Developing Your Core Competencies

Reprinted from Living In More Than One World by Bruce Rosenstein © 2009 by Bruce Rosenstein    (Berrett-Koehler).

Leadership. . .rests on core competencies that meld market or customer value with a special ability of the producer or supplier.1

The concept of core competencies, originally developed at the organizational level, is increasingly being applied to individuals. Core competencies–what an organization can do better than others, or abilities that provide a particular competitive advantage–have been part of the business world’s vocabulary since the phrase was introduced in the early 1990s.

For our purposes, the concept of core competence can be expanded to include the development of individual excellence. Such a focus can help you carry out the kind of life that leads to the highest achievement and personal satisfaction. 

What do you do so well that it gives you your best chance to contribute at work and outside of it? Consider what is unique about what you do and in what areas you excel. Drucker said that, in his experience, few people could articulate their areas of strength. So, we’ll look at a toolbox of techniques and concepts to help develop and strengthen your core competencies.

Three Essential Qualities  

This is the first thing I have learned, during these fifty years of working with, and studying, institutions and the people who manage them: workmanship counts…. Few tasks in any discipline require genius. But all require conscientiousness.2

The first items in your toolbox are workmanship, excellence and diligence; these are bedrock qualities for getting the most out of your core competencies. Drucker elaborated on the idea of workmanship during a speech he gave at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) when the management school was named after him, on October 21, 1987. In the speech, he described the story of Phidias, “the greatest sculptor of ancient Greece,” whose creations “still stand on the roof of the Parthenon in Athens.”3

As Drucker remembered the story, Phidias presented his bill to the Athenian accounting office, which protested having to pay for work on the back of the statues, which could not be seen by people on the ground. Phidias insisted that although people could not see the backs of the statue, the Gods could. The big takeaway here is that you should develop inner standards of excellence that are high, yet attainable. You never know who is going to see and judge your work. 

People will only want your services if you can deliver on your promises. You can market cleverly all you want, but you’re unlikely to have repeated, ongoing calls for your services or products if people are disappointed by the quality of your work. 


Achievement is addictive…. The achievement that motivates is doing exceptionally well what one is already good at.4

A sense of achievement is the next tool. Your core competencies allow you to work toward meaningful achievements. The sense of achievement can be most pronounced in the realm of work. “Work is an extension of personality,” Drucker wrote. “It is achievement. It is one of the ways in which a person defines himself or herself, measures his or her worth and humanity.”5 

A couple of other potential areas of self-worth are:

Your sense of generosity, whether through volunteering, mentoring or other forms of giving to others

What you accomplish in your outside interests–perhaps an achievement in sports or music—that takes time and effort but has nothing to do with work.

With proper care, achievement is open to anyone. Drucker’s tough-love approach comes into play with the following assessment: “Whenever I hear executives complain about the reactionary organization they work for, about how nothing can be done, about how stupid the boss is, I feel tempted to tell them: ‘Stop bellyaching about what you cannot do. What can you do?’ ”6

To get the most out of work and life, we would do well to follow Drucker’s teaching and personal example of drawing on inner resources for accomplishment. “Knowledge workers,” he has written, “except at the very lowest levels, are not productive under the spur of fear; only self-motivation and self-direction make them productive. They have to be achieving in order to produce at all.”7  

Drucker drew a distinction between achievement over a lifetime of good work versus the goal of making money for its own sake. “I’ve known quite a few people,” he said, “whose main goal was to make money. And they all made it…. If you are single-minded, focused on making money, you’ll make money. And without exception, they were all utterly miserable. They reached that goal, and there was nothing left.”8 The solution is to focus on what you do and the benefit it has not just for you but for others. 

Drucker had a related concept that you might find handy when you have simultaneous competing tasks. Ask yourself what needs to be done rather than what you want to do. This can be applied not just to daily tasks, but to the larger areas of your life. There is often a discrepancy between what is easier or more pleasant to do, versus what really needs to be tackled. If what needs to be done is not within your core competencies, you can make some decisions on how to proceed. Can someone else do it better, such as through delegating or outsourcing? Would some investigating and learning on your part help a task become part of your core competencies, and, if so, with how much additional effort?

The Effective Use of Time

Learn to manage your time. The secret is not to do the five million things that do not need to be done and will never be missed.9

Time management is an important tool for leading a multidimensional life based on your core competencies. In The Effective Executive, Drucker set out a valuable framework for keeping track of your time. He advocated that at work you should write down everything you do and how much time it takes, so you can see how you really spend your day, as opposed to how you think you spend it.

You can go beyond that by listing what you do at work and outside of it, with rough guidelines for how much time you are spending on each activity. This exercise works only if you are ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you find you’re spending several hours each day watching television or doing something else you find too passive, you can then decide to make changes. Doris Drucker said that neither she nor her husband watched television.

To lead a satisfying life in more than one world, you’ll have to create the time to accomplish what you want. If you have one main job, you’ll have to consider how you will carve out the remaining hours of each week to exercise your spirit of generosity, develop a second career or pursue outside interests.


