Peter, Where Do Middle Managers Come From?

One of the things Peter Drucker and I discussed was the essence of the management job itself. He explained to me how the modern day manager was born. Big corporations were formed in the 1880’s in the U.S., Japan and U.K., all pretty much at the same time (France held on to family run organizations a little longer, Drucker told me).

Up until that point, the most capable member of each family business ran that business. Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), for instance, served as president of the diversified company from 1915-1919. Drucker called this small group of men “geniuses,” or “naturals”—men who had the ability to lead with no training or formal education in business or management. 

That got me wondering, how exactly did the modern corporation evolve, and how was middle management  formed? After all, if all we had were family members running the “family businesses,” then how did the middle manager come into being? The answer is, not very easily. That was because at DuPont, and other companies like it, only family members were permitted into the management ranks. Then how were middle managers formed? That’s when Drucker turned things around and asked me a question:

“What do you do with those able workers who were not family?”

That’s when the clouds cleared and the answer became clear: “You give them middle management jobs, right, I asked?

“Right,” said Drucker.

“Du Pont invented middle management jobs just to keep them.”

So it was pure pragmatism, I thought. The only reason big company, family CEOs granted individuals the title of middle manager was because they could not afford to lose the workers who were playing a pivotal role helping the trains to run on time. As those companies grew, where would they be if they lost their best workers? And Professor Drucker wasn’t finished. He explained to me that middle managers took a long time to develop in a meaningful way:

Middle management before World War II was very thin. Even the first companies I knew in this country still had first line supervisors reporting directly to top management. I am thinking of manufacturing companies…Remington, for instance, in Connecticut.”

I tried to digest what Drucker was telling me. What he was saying was that middle managers were a relatively late phenomenon, not really coming into their own until after World War II. That’s amazing, when you think about it. After all, I have been a middle manager for more than a quarter century. I had no idea that middle managers were really a phenomenon of the 1950’s and after. I don’t ever remember that lesson when I majored in business in the early 1980s. Chalk that up to one more Drucker lesson that is not taught in business schools or other universities. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find more than a passing mention of Drucker in any management textbook—either at the graduate level or the undergraduate levels. 

Tom Peters, lead author of In Search of Excellence, said that he was not asked to read a single Drucker book in his years at The Stanford Business School. Don’t get me started on why Drucker isn’t taught at the business schools—it was one of the driving reasons I wrote Inside Drucker’s Brain. So he wouldn’t be forgotten. However, Tom Peters also said that “no true discipline of management existed before Drucker.” He is not alone in regarding Peter Drucker as the key management pioneer of the 20th century. Other luminaries who hold Drucker in such high esteem include Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Noel Tichy and too many more to mention here.   

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