The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (Harperbusiness Essentials)
Jim Collins Peter Drucker

Ended: June 7, 2017

Drucker lays out a law of organized performance: The ratio of a leader’s performance to those on his or her team remains constant; therefore, if you want the average performance of those around you to go up, you must first improve your own performance.
One of Drucker’s most arresting points is that we are all incompetent at most things. The crucial question is not how to turn incompetence into excellence, but to ask, “What can a person do uncommonly well?” This leads, inevitably, to a conclusion: Your first responsibility is to determine your own distinctive competences—what you can do uncommonly well, what you are truly made for—and then navigate your life and career in direct alignment. “To focus on weakness is not only foolish; it is irresponsible,”
No one but you can take responsibility to leverage how you best work, and the sooner you do, the more years you have to gain the cumulative effect of tens of thousands of hours well spent.
First, create unbroken blocks for individual think time, preferably during the most lucid time of day; these pockets of quietude might be only ninety minutes, but even the busiest executive must do them with regularity. Second, create chunks of deliberately unstructured time for people and the inevitable stuff that comes up. Third, engage in meetings that matter, making particular use of carefully constructed standing meetings that can be the heartbeat of dialogue, debate, and decision; and use some of your think time to prepare and follow up.
“I’m sorry to imprison you in this long meeting, as I did not have time to prepare a short one.” Effective people develop a recipe for how to make the most of meetings, and they employ their recipes with consistent discipline. And while there are many varieties of good meeting recipes, just as there are many recipes for baking tasty cookies, Drucker highlights two common ingredients: preparation with a clear purpose in mind (“why are we having this meeting?”) and disciplined follow-up. Those who make the most of meetings frequently spend substantially more time preparing for the meeting than in the meeting itself. To abuse other people’s time by failing to prepare shorter, better meetings amounts to stealing a portion of their lives. And while we must all lead or join meetings, they should be limited to those that do the most useful work; if meetings come to dominate your time, then your life is likely being ill-spent.
In Drucker’s view, we rarely face truly unique, one-off decisions. And there is an overhead cost to any good decision: It requires argument and debate, time for reflection and concentration, and energy expended to ensure superb execution. So, given this overhead cost, it’s far better to zoom out and make a few big generic decisions that can apply to a large…
For Drucker, those who grasp Buffett’s point that “inactivity can be very intelligent behavior” are much more effective than those who make hundreds…
“How will I know I’ve done a great job?” I pondered what Drucker would say, and then answered: “Identify one big thing that would most contribute to the future of the university and orchestrate getting it done. If you make one distinctive contribution—a key decision that would not have happened without your leadership (even if no one…
Stop what you would not start. The presence of an ever-expanding to-do list without a robust stop-doing list is a lack of discipline. To focus on priorities means clearing away the clutter. Sometimes the best way to deal with a platter piled high with problems is to simply toss the entire pile into the trash, wash the platter, and start anew. Above all, we must not starve our biggest…
Drucker gives an answer in the form of a question, one of the most impactful in his arsenal: If it were a decision today to start something you are already in (to enter a business, to hire a person, to institute a policy, to launch a…
Internal mass grows at a faster rate than external surface; thus, as the organization grows, an increasing proportion of energy diverts to managing the internal mass rather than contributing to the outside world. Combine this with another Druckerian truth: The accomplishments of a single right person in a key seat dwarf the combined accomplishment of dividing the seat among multiple B-players. Get…
Peter hit me with a challenge. I was on the cusp of leaving my faculty spot at Stanford, betting on a self-created path, and I was scared. “It seems to me you spend a lot of time worrying how you will survive,” said Peter. “You will probably survive.” He continued: “And you seem to spend a lot of energy on the question of how to be successful. But that is the wrong question.” He paused, then like the Zen master thwacking the table with a bamboo stick: “The question is: how to be useful!” A great teacher can change your life in thirty seconds.
I have not come across a single “natural”: an executive who was born effective. All the effective ones have had to learn to be effective. And all of them then had to practice effectiveness until it became habit. But all the ones who worked on making themselves effective executives succeeded in doing so.
What made them all effective is that they followed the same eight practices:             • They asked, “What needs to be done?”             • They asked, “What is right for the enterprise?”             • They developed action plans.             • They took responsibility for decisions.             • They took responsibility for communicating.             • They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.             • They ran productive meetings.             • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”
To refer again to America’s best-known CEO: Every five years, according to his autobiography, Jack Welch asked himself, “What needs to be done now?” And every time, he came up with a new and different priority. But Welch also thought through another issue before deciding where to concentrate his efforts for the next five years. He asked himself which of the two or three tasks at the top of the list he himself was best suited to undertake. Then he concentrated on that task; the others he delegated.
Executives are doers; they execute. Knowledge is useless to executives until it has been translated into deeds.
The action plan is a statement of intentions rather than a commitment. It must not become a straitjacket. It should be revised often, because every success creates new opportunities. So does every failure.
In addition, the action plan needs to create a system for checking the results against the expectations. Effective executives usually build two such checks into their action plans. The first check comes halfway through the plan’s time period; for example, at nine months. The second occurs at the end, before the next action plan is drawn up.
