What Peter Drucker Told Me Not to Do


For people starting out in their careers or contemplating a mid-career change, an honest conversation with a mentor can make a big difference. Mentoring seems to have gone out of fashion in a tech-driven world where nearly instantaneous feedback from wide networks of “friends’ seems to have taken the place of confidential conversation with older people. But reflecting on my own career, I can say with certainty that mentors made a huge difference. And I was lucky enough to have three of them, at different stages of my career. I am grateful to them for helping me navigate in a changing world.

Graduate School

As an undergraduate at Reed College in the late 1960’s, I became interested in social science research, specifically how institutions selected out types of people by their personalities and interests. While my academic work focused on classics and psychology, a research project on Reed’s brutal attrition rate (only a little more than a third of people who entered Reed as freshmen graduated in four years) that sought out the selection factors that predicted “success”, at least surviving the four years of a very intense undergraduate experience.

This work brought me in contact with Professor David Riesman at Harvard, whose 1954 book “The Lonely Crowd” made him a leading public intellectual and social critic (and landed him on the cover of Time). “Lonely Crowd” decried the erosion of individualism and the rise of the “other directed” personality in America. This work eerily presaged (by a mere fifty years) today’s obsessive internet-driven hunger for the approval of strangers. Reisman, who was then in his early 60’s, had come to Harvard, and had become a leading sociologist of higher education. I sent him my Reed research to see what he thought, and the correspondence led to a friendship that stretched over the next thirty years.

In looking at grad schools, I applied to four- Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford’s Grad School of Business and the University of Chicago. Reisman was happy to recommend me to his colleagues, but strongly counselled me to stay away from Harvard, whose Department of Social Relations was mired in 1960’s politics, and where the “revolution” looks liked it was winning. (It did). Berkeley was in near-martial law with street riots, so it wasn’t hard to stay away from there. I ended up at the more conservative University of Chicago, with its strong interdisciplinary tradition, and had a marvelous educational experience, which David was kind enough to take an interest in.

Academic Medicine

After grad school, I was hired into the Illinois Governor’s Office as a research and policy analyst.My Governor, Dan Walker, was one of the short list of ambitious Democratic Governors (Jerry Brown and Jimmy Carter were the others) who could be President and I wanted to work in a Democratic White House. My nearly three years in Springfield was exciting, stormy and, sadly, mentor free. By early 1975, I was looking for the exits, convinced that I lacked the personal qualities of a good White House aide. During my short tenure in Springfield, I intervened in the budget process and helped saved a psychiatric research institute from the knife, and in doing so, inadvertently befriended the Chairman of Psychiatry at the University of Chicago, Daniel X Freedman. Dr. Freedman was one of the godfathers of biological psychiatry, the search for the molecular and biochemical roots of mental illness, and also an influential national drug abuse policy advisor.

Dr Freedman was kind enough to put my short resume on the desk of the incoming head of the University of Chicago Medical Center, Daniel Tosteson, who had been hired to turn around the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine. He was also, with not a shred of clinical care management experience, the owner of a deeply troubled 700 bed academic health center. I was his first hire, as a Special Assistant. My two assignments were to help him recruit and organize a young management team (the key members of whom were in their mid 30’s) and to solve our Medicaid funding problem (32% of our patient population). Tosteson was brilliant, ambitious, and travelled roughly half the time. He fell out with the University’s President and left to be the Dean at Harvard Medical School after less than two years. I stayed on to help his successor, Dr. Robert Uretz and the rest of Tosteson’s team struggle with declining research and clinical care funding.

Danny Freedman was vital to teaching me the basics of navigating in the highly political world of academic medicine, in which he was something of a ninja. His key contribution, however, was discouraging me from pursuing a career in healthcare or academic administration. He believed I was a great analyst, but lacked the personality and people skills to run a large organization. I began writing about the changing healthcare landscape for the Harvard Business Review and other publications. Those writings led to a book in 1981 called “Can Hospitals Survive.” Shortly after that, I left the University to pursue a career what has turned into a 37 year career in management consulting.

