From the March 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

The Effective Executive

For years now, I've been writing books and articles about the virtual office and office efficiency, but lately my attention has turned to personal productivity.

Why? Because with all of the technological innovations at our disposal, we're still only as productive as we are effective, and effectiveness must be learned by most people. Don't take it from me; my namesake -- the famous 20th century management guru Peter F. Drucker -- is the one who said it in 1967 in his book The Effective Executive (Harper Collins).

It's funny how we think the computer revolution and the Internet have changed business management so much. While it's true in some ways, these innovations haven't changed the fact that we, as human beings, must still harness our intelligence properly to make these new tools translate into productivity. We just can't avoid the hard work of personal change. But, fortunately, Drucker gives us a game plan, and that's what I believe you'll find valuable.

Let's start by defining effectiveness. Drucker says "effect" is closely related to "execute," which is appropriate since the executive in any situation is expected to get things done. And notice the emphasis is on action. Says Drucker, "Brilliant people are often strikingly ineffectual; they never learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard, systematic work."

Manual work, says Drucker, requires only efficiency, or the ability to do things right. Working on the right things is what makes a person effective, and effectiveness can't be measured by any of the yardsticks commonly used for manual work. This must be understood by all executives, or anyone in a modern organization who, by virtue of his position or knowledge, is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.

So are you convinced that you could be a more effective executive? If so, you must master five habits, starting with that age-old favorite -- knowing where your time goes. According to Drucker -- who readers should remember spent a lifetime personally coaching Fortune 500 executives on maximizing effectiveness -- executives who say they know where their time goes rarely have an accurate idea. The only way to do it is to keep a log.

After keeping a log and finding out how much time you waste (wasted time is time spent not executing), most executives are motivated to delegate more, get rid of time-wasters and to consolidate discretionary time. We don't automatically delegate more because we subconsciously believe delegating is having someone else do the work we're supposed to be doing, says Drucker. And we don't eliminate time-wasters because we don't always recognize them as such. Says Drucker, just look for the "recurrent crisis" -- the same crisis that repeats itself every month, quarter or year and therefore indicates a lack of systems or foresight.

Other time-wasters result from overstaffing. Too many employees means time wasted "interacting." Says Drucker, "If the manager is spending more than 10 percent of his time on 'problems of human relations,' then the work force is too large. Specialists who are just needed once in a while should remain outside the organization (a harbinger of today's outsourcing trend).

But those aren't all the potential time-wasters we deal with. How about too long or too frequent meetings? Drucker says if the executive finds himself in staff meetings 25 percent or more of the time, then he's wasting time. The only reason for meetings is to share knowledge so the team can effectively produce. Too many meetings means more responsibility needs to be focused on fewer jobs, requiring less sharing of information and, hence, fewer meetings.

A Contribution That CountsIf the purpose of all of these habits isn't clear by now, they are to help the executive consolidate discretionary time. After he keeps a log and sees how little of it he really has, the smart executive will realize he must bunch what spare time he's got into contiguous segments so he has enough time, at one sitting, to concentrate on what's really important. And what's really important is his contribution to the organization.

The effective executive, says Drucker, asks himself, "What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution I serve?" We're not talking about mere efforts, and we're not talking about the executive's own narrow specialty. We're talking about those contributions that have direct performance results outside the organization because, says Drucker, only outside manifestations of the organization's performance count -- contributions usually measured by sales, profits or client care.

One of the most important contributions an executive can make is in the area of staffing, or what Drucker calls, "making strength productive." "To make strength productive is the unique purpose of organization," says Drucker. "It cannot, of course, overcome the weaknesses with which each of us is abundantly endowed, but it can make them irrelevant."

The essence of this message is that one should not hire by focusing on a man or woman's weaknesses, but on their strengths. What does the person do uncommonly well or, in other words, what can he contribute to the organization? Drucker's four rules for staffing from strength are: don't make the job impossible; make the job challenging so as to bring out whatever strength its holder has; start with what an employee can do rather than what a job requires; and know that to access the employee's strength, one must put up with his weaknesses.

Says Drucker, "If one disciplines oneself to ask, 'What can this man do?' rather than 'What can he not do,' one soon will acquire the attitude of looking for strength and of using strength." Of course, if the employee simply can't perform, that's different. Get non-performing employees out of jobs fast, says Drucker, but give them the opportunity to go back to safe, comfortable jobs. Wait a minute... you want me to fire him but keep him on? Yes, because if employees know they're free to take calculated risks that might benefit the organization, then they'll discover their strengths in the way that most benefits their employer.

Most of the time, though, the executive should focus on his own productivity, guided by the rules of "first things first" and "do one thing at a time." A curious message in this age of multi-tasking, but what Drucker means is that priorities are constantly changing so, when the one task the executive believes is most deserving of his concentrated efforts is completed, he must review all opportunities that then present themselves and choose the next "one thing at a time."

This isn't difficult, though. "Anyone can set priorities," says Drucker. "That's easy. The difficulty is in setting 'posteriorities,' or deciding what tasks not to do." Drucker's guidelines for this process are to pick the future as against the past, focus on opportunity, choose your own direction rather than climb on the bandwagon, and aim high for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is "safe" and easy to do.

Following all the advice thus far, Drucker says the effective executive won't necessarily make a lot of decisions, but he'll make the right ones. He'll strategize rather than "solve problems." When a problem is generic, he'll establish a rule or principle to deal with it in the future. He'll think through what is "right" before considering compromises, adaptations or concessions. He'll build into the decision the actions to carry it out.

Timeless WisdomIn a global statement so prescient back in 1967, Drucker says effectiveness must be learned, for it is the only way to harness and make productive the efforts of the knowledge worker, and it is the knowledge worker's productivity that makes it possible for developed countries to maintain their high standard of living against the competition of low-wage, developing countries.

Yet, with this seemingly clear mandate, executives still find impediments almost institutional in nature. First of all, the executive's time belongs to everyone else, says Drucker. When the organization's best customer calls, he must take the call. He is continually tempted to let the flow of organizational events dictate what he should work on, even when those activities aren't what are truly important. Because he operates within an organization, the people most important to the executive's effectiveness aren't always under his control; sometimes they're in posts equal or superior to his. And, finally, because he operates within an organization, no change results from his actions unless the organization's customer converts the costs and efforts of the business into revenues and profits.

Are these prescriptions for how an executive should spend his time still as timely as when Drucker wrote them 40 years ago? I believe so. Technology and efficiency can only get us so far. They are the province of cost-cutters and productivity specialists. As your company's chief executive, it's your job to create the strategic vision that guides the company to new top-line opportunities. Maybe Drucker's guidelines can help you do it.

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David J. Drucker, CFP, is president of Drucker Knowledge Systems; see www.DavidDrucker.com.

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