The effective executive

effective-executiveThe effective executive: The definitive guide to getting the right things done by leadership guru, Peter Drucker, is primarily a book about how to manage yourself. This is the necessary prerequisite for managing other people. If we can’t manage ourselves effectively then how can we possibly manage five, or fifty or five hundred? Effectiveness is not simply about intelligence and hard work, or about having special gifts, aptitudes, or training. It’s about learning some relatively simple things and then practicing them until they become a habit. Effectiveness for an executive is about ‘executing’ the right things.

Know thy time

Many books tell us that effectiveness flows from planning our time well, whereas Drucker says we first need to understand where our time actually goes. Only then can we attempt to manage our time and cut back on unproductive demands. After this we can consolidate our time for it’s most effective use.

Time tends to be our scarcest resource. Leaders are often vague about their actual use of time. How we think we use it and how we actually do are often very different. If we want to know the truth, then we need to record our actual use of time. Drucker recommends running a log of our time for three to four weeks twice a year on a regular schedule. This will ensure we are dealing with reality.

Then we will be able to find the nonproductive time-wasting activities and attempt to get rid of them. Ask questions like, ‘What would happen if this were not done at all?’ If the answer is ‘Nothing’ then it’s a no-brainer. Stop it! Then ask ‘What things on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better?’ The only way that we can get to the most important things is by delegating everything that can be done by others. We should also ask how we might be wasting other people’s time and eliminate these things. Ask, ‘What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?’

After getting rid of the things that are wasting time, the leader needs to work out how to create large chunks of discretionary time where they can be productive. Small bits of time here and there are rarely productive. Consolidating time into blocks helps us to get more done.

What can I contribute?

Drucker claims that most executives are occupied with efforts rather than results. By focusing on contribution instead, our attention is shifted from our particular specialty to the performance of the whole organisation.

Organisations need performance in three main areas:

  1. direct results;
  2. building of values and their reaffirmation; and
  3. building and developing people for tomorrow.

It is important for executives to give attention to each of these areas, and if any are neglected the organisation will suffer dramatically.

Productive relationships are developed in organisations where the leaders take their contribution seriously. Communication, teamwork, self-development and the development of others are encouraged and strengthened. Executives who take responsibility for their own contributions gain more respect from their colleagues and subordinates. They have credibility in demanding that others take responsibilities seriously. They can ask questions like, ‘What are the contributions I should hold you accountable for? What should we expect of you?’ Focusing on our own contribution also leads to better communication with colleagues and improved teamwork.

Individual self-development also stems from the focus on contribution. The leader who asks himself, ‘What is the most important contribution I can make to the performance of this organisation?’ is establishing what self-development will be helpful. This will flow on to encouraging others to develop themselves. They set standards that are not personal but grounded in what’s needed to perform their tasks effectively.

Making strength productive

Effective executives focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. When adding staff they look to identify what special things people can do, not what they can’t do. They staff so as to maximise strengths, not minimise weaknesses. Some executives are threatened by the strengths of others and this leads them to build a mediocre team. Such executives end up putting themselves above the needs of the organisation.

When staffing to build strength it’s important to guard against the impossible job that only superman could fulfil. It might look okay on paper, but no one can actually accomplish it. Having said this, jobs should be sufficiently big and challenging. They should bring out the strengths of the one who does the job. People appreciate being stretched to work to their potential.

First things first

The secret of effectiveness is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time. They turn from being busy to achieving results. This takes sustained efforts that require significant chunks of time to bear fruit. Setting aside half days or weeks of really productive time requires self-discipline and saying no to other things.

We might be tempted to think that doing a little bit of everything all the time will get more done. The opposite is true. If we set aside good slabs of time and focus on one thing, then we will get things done much more quickly and effectively. Some people work a great deal harder, but because they don’t invest concentrated time on one thing, they achieve much less. Effective executives know that they have to get lots done well, so they concentrate their time and energy on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first. The hardest thing is to determine what doesn’t get done and who or what to say ‘no’ to. It’s tough, but it has to be done.

