The Man in Blue


The Effective Executive

A little while ago, I was recommended the book The Effective Executive by Peter F. Drucker (thanks Scott 👋), with the warning that it might be a little dry but that it contained a few gems for anyone leading an organisation.

Although the “dry” part was a bit of an understatement, and the book’s writing style certainly hasn’t survived the ages (it’s terribly gendered and archaic in *who* an effective executive might be) it contained enough gems for me to persevere. I thought that I would collect a few of those tidbits here in order to distill some of its wisdom and perhaps save (or inspire!) others from reading it.

There are three key areas you can focus on as a leader: results, values, and people

“Every organisation needs performance in three major areas: it needs direct results; building of values and their reaffirmation; and building and developing people for tomorrow.”

Determine your priorities with courage

“Courage rather than analysis dictates the truly important rules for identifying priorities:

– Pick the future as against the past;
– Focus on opportunity rather than on problem;
– Choose your own direction rather than climb on the bandwagon; and
– Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is ‘safe’ and easy to do.”

Make decisions consciously, and only when there is a need to make a decision

“The first rule in decision making is that one does not make a decision unless there is disagreement.”

“The business[person] who complains the loudest about bureaucracy in government may encourage in [their] own company the growth of ‘controls’ which do not control anything, the proliferation of studies that are only a coverup for [their] own unwillingness to face up to a decision, the inflation of all kinds of staff for all kinds of research or ‘relations’.”

“The effective decision maker, therefore, always assumes initially that the problem is generic. [They] always assume that the event that clamours for [their] attention is in reality a symptom. [They] look for the true problem. [They] are not content with doctoring the symptom alone. And if the event is truly unique, the experienced decision maker suspects that this heralds a new underlying problem and that what appears as unique will turn out to have been simply the first manifestation of a new generic situation.”

Manage your calendar to get decent chunks of productive time

“An organisation in which everybody meets all the time is an organisation in which no one gets anything done.”

“To be effective, every knowledge worker needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks. To have small dribs and drabs of time at [their] disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours.”

“First one tries to identify and eliminate the things that need not be done at all, the things that are purely waste of time without any results whatever. To find these time wastes, one asks ‘what would happen if this were not done at all?’”

“The next question is: ‘which of the activities on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better?’ The first look at the time record makes it abundantly clear that there just is not time enough to do the things the executive [themself] considers important. The only way [they] can get to the important things is by pushing on others anything that can be done by them at all.”

“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, in other words, truly commit [themself] beyond the one task [they] concentrate on right now. Then [they] review the situation and pick the next one task that now comes first.”

Write a follow-up after every meeting

“At the end he summed up, thanked the participants, and left. Then he immediately wrote a short memo addressed to one attendee of the meeting. He sent a copy of the memo to everyone who’d been present at the meeting.”

Focus on building your high performers rather than dragging up your low performers

“Staffing the opportunities instead of the problems not only creates the most effective organisation, it also creates enthusiasm and dedication.”

“The executive who is concerned with what a [person] cannot do rather than with what [they] can do, and who therefore tries to avoid weakness rather than make strength effective is a weak [person] [themself].”

“Any job that has defeated two or three [people] in succession, even though each had performed well in [their] previous assignments, must be assumed unfit for human beings. It must be redesigned.”

“The second rule for staffing from strength is to make each job demanding and big. It should have challenge to bring out whatever strength a [person] should have. It should have scope so that any strength that is relevant to the task can produce significant results.”

“Ask each member of the management group to prepare two lists every six months — a list of opportunities for the entire enterprise and a list of the best-performing people throughout the enterprise.”

“One hires new people to expand on already established and smoothly running activity. But one starts something new with people of tested and proven strength, that is, with veterans.”

Seek information from the outside world yourself

“It is the inside of the organisation that is most visible to the executive. Its relations and contacts, its problems and challenges, its cross currents and gossip reach [them] and touch [them] at every point. Unless [they] make special efforts to gain direct access to outside reality, [they] will become increasingly inside-focused.”

“Unless they make conscious efforts to perceive the outside, the inside may blind them to the true reality.”

“A top group which lets itself be controlled by internal pressures will slight the one job no one else can do. It will not pay attention to the outside of the organisation. It will therefore lose touch with the only reality, the only area in which there are results.”

“All military services have long ago learned that the officer who has given an order goes out and sees for [themself] whether it has been carried out… Unless [they] accept, as a matter of course, that [they] had better go out and look at the scene of action, [they] will be increasingly divorced from reality… To go and look for oneself is also the best way to test whether the assumptions on which a decision had been made are still valid or whether they are becoming obsolete and need to be thought through again.”

Don’t forget the art of communication in the age of information

“Communication within the knowledge work force is becoming critical as a result of the computer revolution in information. Information is largely impersonal and, therefore, without any communications content. Knowledge workers increasingly have to act as responsible members of a team and we need to establish the necessary minimum of communications so that we understand each other and can know each other’s needs, goals, perceptions, and ways of doing things.

Information does not supply this. Only direct contact, whether by voice or by written word, can communicate. The more we automate information handling the more we will have to create opportunities for effective communication.”

Cameron Adams Cameron Adams is a co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Canva, where he leads the design & product teams and focuses on future product directions & innovative experiences. Read a bit more about him ›