What Google and Office Space’s Initech Could Have—Should Have—Learned from Drucker

Any time I hear a startup boasting of a work atmosphere being “laid-back,” “playful” or “innovative,” I hope for the employees’ sake that their “cutting-edge” leader has read some literature of Peter Drucker, the 20th Century’s management guru who died 10 years ago today at the age of 95.

Drucker laid down his observations and theories with a seminal book on the inner-workings of General Motors in 1946 and went on to publish more than three-dozen books on the discipline of management, a field that too many people in business ignore. And to their peril.

Take a slap-your-forehead example from Google in 2002. Though I applaud its founders for experimenting with different management approaches, they eliminated all managers. What ensued was hundreds of people going to Larry Page for questions and complaints, severely limiting his time.

Not only does this example go against Drucker’s principles, it violates the oldest lesson on management, which is to delegate most decision-making to mid-managers (see Exodus 18:13-26). Google’s months of misery before re-installing managers could have been avoided by learning some old-school advice that still holds up, no matter the industry or technology.

To Google’s credit, the corporation dramatically improved and invested heavily in the study of management by hiring Ph.D.s to examine its processes (see the excellent 2015 book “Work Rules!” by Laszio Bock, Google’s director of people operations). Their results confirm—and even more sharply define and build upon—Drucker’s published works.

Startups, established brands and managers can likewise forego unnecessary misery by knowing Drucker’s key management principles, many of which are drawn from core management lessons from centuries ago.

To start, I suggest the 2001 compilation, “The Essential Drucker,” which includes excerpts from his books starting in 1954 through 1999. Another great selection is “The Effective Executive.” Both of these titles made it onto the Personal MBA reading list.

Drucker, who influenced leaders from Winston Churchill to Bill Gates, was a native of Austria and moved to Germany at age 17. In 1933 he fled the Nazi rise to power and later emigrated with his wife to the Untied States in 1937.

He set about studying the problem of authority, intrigued by what he had fled in Europe. His early articles gained him unprecedented access inside General Motors, where he was allowed to attend board meetings and examine operations for two years. His study resulted in the 1946 book, “Concept of the Corporation,” which called for decentralization instead a command-and-control approach. The book positioned him as an expert in the fledgling field of management.

Drucker went on to teach for more than 20 years at the Stern School of Business at New York University and later at California’s Claremont Graduate School, which named the school of management after him in 1987.

In addition to his books, Drucker wrote numerous articles and papers, as well as a monthly op-ed in The Wall Street Journal from 1975 to 1995.

Among his descriptions of managers, the role was to lead, he said—not necessarily to manage people. “The manager is a servant,” he wrote in 1974.

In 1999 he panned free-for-all management, saying, “One hears a great deal today about ‘the end of hierarchy.’ This is blatant nonsense. In any institution there has to be a final authority, that is, a ‘boss’….”

That same year, when the cult hit movie “Office Space” debuted with a character who has eight bosses, Drucker wrote: “It is a sound principle that one person in an organization should have only one ‘master.’ There is wisdom to the old proverb of the Roman law that a slave who has three masters is a free man.”

Drucker was awarded the U.S. President Medal of Freedom in 2002. In 2004 the Harvard Business Review gave Drucker his seventh McKinsey Award—the most to any person.

Make sure you know the basics of leading people. A lot of the latest business literature is good and speaks to updated tactics, but there is little new under the sun. If you pick up a book on management, change, innovation or impact, the core subject will likely already have been covered by Drucker.

Today, honor Drucker—and more importantly, your employees—by benefiting from some of his books to mark a decade since his passing. His wisdom lives on.

—Ansel Oliver is a manager for special projects at SnappConner PR. Photo courtesy of The Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University.