Old wisdom in new settings

Stefan Stern offers advice and inspiration from the world’s leading management thinkers to help business leaders cope in 2019.
Stefan Stern
Dec 28, 2018

Grand imperial Vienna might seem an incongruous setting for discussions around managing a 21st century organization, given Austria-Hungary’s eventual demise. But history did not deter the thousand delegates, including leading management thinkers and gurus, from the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum.

The Forum, launched in 2009 on the centenary of Peter Drucker’s birth, began modestly but has since grown into ‘the Davos of management thinking.’ Its quasi-religious atmosphere – with its high priests and prophets of management – offered today’s managers several noteworthy themes to think about in 2019.

Ecosystems. Much talk about the organisation as an ecosystem, though spuriously scientific at times, captured the idea of a living, dynamic entity rather than a static bureaucracy. Author and consultant David Hurst said leaders should be like gardeners, sensitive to natural life cycles. ‘We design organisations not to change,’ he complained. Meanwhile, HR guru Dave Ulrich argued that businesses should be seen as ‘market oriented ecosystems.’ You need ‘good people in a great system.’

I’ve never met a CEO who said they love bureaucracy, but very few who have a plan to kill it.

The chairman of Chinese white goods company Haier, Zhang Ruimin, added that businesses could become self-organising and self-managing. They should be ‘employee centric’ not ‘company centric.’ Author and consultant Gary Hamel warned that for all the talk of becoming more flexible and dynamic, progress has been limited: ‘I’ve never met a CEO who said they love bureaucracy, but very few who have a plan to kill it,’ he said. ‘And that’s what we need to do.’

Creativity. Tim Brown, CEO of the creative consultancy IDEO, identified six qualities required to build a creative culture. These were: purpose (beyond making money), looking out (for inspiration from users and trends), experimentation (test, learn, repeat), collaboration (working together), empowerment (equip and trust your people) and refinement (moving from good to great).

Humanity. Speakers called on leaders to reassert the human factor (i.e. ‘the human dimension’ of the conference’s title). Jim Keane, the president and CEO of US office furniture maker Steelcase wanted to ‘get people to behave less like machines.’ Santiago Iñiguez, executive president of IE University, urged leaders to ‘bring back humanities into the business curriculum.’ And Gary Hamel bemoaned the low-engagement ‘inhumanity of our organisations.’ Deloitte’s John Hagel agreed, calling for more ‘employee passion.’

Leadership. Paul Polman, who had just announced he would step down as Unilever CEO, defended his leadership style over the past ten years. ‘It would have been easy for me to get earnings up higher over the short term, but you couldn’t have done that and invest properly for the long term at the same time,’ he said, adding philosophically, ‘As long as our personal greed is bigger than our concerns for our children we are in deep shit.’

Questions. Hal Gregersen, executive director at MIT’s leadership centre, argued that effective management depends on asking good questions. He quoted Peter Drucker himself: ‘The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers; it is to find the right question. For there are few things as useless, if not dangerous, as the right answer to the wrong question.’ Good questions force you to think about things in the right way.  Hamel pointed out one consequence of posing the wrong questions: ‘So many so-called change programmes are really catch-up programmes because senior management is so off the pace.’

Fun. Prof Herminia Ibarra of London Business School advocated a degree of playfulness, even foolishness, at work. When is ‘banana time?’ she asked, referring to a phrase first used by US social scientist Donald Roy.

Finally, Polman kept delegates grounded with a simple, telling observation. ‘You’re not going to solve problems by attending conferences. You’ve got to do something. If you don’t take action, you’re as guilty as those who created the problems in the first place.’ Wise advice for the year to come.

Stefan Stern is a business journalist and former Financial Times management columnist. He is co-author of Myths of Management.

This article was first published in CEO World, the world’s leading business magazine written strictly for CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, senior management executives, business leaders and high net worth individuals worldwide. Visit