The Skills of an Effective Executive – Conclusion

In this second of two posts on Peter Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive, we look at his views on the three other key practices of effective executive leadership. The first post is found here: Do You Have the Skills of an Effective Executive?

In his book, Drucker outlined five habits:

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.

Here now are his thoughts on points 3, 4, and 5.

Making Strength Productive

The effective executive makes each personal, team or organizational strength as productive as possible. They identify these strengths and deploy them effectively. If strength isn’t present, the executive identifies that capability externally and recruits. The key is to find someone who can contribute strongly to the output and then give then a good job. So what constitutes a good job?

  • Each job is designed so that the majority of outcomes are achieved by one appropriately skilled person (this ensures a clear accountability for specific outcomes);
  • Each job is sufficiently big and demanding so as to challenge the person in it;
  • Each job reflects a relevant strength of the person without lowering the bar so as to compensate for weaknesses in the person completing it. The executive then takes responsibility for the performance of that individual; they guide the individual to use their strength and to maximize their contribution. This approach is also useful when managing upwards. They identify the contribution and strengths of a senior manager and adapt their contribution to offset where there are gaps in capabilities of the next level up. As to the executive specifically, they need to contribute through their personal strengths and to take a strategic view and identify how best the contributions of all can best benefit the organization.

First Things First

If there is one ‘secret’ of effectiveness then it is the ability to concentrate. Effective executives do first things first and one at a time. They do this with passion, discipline and focus. It is necessary, particularly with executives because so many elements are demanding their time. The more they can focus their efforts and resources, the more that is achieved. The key elements of putting the first thing first are:

1. Pick future potential over poor past performance; focus on what is productive going forward rather than water under the bridge;

2. Focus on the opportunity rather than the problem. This makes you think of the future and what needs to be done first rather than a focus on the problem which is rooted in the past;

3. Set your priorities with an ability to tolerate a level of uncertainty and risk; you will never have all the information you need;

4. Choose your own direction rather than following the crowd. They have different strengths and resources and so their approach may not be as effective for you;

5. Aim high and aim for something that will make a difference rather than something that is safe. Focus is the courage to act on the things that matter most and to make time and events your servant rather than becoming theirs.

Make Effective Decisions

Effective executives make effective decisions. This requires a systematic approach with clearly defined elements. Focus on these key points to help ensure an effective decision:

1. Is this a generic (common) or unique decision? Generic/common questions have been answered before, there is a body of learning to draw upon, whereas unique questions need new thinking;

2. What does the decision have to accomplish? What must this decision attain as a minimum so that we can move forward?

3. What are the boundary conditions for this decision?

4. Aim at what is right rather than on what is acceptable to avoid an early or incorrect compromise;

5. Convert the decision into action; a decision without action is a wish;

6. Build in a feedback mechanisms so that you can confirm the decision is on the correct path or to make another decision if required.

These then are the elements of the decisions process. But what of the decision itself?

A decision is a choice between alternatives based on information and judgement. Common counsel on decision-making is to first gather all of the information. This is impractical and usually impossible.

This isn’t how effective executives normally make decisions. They normally start with opinions as untested hypotheses. These are tested against reality and the executive considers facts to test each hypothesis. Each fact is assessed for relevance and for its appropriate measurement. Decisions then do not flow from a consensus of facts but from the survivor of a number of competing alternatives.

Any rigorous method evolves from an awareness that opinions come first and analysis second. The first question to ask is ‘Is a decision really needed?’ Let’s assume that one is needed. The executive must then encourage input so that a healthy range of opinions and options are evaluated, especially those that are seemingly out-in-left-field. This requires that criteria are established and with measures that are appropriate to the problem.

The assessment of options is not usually a mathematical exercise; one cannot always measure criteria precisely in many situations. It is often more a risk-based judgment using some form of relative or absolute measure.

Beware the intuitive solution; encourage disagreement. Don’t think “right” or “wrong”, but make a commitment to identify why people disagree. Insisting on disagreement:

1. Lessens the chance of constraining the decision-making to the limits of the organization’s thinking;

2. Ensures you consider alternatives; if we’re all thinking the same then no one is thinking;

3. Stimulates the imagination to find the right solution rather than just the first possible solution.

Having made a decision the executive needs to consider the next action:

Act if the benefits outweigh the costs/risks;

Act or do not act but do not compromise.

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