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How to Be an Employee by Peter F Drucker
All the passages below are taken from Peter F Drucker’s book, “People and Performance”, published in 1977.
A Society of Employees Where There Is No Information on How to Be an Employee
The Basic Skill: Communication
What Kind of Employee?
Four Questions: Is Security for You? Start at Bottom or Top? Big Company or Small? Specialist or Generalist?
The Importance of Being Fired
When to Quit
Who Gets Promoted
Your Life Off the Job
Most workers today are employees and will be all their working lives, working for somebody else and for a pay check.
Ours has become a society of employees. A hundred years ago only one out of every five Americans at work was employed, that is, worked for somebody else. Today the ratio is reversed, only one out of five is self-employed. And where fifty years ago "being employed" meant working as a factory laborer or as a farmhand, the employee of today is increasingly a middle-class person with a substantial formal education, holding a professional or management job requiring intellectual and technical skills. Indeed, two things have characterized American society during these last fifty years: the middle and upper classes have become employees; and middle-class and upper-class employees have been the fastest-growing groups in our working population--- growing so fast that the industrial worker, that oldest child of the Industrial Revolution, has been losing in numerical importance despite the expansion of industrial production.
This is one of the most profound social changes any country has ever undergone. It is, however, a perhaps even greater change for the young people about to start. Whatever they do, in all likelihood they will do it as employees; wherever they aim, they will have to try to reach it through being employees.
Yet you will find little if anything written on what it is to be an employee. You can find a great deal of very dubious advice on how to get a job or how to get a promotion. You can also find a good deal on work in a chosen field, whether it be metallurgy or salesmanship, the machinist's trade or bookkeeping. Every one of these trades requires different skills, sets different standards, and requires a different preparation. Yet they have employeeship in common. And increasingly, especially in the large business or in government, employeeship is more important to success than the special profession knowledge or skill. Certainly more people fail because they do not know the requirements of being an employee than because they do not adequately possess the skills their trade; the higher you climb the ladder, the more you get into administrative or executive work, the greater the emphasis on ability to work within the organization rather than on technical competence or professional knowledge.
Being an employee is thus the one common characteristic of most careers today. The special profession or skill is visible and clearly defined; and a well-laid-out sequence of courses, degrees, and jobs leads into it. But being an employee is the foundation. And it is much more difficult to prepare for it. Yet there is no recorded information on the art of being an employee.
The Basic Skill: Communication
The first question we might ask is: what can you learn that will help you in being an employee? The schools teach a great many things of value to the future accountant, the future doctor, or the future electrician. Do they also teach anything of value to the future employee? The answer is: "Yes---they teach the one thing that it is perhaps most valuable for the future employee to know. But very few students bother to learn it."
This one basic skill is the ability to organize and express ideas in writing and in speaking.
As an employee you work with and through other people. This means that your success as an employee---and I am talking of much more here than getting promoted---will depend on your ability to communicate with people and to present your own thoughts and ideas to them so they will both understand what you are driving at and be persuaded. The letter, the report or memorandum, the ten-minute spoken "presentation' to a committee are basic tools of the employee.
If you work as a hamburger clerk in a fast food chain you will, of course, not need much skill in expressing yourself to be effective. If you work on a machine your ability to express yourself will be of little importance. But as soon as you move one step up from the bottom, your effectiveness depends on your ability to reach others through the spoken or the written word. And the further away your job is from manual work, the larger the organization of which you are an employee, the more important it will be that you know how to convey your thoughts in writing or speaking. In the very large organization, whether it is the government, the large business corporation, or the Army, this ability to express yourself is perhaps the most important of all the skills you can possess.
Of course, skill in expression is not enough by itself. You must have something to say in the first place. The popular picture of the engineer, for instance, is someone who works with a calculator, drawing board, and compass. And engineering students reflect this picture in their attitude toward the written word as something quite irrelevant to their jobs. But the effectiveness of engineers---and with it their usefulness---depends as much on their ability to make other people understand their work as it does on the quality of the work itself.
Expressing one's thoughts is one skill that the school can really teach, especially to people born without natural writing or speaking talent. Many other skills can be learned later---in this country there are literally thousands of places that offer training to adult people at work. But the foundations for skill in expression have to be laid early: an interest in and an ear for language; experience in organizing ideas and data, in brushing aside the irrelevant, in wedding outward form and inner content into one structure; and above all, the habit of verbal expression. If you do not lay these foundations during your school years, you may never have an opportunity again.
