The Phone Call that Launched a Discipline

In the last posting I discussed how important it is to grab an opportunity when one presents itself. Peter Drucker described to me how he seized on something that not only changed his future—but altered the future of an entire body of discipline.

It was the winter of 1942, almost 60 years to the day that I sat with him in his sitting room. Drucker received the call that would forever change his future.  He told me that he was living up in Vermont but then had rented an apartment near Colombia. He was intensely interested in learning how large organizations were run. He went to the library, “but there was nothing,” he told me, sounding disappointed (interesting aside: before Drucker, the word organization was not yet used to describe corporations). Then, that winter, a call came from a man named Paul Garrett. Mr. Garrett explained that he was General Motors’ Vice President in charge of public relations, and he had been asked to invite Drucker in to make a study of GM’s top management.       

One of the most remarkable things about the episode was that Drucker never found out who’s idea [at GM] it was to call him: “I never have been able to find out who wanted this—everybody denies it,” Drucker told me, obviously amused.  

It certainly wasn’t the CEO’s idea. Back then, the CEO of General Motors was the legendary Alfred Sloan, the man Drucker would later credit with being the first “professional manager” (along with Pierre S. Du Pont). Sloan made it clear to Drucker that he was against the idea of bringing him [Drucker] in to GM. 

Drucker visited GM and toured the facilities before sitting down with the Vice Chairman of the company, Donaldsen Brown.  Drucker told the vice chairman that he cannot do this—he cannot study GM management because everyone will see him as a a “top management spy.” However, Drucker explained that he could do it under one condition: “in this united country,” asserted Drucker, “you can do anything if you say you are writing a book.” 

Brown said “no, we will not have it.”

That was it. It was a stalemate. There would be no study of GM. Drucker returned home, disappointed that he would not be able to study a large corporation. Come back Friday to get the rest of the story.

HINT: It could not possibly end there…we still have a discipline to launch!  








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