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The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (Harperbusiness Essentials) Paperback – January 3, 2006
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About the Author
Peter F. Drucker is considered the most influential management thinker ever. The author of more than twenty-five books, his ideas have had an enormous impact on shaping the modern corporation. Drucker passed away in 2005.
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Sure, the book was first written in 1966 when gender equality in business was an even more remote reality than it is today. From what I read, the ideas and techniques within are as relevant today as they were in 1966.
However, given the iconic nature of this book, maybe it's time to update it and stop sending the unsubtle message that executives are all men to new readers!
* * *
This is the 50th anniversary edition of a book first published in 1967. Jim Collins provides the Foreword and Zachary First the Afterword. In my opinion, Peter Drucker (1909-2005) is the most influential business thinker as indicated by the endless list of other thought leaders who continue to acknowledge his value and significance to their own work. He always insisted on referring to himself as a “student” or “bystander.” With all due respect to his wishes, I have always viewed him as a pioneer who surveyed and defined dimensions of the business world that no one else had previously explored.
Consider this passage in the Foreword: “Here are ten lessons I learned from Peter Drucker and this book, and that I offer as a small portal of entry into the mind of the greatest management thinker off all time.” These are the lessons that Collins cites and discusses:
1. First, manage thyself.
2. Do what you’re made for.
3. Work how you work best (and let others do the same).
4. Count your time, and make it count.
5. Prepare better meetings.
6. Don’t make a hundred decisions when one will do.
7. Find your one big distinctive impact.
8. Stop what you would not start.
9. Run lean.
10. Be useful.
“He was in the end, Collins adds, "the highest level of what a teacher can be: a role model of the very ideas he taught, a walking testament to his teachings in the tremendous lasting effect of his own life.”
As was true of Collins and will be true 0f everyone else who reads one of the several editions, they will have their own take-aways. Drucker provides a framework in the Introduction, stressing while discussing the importance of eight specific practices that all great business and non-profit CEOs are committed to, such as asking “What needs to be done?” and “What is right for the enterprise?” The first two enable them to obtain the information they need.
The next four help them to convert this knowledge into effective action:
3. Develop action plans.
4. Take responsibility for decisions [and their consequences].
5. Take responsibility for communicating.
6. Are focused on opportunities rather on problems.
The last two ensure that the entire organization feels responsible and accountable
7. Run productive meetings.
8. Think and feel “we” rather than “I.”
Yes, these are basic and obvious practices but they were not five decades ago. Until Drucker, thinking about management lacked order, structure, clarity, and focus. Borrowing a phrase from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Drucker developed thinking about management to “the other side of complexity.” To paraphrase, Albert Einstein, Drucker made management “as simple as possible but no simpler.”
In the Introduction Peter Drucker concludes, “We’ve just covered eight practices of effective executives. I’m going to throw in one final, bonus practice. This one’s so important that I’ll elevate it to the level of a rule: [begin italics] Listen first, speak last [end italics]”...And, like every discipline, effectiveness [begin italics] can [end italics] and [begin italics] must [end italics] be earned.”
The title of this review is a portion of one of Peter Drucker's most important insights: "The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question."
* * *
I first read this book when it was originally published in 1967 and have since re-read it several times because, in my opinion, it provides some of Peter Drucker's most important insights on how to "get the right work done and done the right way." By nature an "executive" is one who "executes," producing a desired result (an "effect") that has both impact and value. As Drucker once observed in an article that appeared in Harvard Business Review at least 40 years ago, "There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all." Therefore, the effective executive must develop sound judgment. Difficult - sometimes immensely difficult - decisions must be made. Here are eight practices that Drucker recommended 45 years ago:
o Ask, "what needs to be done?"
o Ask, "What is right for the enterprise?"
o Develop an action plan
o Take responsibility for decisions.
o Take responsibility for communications.
o Focus on opportunities rather than on problems.
o Conduct productive meetings.
o Think in terms of first-person PLURAL pronouns ("We" rather than "I").
The first two practices give executives the knowledge they need; the next four help them convert this knowledge into effective action; the last two ensure that the entire organization feels responsible and accountable, and will thus be more willing to become engaged. "I'm going to throw in one final, bonus practice. This one's so important that I'll elevate it to the level of a rule: [begin italics] Listen first, speak last." [end italics]
This volume consists of eight separate but interdependent essays that begin with "Effectiveness Can Be Learned" and conclude with "Effective Decisions." Actually, there is a "Conclusion" in which Drucker asserts that "Effectiveness Must Be Learned." I agree. The essays are arranged in a sequence that parallels a learning process that prepares an executive to "assume responsibility, rather than to act the subordinate, satisfied only if he `pleases the boss.' In focusing himself and his vision on contribution the executive, in other words, has to think through purposes and ends rather than means alone."