You should take courses in the writing of poetry and the writing of short stories. Most of you won't become poets or short-story writers---far from it. But these two courses offer the easiest way to obtain some skill in expression. They force you to be economical with language. They force you to organize thought. They demand of you that you give meaning to every word. They train the ear for language, its meaning, its precision, its overtones---and its pitfalls. Above all they force you to write.
I know very well that the typical employer does not understand this and may look with suspicion on a young college graduate who has majored, let us say, in short-story writing. But the same employer will hire college graduates and complain---with good reason---that they do not know how to write a simple report, do not know how to tell a simple story, and are in fact virtually illiterate. And the employer will conclude---rightly---that the young graduates are not really effective, and certainly not employees who are likely to go very far.
What Kind of Employee?
The next question to ask is: what kind of employee should you be? Pay no attention to what other people tell you. This is one question only you can answer. It involves a choice in four areas---a choice you alone can make, and one you cannot easily duck. But to make the choice you must first have tested yourself in the world of jobs for some time.
Here are the four decisions---first in brief outline, then in more detail:
1. Do you belong in a job calling primarily for faithfulness in the performance of routine work and promising security? Or do you belong in a job that offers a challenge to imagination and ingenuity---with the attendant penalty for failure?
2. Do you belong in a large organization or in a small organization? Do you work better through channels or through direct contacts? Do you enjoy more being a small cog in a big and powerful machine or a big wheel in a small machine?
3. Should you start at the bottom and try to work your way up, or should you try to start near the top? On the lowest rung of the promotional ladder, with its solid and safe footing but also with a very long climb ahead? Or on the aerial trapeze of “a management trainee," or some staff position close to management?
4. Finally, are you going to be more effective and happy as a specialist or as a "generalist," that is, in an administrative job?
Let me spell out what each of these four decisions involves.
Is "Security" for You?
The decision between secure routine work and insecure work challenging the imagination and ingenuity is the one decision most people find easiest to make. You know very soon what kind of person you are. Do you find real satisfaction in the precision, order, and system of a clearly laid-out job? Do you prefer the security not only of knowing what your work is today and what it is going to be tomorrow, but also security in your job, in your relationship to the people above, below, and next to you, and economic security? Or are you one of those people who tend to grow impatient with anything that looks like a "routine" job? These people are usually able to live in a confused situation in which their relations to the people around them are neither clear nor stable. They tend to pa less attention to economic security and find it not too upsetting to change jobs.
There is, of course, no such black-and-white distinction between people. The person who can do only painstaking detail work and has no imagination is not much good for anything. Neither is the self-styled "genius" who has nothing but grandiose ideas and no capacity for rigorous application to detail. But in practically everybody I have ever met there is a decided leaning one way or the other.
The difference is one of basic personality. It is not too much affected by a person’s experiences; everyone is likely to be born with the one or the other. The need for economic security is often as not an outgrowth of a need for psychological security rather than a phenomenon of its own. But precisely because the difference is one of basic temperament, the analysis of what kind of temperament you possess is so vital. A man or woman might be happy in work for which they have little aptitude; they might be quite successful in it. But they can be neither happy nor successful in a job for which they are temperamentally unfitted.
In the large organization especially there are not enough job opportunities for young people who need challenge and risk. Jobs in which there is greater emphasis on conscientious performance of well-organized duties rather than on imagination---especially for the beginner --- are to be found, for instance, in thhe inside jobs in banking or insurance, which normally offer great job security but not rapid promotion or large pay. The same is true of most government work, of the railroad industry, particularly in the clerical and engineering branches, and of most public utilities. The bookkeeping and accounting areas, especially in the larger companies, are generally of this type too---though a successful comptroller is an accountant with great management and business imagination.
At the other extreme are such areas as buying, selling, and advertising, in which the emphasis is on adaptability, on imagination, and on a desire to do new and different things. In those areas, by and large, there is little security, either personal or economic. The rewards, however, are high and come more rapidly. Major premium on imagination---though of a different kind and coupled with dogged persistance on details---prevails in most research and engineering work. Jobs in production, as supervisor or executive, also demand much adaptability and imagination.
