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Business Strategy

Book Review: The Effective Executive

Book Review: The Effective Executive

In this article, we share our top takeaways from The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done by Peter Drucker.

Effective Executives follow the same eight practices

  1. They ask, “What needs to be done?”
  2. They ask, “What is right for the enterprise?”
  3. They develop action plans.
  4. They take responsibility for decisions.
  5. They take responsibility for communicating.
  6. They are focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  7. They run productive meetings.
  8. They think and say, “we” rather than “I”.

A note on decisions

A decision has not been made until people know the following:

  • The name of the person accountable for carrying it out.
  • The deadline.
  • The names of the people who will be affected by the decision and therefore have to know about, understand, and approve it - or at least not be strongly opposed to it.
  • The names of the people who have to be informed of the decision even if they are not directly affected by it.
  • Action is taken.

In the words of Peter Drucker: “Unless a decision has ‘degenerated into work’ it is not a decision; it is at best a good intention”.

Good intentions will not make you effective.

Know Thy Time

Drucker is a big advocate of conducting a Time Audit. Our team at The CEO Strategy has already put together a Time Audit Template and video explainer that you can use to conduct a time audit during an upcoming workweek to see how you actually spend your time.

Some quotes from Drucker on time management:

  • “A well-managed factory is boring. Nothing exciting happens in it because the crises have been anticipated and have been converted into routine.”
  • “An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.”
  • In Support of Time Blocking: “But even three-quarters of the working day are useless if they are only available as fifteen minutes here or half an hour there.”
  • “And the reason why working home nights is so popular is actually its worst feature: it enables an executive to avoid tackling their time and its management during the day.”

A quote for new managers

“The most common cause of executive failure is inability or unwillingness to change with the demands of a new position. The executive who keeps on doing what she has done successfully before her move is almost bound to fail. Not only do the results change in which her contributions ought to direct itself. The relative importance between the three dimensions of performance changes. The executive who fails to understand this will suddenly do the wrong things the wrong way - even though she does exactly what in her old job had been the right things done the right way.”

Change is difficult and messy, but new managers only make it worse when they refuse to adapt to their new responsibilities. Failure to adapt will not only make them an ineffective executive but also hurt the team they manage since bad behaviors like micro-managing tend to run rampant for new managers trying to do it all.

A great article to read on this topic is ‘Give Away Your Legos’ and Other Commandments for Scaling Startups from First Round Review.

You know what you cannot do. Focus on what you can do

“Most executives I know are aware of all the things they cannot do. They are only too conscious of what the boss won’t let them do, of what the company policy won’t let them do, of what the government won’t let them do. As a result, they waste their time and their strengths complaining about the things they cannot do anything about.”

Constraints are not a bad thing. If we did not have any constraints at all and a truly blank canvas, we would never know where to start as the possibilities would be endless. It’s important to understand your constraints and work with and around them with what is in your control to drive the impact that you want to achieve as an executive.

Effective Executives ask themselves these questions

Throughout the book, Drucker offers many questions that Effective Executives ask themselves to guide their strategy. A sampling of these questions is shared below:

  • What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution I serve?
  • What can I do and no one else do which, if done really well, would make a real difference to this company?
  • When supporting the team you manage: What contribution from me do you require to make your contribution to the organization? When do you need this, how do you need it, and in what form?
  • When supporting the team you manage: What are the contributions for which this organization and I, your superior, should hold you accountable? What should we expect of you? What is the best utilization of your knowledge and your ability?
  • What self-development do I need? What knowledge and skill do I have to acquire to make the contribution I should be making? What strengths do I have to put to work? What standards do I have to set myself?
  • Why are we having this meeting? Do we want a decision, do we want to inform, or do we want to make clear to ourselves what we should be doing?
  • Am I in the right work and in the right place for my strengths to tell?
  • Does this person have strength in one major area? And is this strength relevant to the task? If they achieve excellence in this one area, will it make a significant difference?
  • When managing up: What can my boss do really well? What have they done really well? What do they need to know to use their strength? What do they need to get from me to perform?
  • What are the things that I seem to be able to do with relative ease while they come rather hard to other people?
  • When evaluating “legacy” processes and projects: If we did not already do this, would we go into it now? Is this still worth doing?
  • Is this a generic situation or an exception? Is this something that underlies a great many occurrences? Or is this occurrence a unique event that needs to be dealt with as such?
  • If I had to live with this decision for a long time, would I be willing to?
  • Does the explanation explain the observed events and does it explain all of them?
  • What are the objectives the decision has to reach? What are the minimum goals it has to attain? What are the conditions it has to satisfy?
  • Who has to know of this decision? What action has to be taken? Who is to take it? And what does the action have to be so that the people who have to do it can do it? What kind of people do we have available to make this decision effective? And what can they do?

Who should read The Effective Executive?

In an ideal world, we’d have The Effective Executive as required reading for all new and current leaders. Not only that, but we’d also have it be a book that leaders re-read every two years to continue to sharpen their effectiveness. The Effective Executive can be considered the “original text” for a lot of management frameworks that are repackaged (to varying degrees of success) in more modern books on the topic.

If you’d like access to a more detailed book notes version of The Effective Executive, please email Max at and we will share it with you directly.