Guest Column

What Would Peter Drucker Say?

by Steven M. Sundre and C. Daniel Raisch

In his new book, the prolific management guru Peter F. Drucker offers succinct observations, advice and stories about management for corporations and individuals. Drucker, who turns 92 this year, has culled his gems from the nearly three dozen books he’s written.

We thought it would be interesting to project his advice into the modern K-12 school environment and apply it to the role of school system leaders. Among the 11 core elements that form The Essential Drucker, five are particularly instructive.

* Drucker on the customer as king: “There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer. What the customer buys and considers value is never just a product. It is always a utility, that is, what a product or service does for him.”

As educators, we now understand that if continuous growth (the “value-added” concept) is not taking place in students’ lives, parents, business leaders and taxpayers will look for alternative ways to more effectively educate their children and workforce. Educating children is now a clearly market-driven enterprise, and if the schooling process is not productive, parents will seek a more effective alternative.

* Drucker on the problem of success: “Success always makes obsolete the very behavior that achieved it. It always creates new realities. It always creates, above all, its own and different problems. Only the fairy tale ends, they lived happily ever after.”

One of the major dilemmas facing school executives is the continually changing definition of success. The paradox of rising expectations for schools has been that as we expand universal education to include our most disadvantaged students and those with various special needs, expectations for average scores, attendance and completion rates continue to rise. The number of students graduating from high schools and entering higher education has increased nearly 15 percent in the last two decades.

Regrettably, it is difficult for school leaders to communicate the paradox. For too long, public education has sometimes acted like a poorly functioning monopoly continuing to do what it always did and not dealing with the change in forces in the marketplace. And now, many of the schools are left scrambling to survive.

Time Demands

* Drucker on knowing thy time: “Effective knowledge workers, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally, they consolidate their ‘discretionary’ time into the largest possible continuing units.”

Leaders in effective schools emphasize core values and devote time and effort into measuring how those core values are being translated into effective learning. Focusing on outcomes and how to achieve them rather than concentrating only on responsibilities and how to discharge them is among the most difficult challenges facing today’s educators.

Leaders in schools today face conflicting demands on their time. Unfortunately, too much time can be caught up in the physical and political management of the organization, leaving too little time for the effective management of the educational program to create continuous and increasing growth and learning.

* Drucker on decision making: “A decision is a judgment. It is a choice between alternatives. It is rarely a choice between right and wrong. It is at best a choice between ‘almost right’ and ‘probably wrong.’”

The ethical dimension of decision making is understanding what is needed and providing the resources to make sure it happens. As in any organization, public schools have limited resources; therefore, it is the decision maker’s responsibility to know what is needed most and to act in ways to provide the best possible results.

The New Age

* Drucker on how leaders perform: “Leadership does matter, of course. But, alas, it is something different from what is now touted under this label. It has little to do with ‘leadership qualities’ and even less to do with ‘charisma.’ It is mundane, unromantic and boring. Its essence is performance.”

Performance-based leadership in schools is the difference between effective and less effective institutions. Performance-oriented schools are those that are safe, orderly, focused on learning, with nurturing, exciting, engaged individuals in attendance—from students to teachers to parents. To create and sustain that environment requires a leadership style that fosters action rather than demands results, that creates opportunities rather than dictates activities and that treasures diversity rather than demands uniformity.

Increasingly, successful school leaders in the new age are those who understand learning needs, develop plans to address those needs, establish priorities, implement the plans, monitor how the needs are being met and are accountable for their actions.

Steven Sundre is executive vice president and chief financial officer of SchoolMatch, 5027 Pine Creek Drive, Westerville, OH 43081. E-mail: Daniel Raisch, a former superintendent in two Ohio districts, is associate dean of the School of Education and Allied Professions at the University of Dayton.