Contrary to popular belief, very small business requires, above all, close attention to daily routine. Running a neighborhood drugstore or a small grocery, or being a toy jobber, is largely attention to details. But in very small business there is also room for quite a few people of the other personality type---the innovator or imaginer. If successful, a person of this type soon ceases to be in a very small business. For the real innovator there is, still, no more promising opportunity in this country than that of building a large out of a very small business.
Big Company or Small?
Almost as important is the decision between working for a large and for a small organization. The difference is perhaps not so great as that between the secure, routine job and the insecure, imaginative job; but the wrong decision can be equally serious.
There are two basic differences between the large and the small enterprise. In the small enterprise you operate primarily through personal contacts. In the large enterprise you have established "policies," "channels" of organization, and fairly rigid procedures. In the small enterprise you have, moreover, immediate effectiveness in a very small area. You can see the effect of your work and of your decisions right away, once you are a little bit above the ground floor. In the large enterprise even the person at the top is only a cog in a big machine. To be sure, his or her actions affect a much greater area than the actions and decisions of the person in the small organization, but his or her effectiveness is remote, indirect, and elusive. In a small and even in a middle-sized business you are normally exposed to all kinds of experiences, and expected to do a great many things without too much help and guidance. In the large organization you are normally taught one thing thoroughly. In the small one the danger is of becoming a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. In the large one it is of becoming the person who knows more and more about less and less.
There is one other important thing to consider: Do you derive a deep sense of satisfaction from being a member of a well-known organization---General Motors, the Bell Telephone System, the Government? Or is it more important to you to be a well-known and important figure within your own small pond? There is a basic difference between the satisfaction that comes from being a member of a large, powerful, and generally known organization, and the one that comes from being a member of a family; between impersonal grandeur and personal---often much too personal---intimacy; between life in a small cubicle on the top floor of a skyscraper and life in a crossroads gas station.
Start at the Bottom, or...?
You may well think it absurd to say that anyone has a choice between beginning at the bottom and beginning near the top. And indeed I do not mean that you have any choice between a beginner's job and, let us say, a vice presidency at General Electric. But you do have a choice between a position at the bottom of the hierarchy and a staff position that is outside the hierarchy but in view of the top. It is an important choice.
In every organization, even the smallest, there are positions that, while subordinate, modestly paid, and usually filled with young and beginning employees, nonetheless are not at the bottom. There are positions as assistant to one of the bosses; there are positions as private secretary; there are liaison positions for various departments; and there are positions in staff capacities, in industrial engineering, in cost accounting, in personnel, etc. Every one of these gives a view of the whole rather than of only one small area. Every one of them normally brings the holder into the deliberations and discussions of the people at the top, if only as a silent audience or perhaps only as an errand boy. Every one of these positions is a position "near the top," however humble and badly paid it may be.
On the other hand, the great majority of beginner's jobs are at the bottom, where you begin in a department or in a line of work in the lowest-paid and simplest function, and where you are expected to work your way up as you acquire more skill and more judgment.
Different people belong in these two kinds of jobs. In the first place, the job “near the top" is insecure. You are exposed to public view. Your position is ambiguous, by yourself you are a nobody---but you reflect the boss's status; in a relatively short time you may even speak for the boss. You may have real power and influence. In today’s business and government organization the hand that writes the memo rules the committee; and the young staffer usually writes the memos, or at least the first draft. But for that very reason everybody is jealous of you. You are a youngster who has been admitted to the company of higher ups, and is therefore expected to show unusual ability and above all unusual discretion and judgment. Good performance in such a position is often the key to rapid advancement. But to fall down may mean the end of all hopes of ever getting anywhere within the organization.
At the bottom, on the other hand, there are very few opportunities for making serious mistakes. You are amply protected by the whole apparatus of authority. The job itself is normally simple, requiring little judgment, discretion, or initiative. Even excellent performance in such a job is unlikely to speed promotion. But one also has to fall down in a rather spectacular fashion for it to be noticed by anyone but one's immediate superior.
