemaker, P. J. H., S. Krupp and S. Howland. 2013. Strategic leadership: The essential skills. Harvard Business Review (January/February): 131-134. (Self Test on Strategic Leadership).
Simon, C. C. 2011. R.O.I.: Is graduate school worth the investment? The New York Times Education Life (July 24): 18-19. (Summary).
Wademan, D. 2005. The best advice I ever got. Harvard Business Review (January): 35-44. (Summary).