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The Uber Mentor

If you needed life-changing advice and could make only one phone call, who would be on the other end? For some, the answer is Peter Drucker.
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There are personal mentors -- the peer in your networking group, your old partner, your dad. And then there is Peter F. Drucker.

The 92-year-old author is far more than the grand master of management theory. For a fortunate, surprisingly large club, he has been the single most lucid, eloquent, and encouraging force in their lives. Consider Peter Drucker the North Star of mentors. The rest are only streetlights.

Drucker, however, would probably prefer to be likened to that functional floodlight than to anything remotely celestial. According to his friends, the erudite scholar is almost shockingly down-to-earth.

Drucker's generosity of spirit and his accessibility have surprised the raft of executives who have sought his counsel over the years. Bob Buford, a philanthropist and author living in Dallas, tells a story about how, at Drucker's 80th birthday party, a line of people went to the podium to talk about their relationship with him. "All of us had the same story," Buford says. "We all had wanted to talk to Peter because we knew he was the wisest man alive. And we were all scared to death to talk to him because he's this figure on Mount Rushmore. So all of us plotted, planned, and found an excuse to talk to him, and all of us found him incredibly accessible, incredibly gracious as a human being, and very focused and responsive to our issues."

What is it, exactly, that makes Peter Drucker such an effective mentor? He himself won't say. "I never talk about [the people I advise], let alone about my relationship with them," he told us. "You have to talk to them."

And so we did. Here are three of their stories. Contained in them are clues about how an expert mentor operates -- and how to get the most from a mentor when you find one.


John Bachmann

In the late 1970s, when John Bachmann was a general partner at securities firm Edward Jones, he and managing partner Edward D. "Ted" Jones Jr. became Drucker devotees. Over the course of a year they discussed each chapter of his magnum opus Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices and then began attending his speeches. In 1980, Bachmann visited David Jones, the head of Humana, the Louisville health-care company. Listening to Jones, Bachmann recognized the great man's influence. "I said to him, 'You've read Drucker," Bachmann recalls. "And Jones says, with a stage pause, 'We go see him."

Bachmann asked Jones the secret to getting to see Drucker and subsequently spent a month crafting a half-page letter to him. When Drucker received it, he called Bachmann and said, "I'm not taking new clients, but I'm intrigued with what you're doing." Bachmann spent four more weeks writing another letter. He wanted help in figuring out how to build the company to thrive in what he perceived would be a vastly more complicated future. After receiving Bachmann's second plea, Drucker said, "Come see me." That was the beginning of a two-decade-long relationship.

Bachmann credits Drucker with being the "set of instructions" that enabled him and Ted Jones to grow the company from a $19-million business with 750 employees to what it is today -- a $2.1-billion company with 25,000 employees. He also credits Drucker with helping them create a great place to work. "Peter understands as well as anyone that success in an organization needn't ever come at the sacrifice of humaneness," he says. "Peter has warned us that there are jobs that are man killers. He's warned us against creating positions that are destined for failure."

What's it like to talk to Drucker? He draws on a rich well of knowledge and peppers his conversation with analogy, says Bachmann. "He is in no way bound by the language and disciplines of business. When he talks about an issue, he very well could be talking about CÉsar Franck or Franz Liszt using musical examples, then he skips to Japanese art, and then Egyptian art, and draws that together with some example of the Catholic Church and the formation of education."

On a personal level, Bachmann says, Drucker helped him become more patient and to "have faith in people I might otherwise have been critical of. He has an extraordinary faith in people -- he's quick to see the strength. One of the great lessons of Peter is to build on people's strengths so that you make their weaknesses irrelevant."

Drucker became upset with the Edward Jones team once. "We had been involved in an underwriting that had stubbed its toe badly, and we were very down on ourselves, feeling sorry for ourselves," Bachmann says. "And he gave us the strongest scolding he'd ever given us. He said: 'What makes you think you're exempt from the normal bumps and bruises of life? Are you supposed to go through life without having anything go wrong? The question isn't, Do you make mistakes? It's, Do you learn from them?"


Nan Stone

Nan Stone got to know Drucker in 1985, when, as a member of the Harvard Business Review editing staff, she was assigned to be his editor. Although he hates being rewritten, she says, "he quite likes being edited." Eventually, he invited Stone to visit him at his home in Claremont, Calif., which she did on several occasions. They developed a friendship -- a relationship that in general was far less formal than the one he has with many.

