The celebrated management guru Peter Drucker urged folks to replace the pursuit of success with the pursuit of contribution. To him, the existential question was not, “How can I achieve what’s been asked of me?” but “What can I contribute?”
Drucker wrote in his bestselling The Effective Executive (1967; my summary,)
The great majority of executives tend to focus downward. They are occupied with efforts rather than with results. They worry over what the organization and their superiors “owe” them and should do for them. And they are conscious above all of the authority they “should have.” As a result, they render themselves ineffectual. The effective executive focuses on contribution. He looks up from his work and outward toward goals. He asks: “What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution I serve?” His stress is on responsibility.
The focus on contribution is the key to effectiveness: in a person’s own work—its content, its level, its standards, and its impacts; in his relations with others—his superiors, his associates, his subordinates; in his use of the tools of the executive such as meetings or reports. The focus on contribution turns the executive’s attention away from his own specialty, his own narrow skills, his own department, and toward the performance of the whole. It turns his attention to the outside, the only place where there are results.
Pursuing contribution versus—or as well as—success pivots you away from self-focus and helps engage in meaningful relationships with your employees, peers, and managers.
In his celebrated article on “Managing Oneself” in the January 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review, Drucker clarified,
Throughout history, the great majority of people never had to ask the question, What should I contribute? They were told what to contribute, and their tasks were dictated either by the work itself—as it was for the peasant or artisan—or by a master or a mistress—as it was for domestic servants.
There is no return to the old answer of doing what you are told or assigned to do. Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?
Idea for Impact: Take Responsibility for Your Contribution
Focusing on contribution instead of efforts is empowering because it compels you to think through the results you need to deliver to make a difference and identify new skills to develop. “People in general, and knowledge workers in particular, grow according to the demands they make on themselves,” as Drucker remarked in The Effective Executive.
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