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‘The Effective Executive’ Business Book Review

Do you want… no, need desperately… to get things done?  Why did GoodBusiness bother to review Peter Drucker’s “The Effective Executive”, a book first published in 1967 and a business classic?  Why should you read further?

I have a friend, a long time member of the Service Core of Retired Executives. He tells me that his perennial list of “top 5” business problems heard on the street is headlined by “I’m dead tired.”  There are thousands… no, tens of thousands… of us who’ve said the same. And underneath that cry is a clawing reality; we’re not getting things done.

If you’re desperate, and committed to getting things done, then this business book and this business book review is for you. Please don’t trip over the “executive” label; Drucker explains it this way:

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an executive if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of an organization to perform and to obtain results. Most managers are executives – though not all. But many non managers are also becoming executives in modern society. For the knowledge organization, as we have been learning these last few years, needs both  managers and individual professional contributors in positions of responsibility, decision-making and authority.

Those words were written in 1966 and they’re more true today. That gives me confidence to trust the timelessness of Drucker’s advice and recommend it to you, too.

Starting at Drucker’s Conclusion

If you’re both desperate and committed you certainly feel pressed for any time at all. Let’s ease in by starting at The Effective Executive’s conclusion chapter, “Effectiveness must be learned”. Before you close your eyes in despair at yet another must-do, turn the statement around. There’s hope. You can learn to use your time better. Peter Drucker is going to help us learn how to better use the 24 hours we all have. He summarizes:

  1. Record where the time goes, and analyze the time.
  2. Make strength productive.
  3. Focus on contribution to the organization.
  4. Put first things first… and second things, not at all.
  5. Make effective decisions.

With those 5 concluding points in mind, let’s back up to the beginning of the book and take a quick look at each chapter in turn. I won’t distract you by commenting on his research (personal and extensive), his style (precise and correct), or his detractors (they’ve fallen into obscurity).

From now on, I’ll let Drucker be Drucker.

Chapter 1: Effectiveness Can Be Learned

I soon learned that there is no “effective personality.” The effective executives I have seen differ widely in their temperaments and their abilities, in what they do and how they do it, in their personalities, their knowledge, their interests – in fact in almost everything that distinguishes human beings. All they have in common is the ability to get the right things done.””Effectiveness… is a habit; that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned. But practices are always exceedingly hard to do well. They have to be acquired, as we all learn the multiplication table; that is, repeated ad nauseum, until “6×6=36” has become a unthinking, conditioned reflex, and firmly ingrained habit. Practices one learns by practicing and practicing and practicing again.””There is no reason why anyone with normal endowment should not acquire competence in any practice. Mastery might well elude him; for this one might need special talents. But what is needed in effectiveness is competence.

At this point you and I have a decision to make. We can either be comforted that Drucker thinks we can all become effective, or we can be unhappy that we’re being asked to learn something hard through constant practice. We’ll have to decide whether to read on or move on.

Chapter 2: Know Thy Time

Most discussions… start with the advice to plan one’s work. This sounds eminently plausible. The only thing wrong with it is that it rarely works. The plans always remain on paper, always remain good intentions. They seldom turn into achievement.””Effective executives… do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units. This three-step process:

  1. recording time
  2. management time
  3. consolidating time

is the foundation of executive effectiveness.

The first step is therefore to record actual time use… At a minimum, effective executives (record their time) for three or four weeks at a stretch twice a year or so, on a regular schedule. After each sample, they rethink and rework their schedule… Time-use does improve with practice. But only constant efforts at managing time can prevent drifting.””Systematic time management is therefore the next step. One has to find the nonproductive, time-wasting activities and get rid of them if one possibly can. This requires asking oneself a number of diagnostic questions:

– What would happen if this were not done at all?
– Which of the activities on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better?
– Asking others “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?””How much time is there that is “discretionary”, that is, available for the big tasks that will make a contribution?

It is not going to be a great deal, no matter how ruthlessly the executive prunes time-wasters.

(The effective executive) knows that he needs large chunks of time and that small driblets are no time at all. Even one quarter of the working day, if consolidated in large time units, is usually enough to get the important things done.