Specialist or Generalist
There are a great many careers in which the increasing emphasis is on specialization. You find these careers in engineering and in accounting, in production, in statistical work, and in teaching. But there is an increasing demand for people who are able to take in a great area at a glance, people who perhaps do not know too much about any one field---though one should always have one area of real competence. There is, in other words, a demand for people who are capable of seeing the forest rather than the trees, of making over-all judgments. And these "generalists" are particularly needed for administrative positions, where it is their job to see that other people do the work, where they have to plan for other people, to organize other people's work, to initiate it and appraise it.
The specialist understands one field. The main concern of specialists is with technique, tools, media. Specialists are "trained" and their educational background is properly technical or professional. The generalist---and especially the administrator---deals with people. The main concern of generalists is with leadership, with planning, with direction giving, and with coordination. Generalists are "educated" and the humanities are their strongest foundation. Very rarely is a specialist capable of being an administrator. And very rarely is a good generalist also a good specialist in a particular field. Any organization needs both kinds of people, though different organizations need them in different ratios. It is your job to find out, during your apprenticeship, into which of those two job categories you fit, and to plan your career accordingly.
Your first job may turn out to be the right job for you---but this is pure accident. Certainly you should not change jobs constantly or people will become suspicious---rightly---of your ability to hold any job. At the same time you must not look upon the first job as the final job; it is primarily a training job, an opportunity to analyze yourself and your fitness for being an employee.
The Importance of Being Fired
In fact there is a good deal to be said for being fired from the first job. One reason is that it is rarely an advantage to have started as an office clerk in the organization; far too many people will still consider you a "green kid" after you have been there for twenty-five years. But the major reason is that getting fired from the first job is the least painful and the least damaging way to learn how to take a setback. And whom the Lord loveth, the Lord teacheth early how to take a setback.
Nobody has ever lived, I daresay, who has not gone through a period when everything seemed to have collapsed and when years of work and life seemed to have gone up in smoke. No one can be spared this experience; but one can be prepared for it. Anyone who has been through earlier setbacks has learned that the world has not come to an end because he or she loses a job---not even in a depression. The lesson is that it's possible to survive. The lesson is that the way to behave in such a setback is not to collapse. But the person who comes up against it for the first time at the age of forty-five is likely to collapse for good. For the things that people are apt to do when they receive the first nasty blow may destroy a mature person, especially someone with a family, whereas a youth of twenty-five bounces right back.
Obviously you cannot contrive to get yourself fired. But you can always quit. And it is perhaps even more important to have quit once than to have been fired once. The person who walks out on his or her own volition acquires an inner independence that they will never quite lose.
When to Quit
To know when to quit is therefore one of the most important things---particularly for the beginner. For on the whole young people have a tendency to hang on to the first job long beyond the time when they should have quit for their own good.
One should quit when self-analysis shows that the job is the wrong job---that, say it does not give the security and routine one requires, that it is a small-company rattle, than a big-organization job, that it is at the bottom rather than near the top, a specialist’s rather than a generalist's job, etc. One should quit if the job demands behavior one considers morally indefensible, or if the whole atmosphere of the place is morally corrupting---if, for instance, only yes men and flatterers are tolerated.
One should also quit if the job does not offer the training one needs either in a specialty or in administration and the view of the whole. The beginner not only has the right to expect training from his first five or ten years in a job; he has an obligation to get as much training as possible. A job in which young people are not given real training though, of course, the training need not be a formal "training program"---does not measure up to what they have a right and a duty to expect.
But the most common reason why one should quit is the absence of promotional opportunities in the organization. That is a compelling reason.
I do not believe that chance of promotion is the essence of a job. In fact there is no surer way to kill a job and one's own usefulness in it than to consider it as but one rung in the promotional ladder rather than as a job in itself that deserves serious effort and will return satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment, and pride. And one can be an important and respected member of an organization without ever having received a promotion; there are such people in practically every office. But the organization itself must offer fair promotional opportunities. Otherwise it stagnates, becomes corrupted, and in turn corrupts. The absence of promotional opportunity is demoralizing. And the sooner ore gets out of a demoralizing situation, the better.
There are three situations to watch out for:
The entire group may be so young that for years there will be no vacancies. That was a fairly common situation in business thirty years ago as a result of the depression. Middle and lower management ranks in many companies were solidly filled with men in their forties and early fifties---men who were far too young to be retired but who have grown too old, during the bleak days of the Thirties, to be promotable themselves. As a result the people under them were bottled up; for it is a rare organization that will promote a young person around an older superior. If you find yourself caught in such a situation, get out fast. If you wait it will defeat you.
