This is my review of The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. This was a great read. I don’t think I’ve fully assimilated it yet, but I’ve made copious notes and will come back to them. But what I did manage to get out of it has both changed the way I see my job as a manager and solidified that some of the things I was doing were the right things.
My biggest change of heart is that around the nature of the job of manager. I viewed it as a very interrupt prone and context-switch happy type of work. As opposed to the work of an individual contributor (IC) knowledge worker, which demands swathes of uninterrupted focus time to actually do things. The classical maker vs manager schedule separation. And while ICs had things like Deek Work to guide them on how to get there, managers didn’t. But Drucker made a convincing argument - for me at least - that executives need the same kind of focus time if they are to be effective. That is if they are to make the right decisions for their organisation. Now, not all managers are “executives” to the same degree, but the part of their job that is like that, certainly would benefit from the lessons in the book.
I want to add a disclaimer before I go to the chapter-by-chapter summary. More so than any other non-fiction book I’ve reviewed here, this book is dense. There’s a couple of good examples, but otherwise, the text is all about the ideas. As such any synthesis will not do justice to the richness of the original text. It’s also immensely quotable, and I jotted down something on almost every page.
The first chapter makes a case that effectiveness can be learned rather than being an innate quality of a person. Effectiveness here is the ability to get the right things done. It’s much different from efficiency, which is just the ability to get a lot of things done.
The second chapter is the start of the advice proper. And it is about time management. The big advice here is to track time and to aggressively start to set apart time for the important stuff, rather than go with the flow of meetings and other small time commitments. The idea is to make enough room for the bigger contributions one has to make. This is the bit that’s quite similar to the advice from Deep Work, for example. And in the same vein, one or two hours is usually not enough. The recommendation is to even take weeks of focus time. A tall order indeed.
The third chapter focuses on the contribution one has to make to an organization. And indeed the advice here is to always be looking at what to do in order to help, rather than focusing on the status quo, or simply “downwards” to their own team. Again, this message resonates with me, and with what I’ve seen working in my experience. There’s a lot of things which could be improved in any company, so it’s easy pickings many times to take them on.
The fourth chapter argues that people need to rely on their strengths, rather than constantly try to upgrade their weaknesses. Teams are built for universal good delivery, rather than relying on a single person. Of course, common sense applies - there are table stakes skills anyone must have specific to a company, but past that, it’s much better to focus on strengths and how they can be best put to use.
The fifth chapter is a plea against multitasking, and focusing one’s serial attention on the most important problem. Again, this is the kind of stuff straight from the advice to scientists, doctors, lawyers, etc from Deep Work. It’s also something that has hit quite close to home, as lately I have been multitasking quite a bit, and feel the drag on effectiveness and efficiency.
The sixth and seventh chapters focus on decision making, and how to be effective with them. In truth, the role of “the executive” is to make a small number of very high quality decisions (as Jeff Bezos says), so it’s important to look out for things like patterns of situations vs exceptional situations, establish boundary conditions, gather opinions, gather facts to support them, etc. Before committing to something. A nice takeaway for me here was to look for dissent and see it as an opportunity to fully explore a topic - in parallel with many brains. Rather than friction in the mechanics of the business.
There’s certain bits to criticize as well. First, the book is very much a product of its times. So we’re speaking of “men” doing things in “big corporations” for “long periods of time”. All these things have changed, but perhaps none more so than working for long periods of time for a single employer. Millennials in particular are much more likely to change jobs, and that definitely has some implications for the advice here. I think especially relying on strength can be tricky, as one won’t have enough time to shine, nor to build a team that mutually supports it.
Second, there’s a bit of lip service paid to “executive as any person” who gets to make decisions. People like classical high-level managers, but also individual contributors, and more and more of the middle and lower level “managers”. But the focus is very much on the management types throughout most of the book, and very much on them as individuals rather than team players or organization builders. The purpose of the book is different, but I think one can’t hope to be effective when their team is struggling, so some more material here would have been nice.
All in all, it’s not something that massively subtracts from the core ideas, but it means you’ll have to do some translation to your particular situation.
As an aside, there’s some room dedicated to the development of the knowledge and services economy. This was just starting up in the 60s when Drucker was writing this book, but he made a case that this is going to be the way mode of modern economies. A prescient prediction indeed.
In conclusion, this is definitely worth a read. I jotted down a couple of Peter Drucker’s other books in my reading list, and I’m beginning to understand why so many folks think of him as highly as they do. That’s it from me. Till next time.