A decision therefore has to be made as to which tasks deserve priority and which are of less importance.10

Working on achievements is easier if you can prioritize your work and other aspects of your life. In 2005, Drucker said, “My order of priorities is: writing comes first, teaching next, and consulting last.”11 However, he gave slightly different answers at other times in his life. Three years earlier, he said, “If you want to diagram my work, in the center is writing, then comes consulting, then comes teaching. I’ve never been primarily an academic. I like to teach because that’s the way I learn.”12 There is no rule about how often you should reevaluate your priorities. 

In The Effective Executive, Drucker set out four rules for priority setting, which can be briefly summarized as:

1. Focus on the future, not the past.

2. Focus on opportunities, rather than problems.

3. Don’t climb on bandwagons.

4. Forget safe options; aim high, at “something that will make a difference.”13 

These four rules dovetail with his overall message, that the future is based on today’s actions and decisions, and that to have a satisfying future, you can’t be overwhelmed by your problems, or let them take up an inordinate amount of your time and money.

The Power of Self-Reflection

I think a more important lesson I’ve learned is that I need to look back every year on the results of the year and hold them against my expectations.14

Sometimes you need to get away from the daily grind to focus on your core competencies and purpose in life. Drucker believed that thinking is hard work, and it is devalued in our fast-paced society. The main value of a discipline like meditation is that it clears your mind to make it easier to consider what really matters in your life. Some people find similar values in yoga, walking, running or spending time in nature. 

Drucker said that other effective people he knew had similar regimens. The point is to have time built into your schedule to get away from work to think deeply about where you have been and where you are going. Here are some ideal incremental steps for this inward journey:

  • Assess the past year against the plans you made a year ago.
  • Decide what worked during the year and what didn’t.
  • Try to determine where the opportunities are.
  • Based on this, map a plan for the coming year. 

Not all of us have the time or inclination to spend Drucker’s suggested “week in the wilderness” to accomplish this planning. But we can all strive to carve out some time, in whatever season and whatever setting, for this self-reflection. Many find it a nourishing discipline.

Your Legacy

When I was thirteen, I had an inspiring teacher of religion, who one day went right through the class of boys asking each one, “What do you want to be remembered for?”15

How do your core competencies fit in with the question Drucker’s teacher asked him long ago? The answer to this question isn’t easy, and for many of us there will be more than one answer. Drucker has said that the answer will probably change as you grow older. 

The Drucker legacy, the achievement for which he will be remembered, lives on in his books and articles, and in the lives of the people he touched and influenced. It is further embodied in the teachings at the Drucker-Ito School, the Drucker Societies, and the Drucker Institute.

If you wait to do quality work based on your core competencies, or put off thinking about your legacy, you may not get a chance to leave behind what you really feel is representative of your best. We need to do everything possible to maximize whatever opportunities we have.

Values and Your Place in Life

People are effective because they say “no,” not because they say “yes,” because they say “this isn’t for me.”16

How do you know what opportunities are right for you? Especially in uncertain, challenging economic times, offers of jobs, projects or investments may seem tempting, but ultimately not a good personal fit. “The unhappy people I’ve known,” Drucker said, “are the ones who can’t resist what looks like a big chance, a big promotion, a big success, that is not for them. Skills one can acquire, values no. And the people I’ve seen who are really unhappy are in a position where the values of the organization don’t fit them.”17 

Drucker believed that underpinning your life, and implicit in everything you do, should be a bedrock sense of values, character, integrity and a belief in ethics. Organizations, as the sum total of the people they employ, should also exhibit these characteristics. 

As far back as the early 1950s, years before he identified the species of knowledge workers, Drucker gave advice on how to be a valuable employee: “But fun damentally the one quality demanded of you will not be skill, knowledge or talent, but character.”18   


Bruce Rosenstein, a writer, librarian and researcher for USA Today, has studied Peter Drucker extensively. He is also a lecturer in the Catholic University of America’s School of Library and Information Science in Washington, DC.



Peter F. Drucker with Joseph A. Maciariello, Management: Revised Edition (New York: Collins, 2008), 345.

Claremont Graduate School, “Peter F. Drucker Describes the Lessons of a Lifetime,” news release, October 21, 1987.

Peter F. Drucker, Drucker on Asia: A Dialogue Between Peter Drucker and Isao Nakauchi (Oxford, Eng.: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997), 104.

Drucker with Maciariello, Management: Revised Edition, 155.

Peter F. Drucker, People and Performance: The Best of Peter Drucker on Management (New York: Harper’s College Press, 1977), 238.

Peter F. Drucker, “Subject: You on Me,” NewManagement 2 (3): 28-29.

Drucker with Maciariello, Management: Revised Edition, 188.

Peter F. Drucker, interview by Bruce Rosenstein, April 11, 2005, Claremont, CA.

“The Icon Speaks: An Interview with Peter Drucker,” Information Outlook (February 2002): 6-11.

Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive (New York: Collins, 2006), 109.

Peter F. Drucker, interview by Bruce Rosenstein, April 12, 2005, Claremont, CA.

Bruce Rosenstein, “Scandals Nothing New to Business Guru,” USA Today, July 5, 2002.

Drucker, The Effective Executive, 111.

Drucker, interview, April 11, 2005.

Peter F. Drucker, Managing the Non-Profit Organization: Practices and Principles (New York: HarperBusiness, 1990), 201.

Drucker, interview, April 11, 2005.


Drucker, People and Performance, 270.

Article Category:

Add new comment