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The Effective Executive
by Peter Drucker


Central Theme:

Here are 12 lessons in effectiveness from The Effective Executive.

1. Do What Needs to Be Done “The first practice is to ask what needs to be done. Note that the question is not ‘What do I want to do?'” (page XII) It’s not good enough for you, the effective executive, to get things done. You must also get the right things done. By looking at the needs of the business, you have to determine where your contributions will make the largest impact, and then execute, delivering for the business what needed to be delivered. The truly fortunate, and effective executives are those who can answer both of the above questions with the same answer. If what needs to be done matches what you want to do, you’ve found the work that is right for you.

2. Exploit Opportunities “Problem solving does not produce results. It prevents damage. Exploiting opportunities produces results.” (page XVIII) When you are trying to determine what needs to be done, you should look for opportunities, not problems. Problems can usually be solved through delegation, but opportunities require the know-how of the effective executive to be fully leveraged. The key is often to be able to distinguish between a true opportunity and a problem that through corporate speak is being called an “opportunity.” A broken copier is not an “opportunity” to get a new copier, it’s a problem to be solved. Creating a new part that prevents the copier from breaking down is an opportunity (if you work in the copier-making business) that could be exploited to create a new, more durable copier.

3. Direct Yourself “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself toward performance and contribution, that is, toward effectiveness.” (page 4) If you are an executive, you can’t be told what to do. If you can be, the person telling you what to do is an executive, not you. You can only be assisted in finding out what needs to be done; everything else is up to you. That is why it’s so important you are effective, because it is your job to be and no one can do it for you. Take ownership of your work and direct yourself to success by focusing on opportunities and doing what needs to be done.

4. Develop Practices for Effectiveness “Effectiveness is a habit.” (page 23) The ability to be effective is really just the use of efficient practices. Consistent use of these practices become habits, and these habits lead to effectiveness. That means there’s no massive undertaking you must complete in order to be effective, just small, daily practices that when added up over time equal being effective. “You are what you repeatedly do…”

5. Manage Your Time “Everything requires time. It is the one truly universal condition.” (page 26) The most important thing you can manage is not people or budgets, but time. Depending on your role, you may need to manage people or budgets, but you will always have to manage your time. And what you do with that time determines how effective you are. Time management must be conscious for time is a non-renewable resource. You must make choices about what you will and won’t do, knowing that every decision you make has the cost of time associated with it.

6. Focus on Contribution “The focus on contribution is the key to effectiveness.” (page 52) To be effective, get in the habit of asking yourself “What can I contribute?” Whether it’s in a meeting, during a crisis, or when responding to email, ask yourself this question and you’ll be working as effectively as possible. By focusing on the work you can do, and not the power you’re supposed to have, or whether or not it’s in your job description, you weed out the unnecessary and make room for the effective. You also recognize what you can’t do, and through delegation with an emphasis on contribution, you make others effective with you. It’s not about getting something done, it’s about getting the right things done.

7. Organize for Excellence “The test of organization is not genius. It is its capacity to make common people achieve uncommon performance.” (page 80) As an executive, you are part of an organization, either as a leader or an integral part of it. That organization’s task is to help ordinary individuals achieve extraordinary results. To achieve excellence, you must look to leverage people’s strengths, not try to fix their weaknesses. You could try to teach Joe Montana to throw left-handed, but why? Staffing from strength is taking advantage of the talent you have to build an effective organization.

8. Desire Greatness “To be more requires a man who is conceited enough to believe that the world really needs him and depends on his getting into power.” (page 87) Having confidence in yourself and your decisions is vital to becoming an effective executive. An unsure person wavers on decisions and second-guesses their actions, but an effective executive is constantly moving forward. That doesn’t mean you can’t be humble or admit mistakes, but that you focus on what you can actually change or do. Dwelling on past mistakes is not actionable. And you know that even if you have made mistakes in the past, you have the know-how and capacity to make up for them and still obtain incredible results.

9. Concentrate Your Efforts “If there is any one ‘secret’ to effectiveness, it is concentration.” (page 100) Multi-tasking may be the norm these days, but it is single-tasking that makes you effective. You have far more to-do than can reasonably be done, and the fastest way to get from one task to another is to focus on that one thing until it is completed. By setting priorities, as well consciously choosing what not to do, you’ll also know that the single item you are working on is the most important contribution you can be making right now.

10. Be Courageous “Scientists have shown that achievement depends less on ability in doing research than on the courage to go after opportunity.” (page 111) When you are deciding on which tasks to focus, choose the one that will have the biggest impact and will make a difference. Often times this will take courage as the biggest opportunities come with the biggest perceived risk. But your job as an effective executive is not to play it safe or maintain the status quo, it is to strive for excellence. Concentrating your contributions to those opportunities that can make a difference makes all the difference in your level of effectiveness. The Fortune 500 favors the bold.

11. Decide Sparingly “An executive who makes many decisions is both lazy and ineffectual.” (page 129) Well managed organizations are “boring” because few crises occur and “fire drills” are limited to actual test of a building’s fire system. That’s because as an effective executive, you have to create a set of rules or processes that manages for the predictable occurrences. If you are constantly making decisions, it’s because you haven’t looked at the big picture and established guidelines. If something out of the ordinary does arise, or circumstances change, you should make the decision that is both best for the situation and that can be reapplied again if necessary. Making the same decision twice is redundant, inefficient and redundant.

12. Learn to be Effective “Effectiveness, while capable of being learned, surely cannot be taught.” (page 166) Effectiveness is not like a subject in school that can be taught from a textbook. It is a self-discipline that must be learned over time and through experience. The guidelines provided by Drucker certainly help you in the right direction, but you must ultimately direct yourself. You will make mistakes. There will be things you could do better. But if you follow these guidelines you’ll be on the path towards success, and to becoming an effective executive.
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