The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker
This is a very helpful book for seeing how you can best fulfill your job, and make the most valuable contributions to your company. While we may think of the Executive as only concerning the senior managers in our organisations, Drucker makes clear that most “knowledge workers” in organisations, of all grades of seniority, are executives these days. Many of us are making decisions or contributions to companies, based not on following a rote process, but based on their initiative and ability. All of us in these positions should therefore seek to be effective, and Drucker emphasises that this is something that can be learned, rather than being innate, and that everyone can do so.
I find Drucker’s approach to this topic helpful as he regularly acknowledges that we almost never have all the skills that may be desirable in an employee, but that each of us often has one particular strength, and then other areas where we are not terrible. Despite different personalities, Drucker thinks that if we learn, then we can be effective, regardless of our individual style. It’s just a matter of learning and practicing. Drucker also makes the book engaging by including various examples, largely from people he has met during own career.
One key topic for Drucker is that to be effective, we first need to manage our time. Having identified this as the only finite resource, we then need to think about both what is wasting our time, and secondly, how are we wasting other people’s time. This could be through excessive meetings, or including too many people in meetings, or could be a matter of us doing work which could be equally or better done by someone else. We should also be on the lookout for things we are doing, that do not need to be done at all, and can be stopped. Drucker recommends a regular review of your use of time, and then a comparison against where you think you should be spending your time, and he highlights that an analytical approach to this is often required as people have mis-perceptions about how they’re actually spending their time. One analogy that Drucker includes here, about time wasting, is the school question of: if it takes two diggers, two days to dig a ditch, how long would it take four diggers? The first-grade school answer is one day, but for him, the answer in a large organisation is four-days, or forever.
Another helpful topic Drucker covers concerns our contribution to our work. He sees successful thinkers as viewing their job with the attitude of: what more contribution can I make to the firm? He considers that if we have this mind-set, it will also improve teamwork, and management, as you ask this question of yourself and those around you. In a similar vein, Drucker also thinks we should focus on people’s strengths. Having acknowledged that all people have weaknesses, the question should be whether the person’s strengths mean they can deliver in a job; in which case the weaknesses are irrelevant. Another aspect of this, is that when a job is designed, it needs to be a possible job, that one person, who does not have universal strengths, can achieve; if a person who has previously been effective fails in a new job, you would ask whether it is the person or the job that is not right. Similarly, he encourages junior & senior employees to support each other by using each other’s strengths.
Another topic considers prioritisation. An effective person can only do one thing at a time, and so he advises against trying to do many things to keep everyone happy, but ending up getting nothing done. Priorities should be made each day, and the top priority worked upon, accepting that priorities will change over time and you may need to re-assess what you are working on. As well as prioritising new tasks, Drucker also emphasis prioritising what old processes can be stopped. He has high praise for firms which innovate away old processes and keep moving forwards. This prioritisation is going to involve making decisions, and Drucker’s view is that almost all decisions are a case of a generic situation. Therefore, to make decisions, it is best to have generic rules, which would then lead to easy decisions in each case, rather than taking each decision at a time; importantly he notes that some decisions will be the first decisions in a new generic situation, so we should not always look to past decisions to help, and sometimes do need to formulate new generic approaches. He also acknowledges that decisions are difficult, and do need courage to move forwards with, as well as noting that mistakes can be made, and so while moving forwards we should be open to realising it’s the wrong decision.
Drucker also highlights the role of disagreement in decision making, and identifies a number of Presidents and how they deliberately sought out disagreement before making any decision. As well as helping make the right decision, disagreement also means that an alternative plan has already been explored in likely the event that things do not go according to plan. For all decisions, he advises working out the boundary conditions, to know what is critical in making the decision; and then also seeing if a decision is possible which can satisfy all boundaries. He uses the example of the Bay of Pigs invasion as a case where the boundaries of the decision where inconsistent, in wanting to achieve both the toppling of the leader, and keeping US involvement small. He does not think any approach could have fitted both these boundaries, and so it was very likely that the invasion failed. He also acknowledges that often compromises are needed to deliver results , but considers that the decisions should first be made, and then trust to those effective people doing the task to make the right compromises.
Despite the age of this book, it is still very applicable to our daily working life today, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to be more effective in their job. Drucker’s attitude to work is well worth understanding, and his examples and stories keep the book engaging, while it is also quite short so does not take a large commitment of time to read it.