Opportunity Favors the Prepared Mind

When we last left off, General Motors and Peter Drucker had parted ways. Drucker wanted desperately to study the inner workings of a large corporation like GM, but he said he could not do it if he was going to be seen as a “company spy.” By letting GM managers and employees know he was writing a book, he reasoned, everyone would know why he was there and would be more open and cooperative.    

Six weeks after Drucker returned home—after the situation had fallen apart—he received another call from General Motors. They invited him back to Detroit and told Drucker that they had changed their minds. They would allow Drucker to write a book based on his study of the company. Drucker said that he would “not allow them to censor it except for actual facts.” He spent the next 18 months studying every corner of the large car company, visiting every GM division east of the Rockies.

Meanwhile Alfred Sloan made it clear to Drucker that he was against the idea of bringing him [Drucker] in, but as long as he was there, he was to be completely honest in his assessment of GM’s managers, and him [Sloan] in particular. This emperor was adament: he wanted to be told when he was wearing no clothes. In time Drucker came to regard Sloan as a leader with unbridled character—as well as one of the most effective CEOs of his day—or any day. Sloan taught Drucker many things that stayed with him. For example, Sloan taught Drucker that when all members of a management team quickly come to agreement on one course of action—that course of action is usually wrong! Meaning: management teams must take their time on important decisions, particularly people decisions.     

As Drucker told me his personal story (I interviewed him three days before Christmas in 2003), he repeated several riffs again and again. He told me that he “didn’t know anything about business from the inside,” since he never managed anything. He also said that he got into management “totally by accident.” Drucker went so far as to pronounce himself “the world’s worst manager.”

A bit of history: early on, Drucker had written two successful books (including The End of Economic Man, 1939), which is how General Motors top management learned of Drucker in the first place. Had General Motors not called Drucker that day in 1942, Drucker may never have become…well, Drucker! The first business book, Concept of the Corporation (1946), came out as a direct result of his study of GM. Drucker established the field of management as a social discipline, a major accomplishment in post-World War II America.

When I asked Drucker how he was able to accomplish so much if it all came down to “luck” or “accident,” all of a sudden he got deadly serious and shot back with the following:

“Don’t call it accident. Opportunity favors the prepared mind. If opportunity knocks at the door you have to open it. You have to be receptive to it and I was.” 

 

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