I highly recommend this to all executives who need an easy-to-read collection of reminders of several basic but essential insights from one of the most important business thinkers, Peter Drucker. I also presume to suggest that they, in turn, urge each of their direct reports to obtain a copy and read it. The last time I checked, Amazon sells a paperbound edition for only $11.55. Its potential value is incalculable.
Dated: Points are made using anecdotes referring to products and companies that may not be familiar to modern readers.
If you can get past the above, there's a lot of value in the ideas themselves. The last chapter, on the role of computers, is positively prescient.
Some notes from early in the book (I ended up skimming much of the rest):
0 – Preface
Defining "executive" as knowledge worker in an org.
Asks: "What needs to be done?" "What's best for the org?"; Thinks and says "we".
Develops action plans, sticks to the top of it, then re-evaluates.
Take responsibility for decisions and communicating those decisions appropriately.
Name accountable participants (to do), those affected (to consult), and followers (to inform).
Set a deadline.
Focus on opportunities, rather than problems, even in people-management.
Run effective meetings.
To prepare a document: make draft before, appoint a finalizer.
To announce: just announce and discuss the announcement.
To report in depth: discuss nothing else.
To gather all reports: timebox each report; either pre-report in writing or allow clarifications only, leaving questions to post-report in writing.
To inform an executive: executive should listen, ask questions, and sum up.
Aura of the executive: cannot be effective, but may yield opportunities.
Always set agenda and meeting type, and always follow up in summary and next steps.
1 – Effectiveness can be Learned
For skilled/routine work, need efficiency, responsiveness. Not enough for executive.
"Executive" is anyone who "is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and obtain results" (5).
Time belongs to everyone else, always in meetings
Strong temptation to react, to "operate", rather than envision and direct.
Effective only when others use their contributions; must communicate.
Org-goggles skew the realities of the outside world that the org operates in.
"The danger is that executives will become contemptuous of information and stimulus that cannot be reduced to computer logic … may become blind to everything that is perception (event), rather than fact (after the event). The tremendous amount of computer information [in 1967!] may thus shut out access to reality. Eventually the computer should make executives aware of their insulation and free them for more time on the outside. In the short run, however, there is a danger of acute 'computeritis'." (17)
Promise: you don't have to become smarter or learn more specialties or get a different personality, just acquire the habits of effectiveness:
Know where their time goes and manage it.
Focus on outward contribution, rather than work to be done.
Prioritize! First things first and second things not at all.
Strategic decisions, not tactics; judgment based on "dissenting opinions", not "consensus on the facts".
2 – Know Thy Time
Do not start with tasks and plans. Instead:
Measure where your time goes. (Profiling before optimization, in cs terms)
Manage it to reduce unproductive efforts.
Consolidate discretionary time into larger chunks.
Time is extremely scarce, inelastic (no price/marginal utility curve), perishable.
Interaction necessitates human trust and contact, which takes time; Interaction is the basis for much of knowledge and executive work; Interaction is slow and very human, at the basis with sitting down with everyone, having lunch/tea, answering questions, talking about other things, asking their view of the organization, its interactions with the world, what needs to be done; .: In ever larger organizations, ever more time is needed for such interactions. One can try to isolate with "spans of control" so it's not quite quadratic, but it's still bad.
Eliminate activities without impact. "What would happen if this didn't?"
Delegate Shun not one's own work, but whatever doesn't *have to be* one's work.
[I might add: shed responsibilities for which one does not have authority and vv.]
Ask: "What do I do that wastes your time, without contributing to your effectiveness?"
Pruning too much is a mistake that squeaks, and so is easily corrected.
Fix "crises" that require "heroism": after the second time, it should be planned.
Fix "drama" into routine "boring" by crystallizing lessons learned into practice.
"Interaction" as above, can waste time in overstaffed situations. Symptom: manager spends time on feuds, interpersonal problems.
Excess of meetings — due to ineffective meetings? Better organize offline.
Fix poor flows of information: those in charge of resources should be aware of their availability, get the tools to profile performance for each need, etc.
Spend long enough, not too long, and during that time, focus attention ruthlessly.
Example: [1.5h mtg w/o interruptions, 0.5h reactive/messages/etc.] repeat.
Many try to consolidate secondary matters and leave the rest of the time for primary ones. Instead, estimate time for primaries, allocate it, stick to it, and care less about the secondary ones. Urgent/unpleasant matters should encroach on those, not on primary.
Deadlines serve as indicators when time is getting away from you, that you need to better track yourself, and better prune and consolidate.
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