Peter Drucker (1909-2005) was among the most insightful managerial consultants and scholars of the 20th century. While most management books focus on managing others, Drucker’s “The Effective Executive” focuses on managing oneself.
To Drucker, effectiveness means accomplishing the right things. In spite of what the financial press portrays, executives are not born effective, and they don’t graduate that way from business schools. Effectiveness is not a function of IQ, knowledge, or time clocked on the job. Smart, hard-working people can be ineffective. Executives must learn and practice effective behaviors until they become habitual.
Knowledge workers dominate the contemporary economy. They produce information and ideas. They cannot be micromanaged, but their supervisors can help them. Continually thwarting their contribution demoralizes them. It turns them into time servers who clock in, go through the motions, and clock out.
Drucker’s conceptions of “top management” and “subordinates” are not intuitive. By focusing on their contribution to the performance of a system, workers who take responsibility and act accountably are top management. Workers who do not supervise others can always manage themselves. Managers who can’t manage themselves can’t manage others. Those who stress their downward authority—in spite of a lofty rank and title—make themselves into subordinates.
Focusing on contribution fosters productive relationships. In a supply chain, each party must produce a product that is fit for use by its intended recipient. This requires effective communication. Managers must know what their workers do, materials they need to accomplish their job, opportunities they see, and dangers they perceive. Usually, capable front-line workers have a very different perspective than the CEO does.
Due to pressure to perform, people tend to report information to their supervisors that is at least a little bit rosier than reality. After a few rounds of reporting up the chain of command, the CEO could be the worst-informed person in the company. Managers must want to learn about problems as early as possible so that they can address them before they become incurable crises. Once management “shoots the messenger” of bad news, the flow of information will dry up. Problems won’t go away; they will just get buried.
A knowledge worker’s contribution tends to be defined by its results, but this concept can be misapplied. In “Out of the Crisis,” W.E. Deming noted that “no amount of care or skill in workmanship can overcome fundamental faults of the system.” He wrote that an individual’s performance is the result of many factors including the individual, co-workers, job, materials, equipment, customers, management, supervision, and environmental conditions (e.g., noise, confusion, cafeteria food quality). People cannot be held accountable for things that are beyond their control.
Effectiveness requires time management. An executive’s time belongs to everyone else. To accomplish anything, one must reduce unproductive time demands by saying ‘no’ to some requests and consolidating discretionary time into large blocks. For example, those who draft documents know that spending only a few minutes every day over an extended period of time can be futile. To produce a “zero draft,” one needs hours to research and write. Eventually, the zero draft can be refined into a readable first draft.
Most meetings waste time, and a surplus of meetings is a symptom of bad organization. Brainstorming is important, but an effective meeting requires a purpose and an agenda. Participants must convey pertinent information, and the leader must ask questions and listen. Managers should attempt to understand sincerely held dissenting opinions rather than punishing or banishing them and drawing comfort from consensus and “yes men.”
Organizations must build and develop personnel. Young workers must be taught to appreciate disciplines other than their own specialty and avoid the common habit of developing contempt for other disciplines. Routines must be developed to guide workers and eliminate recurrent, predictable crises.
To succeed, executives must focus on a few core strengths. They should prefer to make fewer decisions of high quality rather than many quick, superficial decisions. By taking action to change the reality that they operate in, effective executives can influence the flow of events rather than being at their mercy.