Read Peter Drucker!

Who to Read Before Business School

Peter Drucker

A surprising number of MBA applicants have never heard of Peter Drucker, the world's greatest management theorist. He died in 2005, which is why his lack of standing among young professionals isn't entirely surprising.

Peter has long been described as "the founder of modern management." And yes, most people who knew him personally — including me — called him Peter, despite the fact that many of us revered him. His students called him "Professor Drucker," rather than "Dr. Drucker," perhaps because he was Austrian and perhaps because his doctorate was in International Law from the University of Frankfurt. I never asked why he was the only faculty member referred to as "professor," so I don't really know.

Peter taught at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. Needless to say, it's rare that a business school is named after a professor who teaches in it, but Peter was different. Through pioneering studies of companies such as General Motors, he initiated the modern era of management as an academic discipline. A quote from Peter explains his role better than I ever could:

"When I published The Practice of Management, fifty years ago, that book made it possible for people to learn how to manage, something that up until then only a few geniuses seemed to be able to do, and nobody could replicate it.

"When I came into management, a lot of it had come out of the field of engineering. And a lot of it had come out of accounting. And some of it came out of psychology. And some more came out of labor relations. Each of those fields was considered separate, and each of them, by itself, was ineffectual. You can’t do carpentry, you know, if you have only a saw, or only a hammer, or if you have never heard of a pair of pliers. It’s when you put all of those tools into one kit that you invent. That’s what I did in large part in The Practice of Management. I made a discipline of it."

— Peter Drucker

The Practice of Management (1954) was a seminal book, and it alone would have established Peter as one of the greatest management theorists of all time. But over a career that spanned more than 60 years, he wrote 38 other books and contributed frequently to the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.

So what should you read? Start with The Essential Drucker. It's a compilation of his most influential ideas. Then look at his classics: (1) The Practice of Management, (2) Concept of the Corporation and (3) Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

Michael Porter

In my personal opinion, Michael Porter is the world's greatest living management theorist. Dr. Porter teaches at the Harvard Business School and the focus of his work is competition — my favorite subject. (There's a reason why I help applicants compete for seats at the country's most competitive business schools.)

If you're aware of Dr. Porter, it's probably because of his "Five Forces of Competition," a widely-followed framework for analyzing competition within industries, nations and regions. The five forces are:

  1. The threat of new entrants
  2. The threat of substitutes
  3. The bargaining power of customers
  4. The bargaining power of suppliers
  5. Industry rivalry

If you're going to read just one thing by Michael Porter, I'd recommend his What is Strategy? It's about 20 pages long and you can buy it for a few bucks as a PDF download.