There are a good many ways of doing this. Some… work at home one day a week. Others schedule all the operating work for two days a week, and set aside the mornings of the remaining days for consistent, continuing work on major issues. Another fairly common method is to schedule a daily work period at home in the morning.

All effective executives control their time management perpetually.

Chapter 3: What Can I Contribute?

The effective executive focuses on contribution… He asks “What can I contribute that will significantly affect… performance?””Executives who do not ask themselves, What can I contribute?” are not only likely to aim too low, they are likely aim at the wrong things. Above all, they may define their contribution too narrowly.””Contribution… may mean different things. Every organization needs performance in three major areas: it needs direct result; building of values and their reaffirmation; and building and developing people for tomorrow.

That’s not specific and certainly, by itself, isn’t very helpful. Peter Drucker covers a lot of ground in this chapter, but we won’t go far wrong if we look at the business from the customer’s point of view.

In today-speak… “What can I add to the customer’s surprise and and enchantment with our offering?”

Chapter 4: Making Strength Productive

I’m going to summarize just half of what Drucker has to say. He spends considerable time on staffing organizations; I’m to summarize his comments on making ourselves effective.

Effective executives lead from strength in their own work. They make productive what they can do.””Some people work best if they have a detailed outline in front of them… others work best with nothing more than a few rough notes. Some work best under pressure. Others work better if they have a good deal of time and can finish the job long before the deadline.””…These work habits are a source of effectiveness. And most of them are compatible with any kind of work. The effective executive knows this and acts accordingly.””All in all, the effective executive tries to be himself; he does not pretend to be someone else. He looks at his own performance and his own results and tries to discern a pattern. ‘What are the things,” he asks, ‘that I seem to be able to do with relative ease, while they come rather hard to other people?

Unlike other everything else discussed in this book so far, making strength productive is as much an attitude as it is a practice. But it can be improved with practice.

Chapter 5: First Things First

If there is any one ‘secret’ of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.””This is the ‘secret’ of those people who ‘do so many things’ and apparently so many difficult things. They do only one at a time. As a result, they need much less time in the end than the rest of us.””The effective executive does not… truly commit himself beyond the one task he concentrates on right now. Then he reviews the situation and picks the next one task that now comes first.

Chapters 6 and 7: The Elements of Decision-making and Effective Decisions

Effective executives… make effective decisions. They make these decisions as a systematic process with clearly defined elements and in a distinct sequence of steps. But this process bears amazingly little resemblance to what so many books today present as ‘decision-making’.”Drucker sums up his discussion of decision-making this way:”The truly important features of… decisions… are neither their novelty nor their controversial nature. They are:

  • The clear realization that the problem is generic and can only be solved through a decision that establishes a rule, a principle.
  • The definition of the specifications which the answer to the problem has to satisfy (the boundary conditions)
  • The thinking through ‘what is right’, that is, the solution which will fully satisfy the specification before… the compromises, adaptations, and concessions needed to make the decision acceptable.
  • The building into the decision of the action the action required to carry it out.
  • The ‘feedback’ which tests the validity and effectiveness of the decision against the actual course of events.

So…

That’s Peter Drucker in his own words. The remainder of the book fleshes out this skeletal description with lots of stories and examples. While his examples are becoming dated, the lessons and principles Drucker distills are as fresh today as they were in 1967. Again, to close:

Effectiveness… is a habit; that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned.

Let’s get to it.  Let’s start by (re)reading “The Effective Executive”.

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3 Comments

  1. I am not an executive, or ever will be, but I am someone who is trying to learn how to be effective in accomplishing some goals I have set for myself, without wasting time. I have really enjoyed reading so many of your articles and feel that, although they are probably intended for a person in a management position, that the tips and philosophies you talk about can be applied to every day life. To become more effective without wasted time. I shall keep that in the forefront of my mind on a daily basis. Of course, also to have fun and enjoy life will be there with it! Have enjoyed your writing and will continue to do so.

  2. Are you by any chance connected to British actor Martin Freeman?? Just Joking! Nice Post Keep Writing!

  3. Pingback: Two Very Good Time Management Tips - GoodBusiness

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