Another situation without promotional opportunities is one in which the group ahead of you is uniformly old---so old that it will have to be replaced long before you will be considered ready to move up. Stay away from organizations that have a uniform age structure throughout their executive group---old or young. The only organization that offers fair promotional opportunities is one in which there is a balance of ages.
Who Gets Promoted?
And finally there is the situation in which all promotions go to members of a particular group---to which you do not belong. Some chemical companies, for instance, require a master's degree in chemistry for just about any job above sweeper. Some companies promote only engineering graduates, some government agencies only people who majored in economics, some railroads only male stenographers, some British insurance companies only members of the actuaries' association. Or all the good jobs may be reserved for members of the family. There may be adequate promotional opportunities in such an organization---but not for you.
On the whole there are proportionately more opportunities in the big organization than in the small one. But there is very real danger of getting lost in the big organization---whereas you are always visible in the small one. A young person should therefore stay in a large organization only if it has a definite promotional program which ensures that he or she will be considered and looked at. This may take several forms: it may be a formal appraisal and development program; it may be automatic promotion by seniority as in the prewar Army; it may be an organization structure that actually makes out of the one big enterprise a number of small organizations in which everybody is again clearly visible (the technical term for this is "decentralization").
But techniques do not concern us here. What matters is that there should be both adequate opportunities and fair assurance that you will be eligible and considered for promotion. Let me repeat: to be promoted is not essential, either to happiness or to usefulness. To be considered for promotion is.
Your Life off the Job
I have only one more thing to say: to be an employee it is not enough that the job be right and that you be right for the job. It is also necessary that you have a meaningful life outside the job.
I am talking of having a genuine interest in something in which you, on your own, can be, if not a master, at least an amateur expert. This something may be botany, or the history of your county, or chamber music, cabinetmaking, Christmas tree growing, or a thousand other things. But it is important in this "employee society" of ours to have a genuine interest outside the job and to be serious about it.
I am not, as you might suspect, thinking of something that will keep you alive and interested during your retirement. I am speaking of keeping yourself alive, interested, and happy during your working life, and of a permanent source of self-respect and standing in the community outside and beyond your job. You will need such an interest when you hit the forties, that period in which most of us come to realize that we will never reach the goals we have set ourselves when younger---whether these are goals of achievement or of worldly success. You will need it because you should have one area in which you yourself impose standards of performance on your own work. Finally, you need it because you will find recognition and acceptance by other people working in the field, whether professional or amateur, as individuals rather than as members of an organization and as employees.
This is heretical philosophy these days when so many companies believe that that best employee is the man who lives, drinks, eats, and sleeps job and company. In actual experience those people who have no life outside their jobs are not the really successful people, not even from the viewpoint of the company. I have seen far too many of them shoot up like a rocket, because they had no interests except the job; but they also come down like the rocket's burned-out stick. The person who will make the greatest contribution to a company is the mature person---and you cannot have maturity if you have no life or interest outside the job. Our large companies are beginning to understand this. That so many of them encourage people to have "outside interests" or to develop "hobbies" as a preparation for retirement is the first sign of a change toward a more intelligent attitude. But quite apart from the self-interest of the employer, your own interest as an employee demands that you develop a major outside interest. It will make you happier, it will make you more effective, it will give you resistance against the setbacks and the blows that are the lot of everyone; and it will make you a more effective, a more successful and a more mature employee.
You have no doubt realized that I have not really talked about how to be an employee. I have talked about what to know before becoming an employee---which is something quite different. Perhaps "how to be an employee" can be learned only by being one. But one thing can be said. Being an employee means working with people. it means living and working in a society. Intelligence, in the last analysis, is therefore not the most important quality. What is decisive is character and integrity. If you work on your own, intelligence and ability may be sufficient. If you work with people you are going to fail unless you also have basic integrity. And integrity---character---is the one thing most, if not all, employers consider first.
There are many skills you might learn to be an employee, many abilities that art required. But fundamentally the one quality demanded of you will not be skill, knowledge, or talent, but character. [261-270]
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