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Thoughts on Being Effective

I recently read Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive. Like so many others before me the book had a large impact. There was much for me to learn, even more for me to re-center on. It was also a welcome articulation of a concept I think I’ve known and gravitated to for a long time: (1) find and work with effective individuals because (2) they’re rarer than you want to believe.

This post isn’t a summary of the book. I think there are plenty of good examples out there including this one and this one.

Instead it’s a reflection of where some of these principles also appear and are echoed, along with perhaps a running introspection on where I embody and where I most certainly don’t (yet) carry forward some of these principles. I freely acknowledge it’s an incomplete list. Drucker is Drucker for a reason after all.

Here are some lessons learned:

  • Focus on strengths, not weaknesses – This is also a core principle found by the Gallup Authors in the excellent management book, First Throw Out All the Rules. Drucker is pretty clear on this in various ways such as: manage yourself not others and exploiting opportunities to produce results instead of engaging in problem solving. I find myself consciously thinking about this in relation to myself and members of my team as well. The question I return to over and over is when to do this and when to put stretch goals or projects out there where the goal is a balance of effectiveness and personal growth.
  • Manage your time – The fact that time is the only non-renewable resource are all so clearly laid out along with concrete tools like calendar audits (a problem I very imperfectly deal with). I’ve adopted the practice of color-coding my calendar where “green” blocks of time represent work on my priorities, yellow are one-off meetings, orange are recurring meetings, and red are meetings I am leading or must be highly engaged in. The results of seeing the visual on meetings, recurring meetings, and focus on these efforts is striking to say the least. The importance of time management is a concept I most recently found this echoed constantly in Tim Ferris’s Tools of Titans and more distantly the echoes of the relative merit of where to spend your time are at the center of Andy Grove’s emphasis on developing managerial leverage in High Output Management. Almost two years ago I actually wrote a post on how I got sh*t done but I can’t say I fully leverage my life and my time to optimize for these blocks of uninterrupted time. As Paul Graham would say, I’m firmly in manager time  while I long for, and work best in creator time. Next steps seem clear to me. Now I just need to do.
  • Tackling one thing at a time – Drucker talks about “concentrating your efforts.” This is one I do quite well in individual moments of time but struggle with in the meta. Personally I think this stems from two things: ambition and ability to juggle team’s working on different things, and a lack of practice saying no to top-down initiatives and needs that come my way. For this second part I think honestly at times it is a consequence of being effective in the first place: a consequence of efficiency. I know that comes across a little ego-driven, so let me just say, I’m very open to ideas on solving the core issue because I don’t currently have great ideas here.
  • Go Big, or Go Home – Drucker captures this in his focus on the need for courage. He cites myriad examples of executives who focus on the big picture and make a few big bold choices that shape the course of their organization (or country). Whether recognized in the moment, never acknowledged, or falling somewhere in between it is the responsibility of a leader to act decisively when they have conviction. I’ve had a few concrete moments of conviction in GoStudy and at CBI that have defined months of subsequent work and it is necessary to find time to find these areas of conviction. Note: I also find this shows up in hiring: you are either a hell yes or or you are a hell no and consensus hiring often leads to hiring for lack of weakness rather than for strength (see Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things). 
  • It’s always the team, and only the team – There is no “I”, you must believe and think in terms of “we”, you must foster and be open to disagreement, and you need to give others the scope and leash to thrive. If their job isn’t big enough, why should they care? Drucker perhaps summarizes it best when he says “listen first, speak last.” These are things I think I gravitate to innately. I believe I struggle with two corollaries to this. First, I struggle with designing the touchpoints of the process so that I can be involved enough and only at the right time, and (2) ensuring enough visibility for the team within the org for their great work (see “tackling one thing at time”). 
  • Optimize for LazynessDrucker highlights the ideal executive is one who makes few, if any decisions. One either acts or one does not, there is no middle ground. He certainly believes that the focus needs to be on results not efforts, always. The flipside is that what is post-poned is actually abandoned so pick your priorities with extreme care. Last, always remember, one choice is to do nothing.
  • The mass of an organization grows faster than its surface area – In other words, as the organization scales there is more and more time spent maximizing internal dynamics. Whether those are constructive or not is solely a function of how much surface area, or customer interactions, are facilitated. The most ideal version of a firm is one that is completely and utterly outwardly focused. Is that true for your org? I know it’s one we explicitly talk about at ours. This is one of those powerful, subtle, and absolutely profound statements that fills The Effective Executive.  
  • If there is no disagreement, postpone your decision until there is some – I’ve cut my teeth in operational roles working with, and often policing, dozens of sales people. I build relationships, but I’m very comfortable being the bad cop and the enforcer. And, I am definitely open to being the dissenting voice in a room. Too often, however, there is no dissent on big decisions. It’s hard to optimize that way to ensure that the ideas you go with are adequately stress tested. Drucker’s story of Alfred Sloan, the CEO of General Motors for 30+ years, is instructive. Drucker recounts that on big decisions Sloan would survey the room to see if anyone dissented. If no one did, he would adjourn the meeting until the following week until those involved had an opportunity to actually engage in critical thinking. Simple, brutal, effective.

Ultimately the book is unbelievable for anyone who seeks to optimize their contributions. I know it made me think very critically about many things. And to be sure, Drucker’s closing line: “Don’t tell me you had a wonderful meeting with me. Tell me what you‘re going to do differently on Monday” rings true.

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Last modified: September 21, 2018