Do You Have the Skills of an Effective Executive?

Peter Drucker’s book “The Effective Executive” was first published in 1967, and although much has changed since, his thoughts on what constitutes an effective executive are still relevant and valuable triggers for self-reflection for those who are executives, and those who are at a stage in their careers where the next step or two might take them to that level.

Here is a brief summary of Drucker’s key points:

1. The executives’ time is not their own, but tends to belong to everybody else. He or she seems always at the behest of someone or some project rather than applying themselves to where they are most effectiveness.

2. Executives are forced to keep on operating in the domain from which they are familiar unless they make a complete change and focus on running the whole business.

3. The executive is forced to work within the organization, which means that they are only effective by directing what others in the organization contribute. Organization is about multiplying the strength of the individual. Unless the executive can reach these people, they will have no effectiveness.

4. The executive is within the organization which means their vision and reality is confined to that organization. It becomes a distorting or limiting lens that stops them from clearly seeing the real situation.

 Facing these conditions, Drucker isolates five skills, practices, and habits that improve executive effectiveness:

1. They know where their time goes. They manage systematically the small amounts of discretionary time they have.

2. They focus on outward contribution. They focus on results rather than effort. They constantly ask ‘What results are expected of me?’

3. They build on their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues and subordinates. They do not build on weakness and do not start things they cannot complete.

4. They focus on a few major areas where superior performance adds value. They set priorities and stay with those priority decisions. First things first and second things not at all.

5. They make effective decisions. These are made on judgments based on dissenting opinions rather than consensus on the facts. What is needed is the right strategy rather than flash tactics.

On his first point, Drucker exhorts us to “Know Thy Time“:

Effective executives know that time is a limiting factor. It is an inelastic resource that is irreplaceable and despite the demand the supply will not go up. The key to time effectiveness is a 3-step process:

  • Record the use of time
  • Manage time
  • Consolidate time

There are many demands on an executive’s time. Many of these demands are time wasters rather than being productive. Additionally, most executive tasks require significant blocks of time to complete. To begin a task without the time to complete it is pointless. It leads to ineffectiveness and can lead to poor decisions and error. Strategic and people decisions are time-consuming. They are never simple and finding a fit in a complex situation needs care and consideration.

Firstly, we need to record actual time usage. The method is unimportant, but the identification of where time is spent is essential and is best done in real time. With an idea of what you are doing with your time you can then ask some investigative questions:

1. Identify what does not need to be done and is only wasting time?

2. What can be done by someone else and probably better?

3. What do I do that uses time without being effective?

These questions help identify the time leaks. These normally fit into 4 categories:

1. Time is wasted due to lack of planning, foresight or a system.

2. Time wasted due to over staffing and therefore tasks taking longer than required.

3. Time is wasted due to mal-organization leading to having too many meetings and discussions.

4. Time is wasted due to poor information flow, format or availability.

Having established where the time leaks are, an effective executive can now reduce the leaks and build more discretionary time.

Drucker’s first points around recording of time is simple yet perhaps the most profound element. In many cases, I suspect that many of us put off this type of measurement perhaps for fear of what it will reveal (that we are spending a lot of time on things that are, in the grand scheme, trivial) much like someone who does not want to step on a weight scale. Yet a central tenet of improvement is that we need to establish a reliable baseline.

It is worth reflecting on Drucker’s around the four categories of time leaks, especially those around throwing bodies at issues (over staffing) and mal-organization. In my experience when these two elements are combined they can generate incredibly ineffective projects, departments and initiatives. With the addition of each new body thrown at a problem, the number of combinations of relationships and interactions in the group dramatically increases. If some of the people are also ill-equipped in terms of skills or temperament for the work required, this adds more fuel to the fire, as does poor expectations setting, weak definition of objectives, and lack of or unclear roles and accountability.

The idea of clarifying the area where we and or teams can make the greatest contribution is Drucker’s second major theme and practice:

What Can I Contribute?

Effective executives focus on contribution. They need to identify where their skills, speciality and group adds most to the performance of the whole organization. They ask how they can contribute and to what standard? This is a particularly important factor in motivating a knowledge worker. Focusing on contribution supplies four basic requirements of effective human relations:

1. Communication is improved because team members understand what their contribution is towards the whole.

2. Teamwork is enhanced because the focus on contribution drives teams to collaborate and communicate their contribution to that whole. They ask, ‘who needs my output for it to be effective?’

3. Self-development benefits because an executive focusing on contribution will often identify additional knowledge or skills they need to better contribute.

4. Individual development often improves because the executive sets the self-development standard for the organization. To focus on contribution is to focus on effectiveness!

In a second part to this post, we’ll look at Drucker’s final three practices of the effective executive.

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