The Corporate World

In the early 1990’s, I had a chance to hear Peter Drucker, then in his mid 80’s, one of the great management thinkers of the 20th Century. Unlike his metrics-driven rival Edwards Deming, Drucker was an advocate of a customer-centric view of management. He famously wrote that “the purpose of a business is to create a customer”. I had a chance to hear Drucker address a health technology forum in Palm Springs. He spent nearly three hours telling stories about successful management strategies to an awed audience. It was like watching Nolan Ryan throwing 95 mile an hour fast balls under the chins of opposing batters.

I went up afterwards, introduced myself and thanked him for the influence his writing had on my career, which was major. To my utter amazement, he said, “I’ve been reading your writing for a decade. Why don’t you come to Claremont the next time you are out west and visit?” Drucker was keenly interested in the turmoil in the healthcare marketplace, particularly the growth of non-hospital services and the rise of managed care. We began a conversation, both in person and in letters, that lasted for the rest of his life (he died in 2006). Sometimes I brought family members with me (my daughter Amy met him twice), and he and his wife Doris were always gracious hosts. Drucker’s stories were riveting- meeting Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka in his Aunt Trudie’s salon in Vienna, advising Alfred Sloan at General Motors, and battling Deming for the hearts and minds of post-War Japanese managers.

I was in the process of burning out during our early visits- struggling with an ambulatory care development firm I helped start in Denver, traveling 20 thousand miles of month consulting and lecturing and trying to be a father to a new daughter. Drucker counselled me strongly not to “retire”, but rather to shed responsibilities and focus more energy on my writing. I asked him once why he never served on the corporate boards he advised for sixty years. He had a priceless answer: “ Because I would be sitting there drumming my fingers on the table!” He lacked the patience with corporate “process” and was increasingly uncomfortable with the soaring executive compensation that separating the C-suite from the workers in the companies he advised. He counselled me to stay away from the Boardroom, and it has turned out to be excellent advice. My limited Board experiences, both for-profit and non-profit, have been exercises in deep frustration.

So Why Have a Mentor?

My experiences with these three remarkable people made a big difference in my career and life. I am grateful for each of these relationships and miss all three of them. But their influence wasn’t what I expected it to be. None of them were all that helpful in answering the question: what should I be doing with my life and career? None of them ever remotely said: “You should be doing ‘X’”. Their influence, rather, was in helping me decide what NOT to do. That is a subtle difference and, in a sense, a somewhat easier task. Because they were older and wiser than I was, the conversations with them had a calming influence on me. And as they came to know me, they had a much better idea of my skills and potential. By listening to me and by urging that I eliminate potential roles for which I did not fully appreciate I was not actually suited, each helped me navigate a welter of potential choices. Finding a mentor can really helpful in managing career uncertainty.

Jeff Goldsmith is an author and futurist. He is President of Health Futures Inc.

3 thoughts on “What Peter Drucker Told Me Not to Do

  1. Wow. I so disagree that mentoring has gone out of style. I am the “woman entrepreneur” mentor for my Phoenix community, and if I didn’t have a full time job at a tech startup (at age 78, which is why people want to be mentored by me) I could do it all day long. I think if you have something to contribute, the “right” people want to hear it. And as for myself, one of my mentors is still with us at age 88 and I ask for his coaching regularly.

    1. Jeff, thank you for this. I also believe that process of elimination is a great, if lengthy, way of finding a rewarding calling.

      I do wonder, however, if you feel the traditional mentor-mentee model stratifies privilege. A benefit of ‘wide’ peer networks is that it diversifies sources of information and offers connections to those that come from non-traditional backgrounds. Isn’t this something to be encouraged?

      1. You are right about privilege. There is a definite maldistribution of opportunity to have relationships like the ones I was fortunate to have. The problem with peer networks is that they are thin, and lack the intergenerational transmission lines essential to learning.
        You can learn a lot from colleagues. But learning from older folks is how you acquire both cultural depth and perspective on the field you work in. How to find them and foster those relationships is the hard part.

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