The Peter-Doris Duet: A Model Partnership


While working with Peter F. Drucker in the last years of his life, I had the opportunity to observe a model partnership – one of respect, play, and dialogue. While he’d worked successfully with the CEOs of GE, Proctor and Gamble, and many others from the largest companies in the world to leading heads of countries, his true partner was his wife, Doris.

I n June of 2005, I was riding with Peter and Doris, both then in their 90s, to an HBR event honoring Peter. As they sat back, Doris asked Peter, “Why were you in and out of bed so much last night?” Peter replied, “I had a nightmare. I was trying to explain to Socrates what an elevator was. It was impossible!”

Doris shot back, “Can you imagine trying to explain to him a cell phone?” Peter then came back with, “That would not have been a problem, because there was not any kind of phone in Socrates’ lifetime. It is easier to explain something new than to convince someone that the staircase is not the best alternative.” Doris’s expression was puzzlement. But she said nothing.

When we arrived at the event, Peter asked Doris if he could have a glass of wine. She said, “After you talk.” Once he’d received his award, he asked Doris again and she handed him his glass of wine. He looked over at me and whispered, “She could have explained that elevator to Socrates.”

I was with Peter on April 2, 2004. When I arrived, he told me that the night before Doris had sown the hems of his pajama pants closed. He said she did that every April Fools Day. He still laughed at it.

The following spring, as I was driving Peter home from his office one day, he insisted that we stop at a store so he could buy Doris the largest card he could find for Mother’s Day. Doris later told me that their four children were born in the years Peter wrote his first four books. After the fourth, she told Peter no more kids, but that she would continue to proof and read his books. He wrote 36 more.

After Peter passed away, Doris shared many more stories. One was that she was certain he had taken up ice-skating at the age of 40 because Camille Berra, Yogi’s wife, had invited him skating with her. Camille is a fantastic ice skater and Yogi would not skate with her, yet he did play tennis with Doris until she and Peter moved to the West Coast. Such was life with the Drucker duet.

During my last meeting with Doris, four months ago, over tea, she encouraged me to update my book on Peter, saying the stories needed to be more current. With a twinkle in her eye, Doris was challenging me. She would hold a party for the book when it was done, she said – but I’d better hurry.

The Time: 2014


Each year at Frances Hesselbein’s holiday party, I find three of the youngest people in the room and try to learn from them. This year felt like a great inflection point, a return to enthusiasm and optimism, illuminated by the life trajectories of three young leaders:

Ruthie graduated summa cum laude in Anthropology from Princeton three years ago. She worked at an advertising firm and wasn’t happy. She recently quit and spent four months focused on learning basic programming and big data skills in a training course.   Ruthie just landed a job with a start-up. She’s thrilled by the team she is joining and its’ enthusiasm in the office every day.

Travis is a senior at Columbia, studying social philosophy.  He yearns to work for a non-profit, but is putting that dream on the back burner for a couple of years.  “My dad and mom live in Detroit,” he told me. “They are in their 60s and working hard.   My father works in an automobile plant.   Every morning he gets up and is in pain, but he knows he has to go to work.   My mom works for H&R Block.  I want to make money so they can retire.”   He explained his plan:  He’s taken three courses in computer coding. Software engineers are making $150,000 or so a year.  Travis expects to work for a company like Yahoo or Google for three to five years, pay down his parents’ mortgage, and then move on to the social sector job he really wants.

Rafael quit a job in Brooklyn to begin his own venture. He has a part-time job to pay for food and is sleeping on a friend’s couch. As he told me about the idea he is building, Rafael’s excitement was palpable. He took me through the history of portraits, how artifacts were added, how heads were turned, how three poses were superimposed, and so on. He then explained his concept for future portraits:  one-minute “videolages composed of video clips from a person’s life, at different moments, in different poses, with different people.  By the time he finished his explanation, I believed in his business.

These are tracks which few people in my generation would have followed, or even imagined. Everywhere I go I’m inspired by twenty-somethings, by their excitement and sense of freedom, balanced with a keen sense of responsibility. Their abilities enhance their confidence and capability to take risks and to vision the future.

My talks with Ruthie, Travis, and Rafael echo recent conversations with my clients, who are trying to both serve them as customers and engage them as employees or partners in this “age of transparency:”

  1. Are we able to keep up and service customers’ hunger to provide and receive immediate feedback?  When we reinvent this business for tomorrow, what are the services we must provide?  For example, what data, feedback, and service are appropriate for a customer who buys a piano? How about a toothbrush?  Should a company send reports to the customer or wait for the customer’s request?  And how should these duties be split between computers and humans?
  2. How can we create organizations that are not only transparent and flexible but truly cohesive? How can we best build platforms or communities that attract and nurture entrepreneurs, keep our unique identities, and link with other players? How do we keep our values and fulfill our missions and make certain our business will be viable tomorrow…while everything around us is changing?

The organization must first be agile and smart so that it’s ready to serve the customer.  Peter Drucker said, “An institution is like a tune; it is not constituted by individual sounds but by the relations between them.”   These days, we are experiencing symphonies, and cacophonies, that have never before been heard.  Listen, enjoy, and contribute.   Shape the harmonies as the emerging leaders hidden among us are doing.  We meet them in all kinds of places.

2014 promises to be a great year.  I look forward to learning and growing with you.

Thank you for being on this journey with me.

Liz Haas Edersheim

PS:  My favorite reads from last year:

  • Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley’s  Playing to Win. A great how-to book on strategy. It builds on foundations:  Michael Porter’s five forces, Chris Argyris’ double-loop learning, Peter Drucker’s managing for results, and Martin’s integrative thinking and takes the whole further.  It’s now the frame I use every time I am working with a client on strategic issues.
  • Eric Schmidt’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business. The ideas and possibilities here are very edgy.
  • Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs. This book keeps me smiling.

Happy Birthday to Peter F. Drucker, Father of Management

“The greatest innovation of the 20th century was the discipline of management. The most important profession of the 21st century will be disciplined management.”

Society has always had managers, meaning people in positions of institutional power, such as owners and overseers. In the same way, we’ve always had doctors. However, until medicine became a codified discipline that could be taught, practiced, and improved upon, we didn’t expect nearly as much from them as we do now. Today, there are better doctors and worse ones – individual practitioners differ – but the discipline of medicine has raised the average performance level of physicians well above the most gifted of their predecessors a century ago. In the same way, the discipline of management has enabled managers to contribute much more and has stretched their sphere of influence beyond their enterprises and into the larger society. Organizations are now so integral to the fabric of our lives that we take them for granted.

Management’s growing effectiveness has made organizations the vehicle of choice for carrying out much of the work of modern society. We are born in organizations, supplied by organizations, informed by organizations, educated by organizations, so that we can later work in organizations – and, ultimately, be buried by organizations. Along the way, organizations fulfill our wants and needs, entertain us, help us socialize, govern us – and, yes, also frustrate and harass us. The variety of organizations reflects the breadth of human purpose. Management makes organizations possible; good management makes them work well. Over the past century, the discipline of management has transformed the experience of work and multiplied its productivity.

Management’s real genius is turning complexity and specialization into simplicity and service. As the global economy increasingly gives us more intelligence and faster access to each other’s thoughts, work will continue to grow more specialized and complex, not less. So management will play a larger role in our lives, not a smaller one.

Today we salute Peter F. Drucker, the father of the discipline of management, who played a seminal role in maximizing the impact of managers and the power of their organizations. Management’s business is building organizations that work. What can be more important today for a sustainable and healthy world?