The Effective Executive
Daryl L. L. Houston
Posted on January 19, 2018
Years ago, I started to read an abridged version of James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a huge work of comparative religion and mythology that jumps from continent to continent from one sentence to the next as it outlines myths and magics of the world. It’s a dazzling book that’s really hard to absorb because of how much information it throws at you. Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive made me think of Frazer’s book, though Drucker’s is a fair bit more modest in scope. Often in the book, he states a premise and then catalogues a few case studies in brief, and his catalogues, located as distant in time as they are, and as discursive as they sometimes are, kind of made me glaze over sometimes. The same was true for me of Frazer’s landmark book.
Drucker’s prose is very clear and confident and assertive, and so it feels like it has the weight of authority. The case studies he offers are dated (the book was published in the 1960s), and sometimes his organization of information feels a little scattershot. In the end, I felt like I had read a bunch of useful information but hadn’t retained many of the details. For the most part, this is fine; for example, the first thing an executive must do to be effective is to understand how time is being spent, and to spend it effectively. This is simple enough to understand and agree to without retaining a lot of specifics. But in the longer sections on effective decision making, I had difficulty retaining some of the details in part because of Drucker’s scattershot delivery, so I found those sections less useful.
Drucker defines as executives “those knowledge workers, managers, or individual professionals who are expected by virtue of their position or their knowledge to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have significant impact on the performance and results of the whole.” He doesn’t limit this cohort to people with the initials “C” or “VP” in their title. Any knowledge worker may act in an executive capacity.
The main things an effective executive must do are as follows:
Effective executives know where their time goes.
Effective executives focus on outward contribution. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work.
Effective executives build on strengths—their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates;
Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
Effective executives, finally, make effective decisions. They know that this is, above all, a matter of system—of the right steps in the right sequence. They know that an effective decision is always a judgment based on “dissenting opinions” rather than on “consensus on the facts.”
Much of what he writes about squares with my experience. I can testify for example that losing time has been a big problem for me and that in order to increase my effectiveness and impact, finding ways to set aside significant chunks of time (hours in a row) to focus on important tasks has been key.
I can also vouch for the focus on outward contribution. What he means here is that we should push for achievement rather than activity. For me, this combines with time auditing. I’ve often found myself spending lots of time in conversation or suggesting edits to things that cost me a lot of time and likely had a minuscule impact. Better to keep that hour haggling over minor details reserved for other, higher impact use, no matter how relevant it might seem in the moment. Of course Drucker also means that we should similarly direct the efforts of those who report to us.
Playing to strengths includes not merely working toward your own strengths but making sure the people in your care are in the right job or that the job is designed (where possible) to make the best use of their strengths. This one can be tough unless you’re in the position of actually designing the job.
As noted above, Drucker lost me a bit in the details and case studies around making good decisions. He suggests that you should start from opinions rather than facts, that you should tend to look for ways to focus decisions on general cases so as to build principles rather than re-making situational decisions every time, and that you should encourage disagreement so that as you make a decision, you’re able to consider a diversity of perspectives rather than falling victim to confirmation bias.
Many business books are delivered in a way that feels like the author is posing as a guru. Drucker’s book by contrast is shot through with a sort of moral philosophy. He sees the work as a thing worth moral reflection, and I find this both a little old fashioned and very appealing. For example — “A superior owes it to his organization to make the strength of every one of his subordinates as productive as it can be. But even more does he owe it to the human beings over whom he exercises authority to help them get the most out of whatever strength they may have.”
On the whole, I’m glad I read the book, but it was more detailed in some ways than I found useful, and it was hard to connect a lot of his case studies to my own current reality. By contrast, many of the case studies and the framework offered in Switch were easy for me to internalize. I suppose I would recommend The Effective Executive to some. At present I’m more excited about The Daily Drucker (post forthcoming when I finish it), which distills a much broader range of Drucker’s work into daily reflections that might offer some of the moral or philosophical tidbits and send me deeper into more recent and relevant parts of Drucker’s body of work.