Drucker impressed upon Stone his principle of recognizing and building on people's strengths; he affirmed that she was, indeed, a good editor. He also helped her keep her personal priorities straight as she negotiated the difficult transition to the role of HBR's editor-in-chief. He did that subtly, mostly by unfailingly asking her about her husband and daughter. "Things weren't off limits," Stone says. "Peter takes you as a whole person and in that sense encourages you to be a whole person. Given that the pressures of modern life can often play in a different direction, that was important for me." She could have succumbed to the pressure to work all the time and thus ignore her daughter. Instead, she made time for her daughter -- and consciously tried to make the HBR editorial offices into a place where people had time for their private lives.

Stone, who today is a partner at the Bridgespan Group in Boston, tries to model her own mentoring style after Drucker's. "I've learned to listen to someone else and to ask them questions that help them clarify their strengths, what their interests are -- and encourage them to build on those."

Finally, Stone says: "For me the most important lesson that Peter has ever taught me is that yeah, you're important -- but the world is important, and what are you going to do for it? It's a dialogue between you and your strengths and a world that needs them."


Bob Buford

Bob Buford ran a multimillion-dollar cable-television company, which he sold in 1999, and was the founding chairman of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management. Today he has a family foundation; he leads an organization that applies management talent to "megachurches" in the United States; he has written three books; and he runs Halftime.org, which provides seminars to people in midlife looking to shift "from success to significance," he says.

When Buford initially called on Drucker, in the early 1980s, his ostensible goal was help with business issues. But that was something of a ruse, he admits. What he really wanted help on was what he should do with the rest of his life.

He got rather more than he bargained for. Drucker's secret to great mentoring, says Buford, is that he "has the most comprehensive, 50,000-foot view of how the world works, on one extreme. On the other extreme, he's incredibly personal in his mentoring. He joins those two points of view. He describes himself as a social ecologist, and as such, he's always thinking about how things fit together."

Buford needed both perspectives. In January 1987, when he was 47, his only child, a 24-year-old son, drowned. Later that year, Buford himself narrowly escaped dying. He was supposed to take a trip in a small private plane but didn't go. The plane crashed, and four of his friends died. "After all of that, I went to see Peter," he says. Understandably, Buford was feeling vulnerable and scared. According to him, Drucker said, "I know you are feeling a heightened sense of your own mortality right now, but the fact is, you have 25 years or more of your life yet to be lived, and they will be the best 25 years of your life." Says Buford, "He essentially said, 'Put your feet on the ground and get about your work,' and that's what I did."

Later, Drucker helped Buford put his own midlife questioning into a larger context. Drucker sketched out "what the social landscape looked like," says Buford. "The big demographic factor in the developed world has been the baby boom. Everyone's entering midlife, and they all don't have a clue what to do -- they're all utterly unprepared. He told me that he felt I'd done a good job in that area. A lot of that was taking his advice. I felt I had a responsibility to write a lot of that down." Drucker encouraged him in his writing, and the result was Buford's 1995 best-seller Halftime. "Peter's great gift to me is to say 'You can do it.' Here's this utterly Olympian figure telling little me that I can do it."


Much of Drucker's advice sounds simple. How hard can it be to become an Ă"ber mentor, Ă la Drucker? It's impossible, says Buford: "There will never be another Peter Drucker."

Still, mentors and those being mentored can learn from his techniques, which include:

He listens carefully and asks a lot of questions.

He brings a wealth of knowledge to bear in conversations with his advisees. He's a Renaissance man who is incredibly well-read, draws upon an enormous breadth of experience, and has an astonishing memory.

He encourages people and helps them believe in themselves. A Drucker truism: a good mentor or manager builds on people's strengths and helps them make their weaknesses irrelevant.

He teaches people how to use their strengths so that they can fulfill their responsibility to contribute to a world that needs them. He both defines the landscape and identifies what Buford calls "the void" in that landscape -- what is needed now.

Finally, he works only with those people who take his counsel seriously and act on it. As he wrote to us, "One 'secret' of my work is that ... I cannot work with more than a very small number of clients at any one time, though once the relationship is established, it tends to last for a long time -- some for 30 years. So I have the luxury to work only with people where both they and I feel that I can make a very major contribution."

As, indeed, he has.


Elaine Appleton Grant is a senior editor at Inc. Staff writer Jill Hecht Maxwell contributed to this report.


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