They are known as the “Famous Five”: Frederick Winslow Taylor, Michael Porter, Alfred Sloan, Peter Drucker, and Douglas McGregor. Famous for ideas that shaped management thinking in a profound and lasting manner.
With over 2 million consultants and 120,000 business school professors in the US alone, there is no shortage of people who want to follow in their path. But how can you turn yourself into a management guru or at least reputable thought leader?
I talked to four people who should know. Scott Anthony, Dorie Clark, Margaret Heffernan, and Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg have all written big books, toured the world, and built enthusiastic audiences. I also took a close look at Thinkers50, the London based institution composing a bi-annual list of the most influential management thinkers and interviewed Des Dearlove, one of its founders. Finally, I reviewed the career path of some of the most celebrated management gurus.
This is what I learnt.
Early in his career, the godfather of management, Peter Drucker, worked as a journalist in Frankfurt, then moved to London for a banking job, and finally ended up as professor in the United States. It was only during his third career that he made a name for himself. My point: being a management guru is a mid to late career move but what you do before matters.
Drucker’s path suggests that exposure to many different perspectives is helpful. Even in his childhood home in Vienna he crossed paths with intellectuals such as Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises who attended evening debates organised by his parents. As re-combination sits at the heart of most innovative ideas, this makes perfect sense.
Building relationships that give you access is a second consideration. “For me it’s really about problem finding” Wedell-Wedellsborg explains when I asked how he started to develop the ideas for which he became known. “I was totally unknown before my first book. As I worked with mid-level managers in pharma and banking I realised that the innovation literature did not help them. Everything was written either for Silicon Valley or CEOs.” To come to this realization, he needed access. In Drucker’s case it was access to General Motors—a hot company then—that helped him to understand how companies might handle issues around structure as they grew.
Finally, you need to have time to think and write. Management thinkers are not necessarily the ones that invent an idea but their strength is codifying it and making it accessible. Drucker’s first book, Concept of the Corporation, for example popularised GM’s multidivisional structure.
Looking at the current Thinkers50 list suggests that Drucker’s career choices would probably still work today. On the list, 51% are university professors and even many of those with different backgrounds have a university affiliation (a further 19%). Research skills, the ability to codify, and writing skills are part and parcel of their training. But as Heffernan indicates, this background introduces a different problem. “When I was running companies I’d read these books and thought, well, this all makes sense, but I couldn’t do any of it. It’s all abstract and it’s written by somebody who has never run anything.”
Here, consultants—26% of those on the list have this background—and executives (18%) have an advantage. The latter need to be careful not to fall into the superhero trap. “I am successful, therefore what I have done is the route to success”.
Less common is a background in journalism (9%), activism (5%) or entrepreneurship (4%). This might be changing though. Thinkers50 also has a list of “future thinkers”. Entrepreneurs account for 23% on this list, activists for 16%, and journalists for 13%. Heffernan herself is a former BBC producer and entrepreneur. This taught her how to get people to talk, and how to turn this into a fascinating story which makes sense for companies.
Bottom line, academics are most likely to end up as thought leaders (it’s their job after all) but other career paths will make access easier as well as sharpening your instincts for what really works.
One way to get it all: form a team. Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg worked with IESE professor Paddy Miller. Alex Osterwalder (journalist and consultant) has teamed up with Yves Pigneur, a professor at the University of Lausanne. I co-authored Open Strategy with two other professors (Julia Hautz and Kurt Matzler) and Stephan Friedrich von den Eichen, a consultant. Without Stephan our book would never been as hands-on and user friendly as it became.
What to expect in Part 2
Part 2 will explain how you can make it happen. First, it will explain how you develop an idea of sufficient substance. Second, it will hone in on various tactics you can use to increase your visibility. Finally, the article will explain that breakthroughs will often arrive via serendipity but nonetheless you need to be ready to jump at opportunities that eventually come your way.