The elements of decision making

Effective executives must make effective decisions. They don’t necessarily make a lot of decisions, but they concentrate on the important ones. They focus on what is strategic and generic, rather than being tied up with ‘problem solving’. They assume that a problem is generic, a symptom of a deeper problem, until proven otherwise. It’s important to understand what decisions get made on principle and what decisions are resolved pragmatically. They clarify what objectives a decision needs to reach and the minimum goals it has to attain. These are the boundary conditions that every effective decision needs to satisfy.

Converting the decision into action is a critical element in the decision process. It is often time consuming. Yet a decision will not become effective unless the action commitments have been built into the decision from the start.

In fact, no decision has been made unless carrying it out in specific steps has become someone’s work assignment and responsibility. Until then, there are only good intentions. Converting a decision into action requires answering several questions: Who has to know of this decision? What action has to be taken? Who has to take it?  (p136)

Finally, feedback has to be built into the decision to provide continuous testing, against actual events, of the expectations that underlie the decision. Even the best decisions will prove to be wrong or need changing over time.

Effective decisions

A decision is a judgment. It’s a choice between alternatives. It’s rarely a choice between right and wrong. It’s at best a choice between ‘almost right’ and ‘probably wrong’. It’s mostly a choice between two courses of action with no clear, or proven, right choice.

Executives who make effective decisions know that you don’t start with facts, you start with opinions. Effective decision making doesn’t come from a consensus on the facts, but out of the conflict and consideration of divergent opinions. People inevitably start out with an opinion. Asking them to search for the facts first not helpful. They’ll simply look for the facts that fit the conclusion they’ve already reached. Starting with opinions, views and hypotheses means we need to test them.

The first rule in decision-making is that one doesn’t make a decision unless there is disagreement.  (p148)

Disagreements can provide alternatives to a decision and they are meant to stimulate the imagination, which helps develop creative solutions. We should assume people’s opinions are rational, and seek to understand how they see reality that leads them to their options. Many executives start out with the certainty that what they see is the only way to see at all. This leads to stifled decision making with little exploration of options.

Before making decisions it’s important to determine whether, in fact, a decision actually needs to be made at all. Sometimes things will deteriorate if nothing is done. Other times things will take care of themselves if nothing is done, or the reality is that the problem isn’t really important and shouldn’t be wasting our time and attention.

The final thing is to have the courage to make the decision! Don’t put it off, or explore yet another study. It’s probably not more information that’s needed, just a little more fortitude.

What I’ve learned…

  1. It’s helpful to know where all my time is going. Rather than simply planning how I will use my time, I will benefit from reviewing how I have been using my time. This will enable me to make adjustments and reset priorities.
  2. I appreciated the emphasis on blocks of time being crucial to effective completion of tasks. There are so many distractions in our work environment today. We can have the phone on, email open, twitter, Facebook, and Google. At the same time we have people demanding this and that, and we’ve got two or three tasks on the go at once. And nothing gets done! I’ve determined over time that some tasks need to be started and finished in one block or else they will significantly expand the time needed to complete them. You spend the start of the next time period trying to remember where you were up to. When there is insufficient time to complete a task, then it’s useful to break it down into parts and use the time to achieve completion of one or more of the parts. Writing sermons is a task that I like to break up into parts. Weeks before I read and jot down notes with the basic idea. Early in the week before I go over these notes and flesh them out until I have a clear outline. Later in the week I fill out the sermon in the outline. A day or two before the talk, I write out the notes neatly and get the logic clearly into my head, ready to speak. Each part is achieved with separate blocks of time.
    I’ve found it helpful to use Omnifocus project software (for Mac) to get things out of my head, and keep track of what I’ve committed to doing.
  3. The emphasis on encouraging different opinions, disagreement, and creative conflict in order to get good outcomes is scary, but true. It requires a platform of trust that we need to keep working on. Lencioni’s work is also very helpful on this topic. I have a tendency to seek consensus and unity in a way that probably stifles some of this debate. It was helpful to be reminded that people are rational and intelligent and that if they have an opinion different to mine or others, then it means I need to understand how they see things and where they are coming from (rather than assuming they’re simply wrong, stupid, or trying to create problems).
  4. I appreciated Drucker’s reminder that a decision hasn’t been made until the action plan has been fully worked out. We have a tendency in meetings to have good discussions, assume we’ve decided something, not appoint anyone to activate it, and wonder why nothing has happened by the next meeting. Action and communication plans are essential.

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