A Class With Drucker: The Lost Lessons of the World’s Greatest Management Teacher
William A. Cohen, PhD
258 pp; $24.95
In 1943, according to William A. Cohen, in A Class With Drucker: The Lost Lessons of the World’s Greatest Management Teacher, Peter Drucker was asked by some people at General Motors to do a study of the corporation’s management practices. Despite the fact that some of his academic colleagues recommended that he not do it—presumably because it meant that he’d be going out into the world where things tend to be messy, not orderly as in the academy—he went ahead with it. “Drucker completed the study,” Cohen relates. “From all accounts, his study was not well received by Drucker’s clients at General Motors. Nevertheless, it led to his ground-breaking book two years later in 1946, Concept of the Corporation.” And near as I can tell, the effects of those at GM who were not taken with Drucker’s assessment of the organization didn’t have a deleterious effect on Drucker’s career. While whether he was the “world’s greatest management teacher” may be debatable, what isn’t debatable is the fact that it is the sort of claim that can be made about Drucker without immediate dismissal. Given that he wrote nearly 40 books—some of them seminal in the annals of business analysis—and given that his career lasted some 60 years after that engagement with GM, his mark on management practices, ideas, and concepts is certainly indelible.
Drucker was a teacher. He taught at New York University. He taught at Claremont Graduate University. William Cohen was one of his students at the latter. Cohen writes that Drucker was his professor “in probably the first executive PhD program in management in academic history.” And as an adult student with a military and a business background, Cohen probably took what Drucker taught both seriously and with a grain of salt, which Drucker undoubtedly encouraged: According to Cohen, Drucker stated, “What everybody ‘knows’ is frequently wrong,” and Cohen explicates, “Accepting what everybody knows without any examination will often result in faulty decisions.” Accepting what professors tell you without thinking about it isn’t useful, either.
This book contains expanded and enhanced notes and recollections from Cohen’s time as a student in Drucker’s class. He follows the course materials, materials, of course, which Drucker encompassed in his many books. Not only are there multitudinous quotes from the professor himself—“In the longer term, unless you have thought ahead to create your own future, any organization which continues to do what brought it success in the past will eventually fail. Moreover, when a significant change occurs, unless management is willing to quickly readjust to the new situation in which it finds itself and instead tries to optimize the old model, it will fail even faster”—but Cohen’s thoughtful comments on what he learned from what Drucker taught: “Peter made it very clear that the process of creating your future, anybody’s future, begins with your goals and objectives. These need to be crystal-clear. Then you need to determine the actions that must be taken today to achieve these objectives in the future.” Otherwise, you may not have a future. At least not one that you’d find to be appealing.
We’ve all had classes. Unfortunately for many of us, we haven’t had professors like Peter Drucker. While there is certainly no substitute for the real thing—alas, Drucker died in 2005—the teachings contained in this book are genuinely valuable.—GSV