Time is an executive’s scarcest and most precious resource. And organizations—whether government agencies, businesses, or nonprofits—are inherently time wasters.
decision has not been made until people know:             • 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; and             • the names of the people who have to be informed of the decision, even if they are not directly affected by it.
It’s just as important to review decisions periodically—at a time that’s been agreed on in advance—as it is to make them carefully in the first place. That way, a poor decision can be corrected before it does real damage. These reviews can cover anything from the results to the assumptions underlying the decision.
Such a review is especially important for the most crucial and most difficult of all decisions, the ones about hiring or promoting people. Studies of decisions about people show that only one third of such choices turn out to be truly successful. One third are likely to be draws—neither successes nor outright failures. And one third are failures, pure and simple. Effective executives know this and check up (six to nine months later) on the results of their people decisions. If they find that a decision has not had the desired results, they don’t conclude that the person has not performed. They conclude, instead, that they themselves made a mistake. In a well-managed enterprise, it is understood that people who fail in a new job, especially after a promotion, may not be the ones to blame.
The best way around this problem is for each executive to identify the information he needs, ask for it, and keep pushing until he gets it.
Good executives focus on opportunities rather than problems. Problems have to be taken care of, of course; they must not be swept under the rug. But problem solving, however necessary, does not produce results. It prevents damage. Exploiting opportunities produces results.
Effective executives also make sure that problems do not overwhelm opportunities. In most companies, the first page of the monthly management report lists key problems. It’s far wiser to list opportunities on the first page and leave problems for the second page.
Effective executives put their best people on opportunities rather than on problems. One way to staff for opportunities is to 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. These are discussed, then melded into two master lists, and the best people are matched with the best opportunities.
The final practice is this: Don’t think or say “I.” Think and say “we.” Effective executives know that they have ultimate responsibility, which can be neither shared nor delegated. But they have authority only because they have the trust of the organization. This means that they think of the needs and the opportunities of the organization before they think of their own needs and opportunities. This one may sound simple; it isn’t, but it needs to be strictly observed.
Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective. This is not capable of being measured by any of the yardsticks for manual work.
If the executive lets the flow of events determine what he does, what he works on, and what he takes seriously, he will fritter himself away “operating.” He may be an excellent man. But he is certain to waste his knowledge and ability and to throw away what little effectiveness he might have achieved. What the executive needs are criteria which enable him to work on the truly important, that is, on contributions and results, even though the criteria are not found in the flow of events.
Effective executives know where their time goes. They work systematically at managing the little of their time that can be brought under their control.
Effective executives focus on outward contribution. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start out with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done, let alone with its techniques and tools.
Effective executives build on strengths—their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates; and on the strengths in the situation, that is, on what they can do. They do not build on weakness. They do not start out with the things they cannot do.
Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results. They force themselves to set priorities and stay with their priority decisions. They know that they have no choice but to do first things first—and second things not at all. The alternative is to get nothing done.
Effective executives, finally, make effective decisions. They know that this is, above all, a matter of system—of the right steps in the right sequence. They know that an effective decision is always a judgment based on “dissenting opinions” rather than on “consensus on the facts.” And they know that to make many decisions fast means to make the wrong decisions. What is needed are few, but fundamental, decisions.
Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units.
Any executive, whether he is a manager or not, has to spend a great deal of his time on things that do not contribute at all. Much is inevitably wasted.
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 of all activities in the time records: “What would happen if this were not done at all?” And if the answer is, “Nothing would happen,” then obviously the conclusion is to stop doing it.
The next question is: “Which of the activities on my time log could be done by somebody else just as well, if not better?”
common cause of time-waste is largely under the executive’s control and can be eliminated by him. That is the time of others he himself wastes.
work force may, indeed, be too small for the task. And the work then suffers, if it gets done at all. But this is not the rule. Much more common is the work force that is too big for effectiveness, the work force that spends, therefore, an increasing amount of its time “interacting” rather than working.
An undirected meeting is not just a nuisance; it is a danger. But above all, meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule. An organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.
Wherever a time log shows the fatty degeneration of meetings—whenever, for instance, people in an organization find themselves in meetings a quarter of their time or more—there is time-wasting malorganization.
The final step in time management is therefore to consolidate the time that record and analysis show as normally available and under the executive’s control. There are a good many ways of doing this. Some people, usually senior men, work at home one day a week; this is a particularly common method of time-consolidation for editors or research scientists.
The great majority of executives tend to focus downward. They are occupied with efforts rather than with results. They worry over what the organization and their superiors “owe” them and should do for them. And they are conscious above all of the authority they “should have.” As a result, they render themselves ineffectual.
People in general, and knowledge workers in particular, grow according to the demands they make on themselves. They grow according to what they consider to be achievement and attainment. If they demand little of themselves, they will remain stunted. If they demand a good deal of themselves, they will grow to giant stature—without any more effort than is expended by the nonachievers.
Effective executives know what they expect to get out of a meeting, a report, or a presentation and what the purpose of the occasion is or should be. They ask themselves: “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?”
There are other rules for making a meeting productive (for instance, the obvious but usually disregarded rule that one can either direct a meeting and listen for the important things being said, or one can take part and talk; one cannot do both).
The effective executive fills positions and promotes on the basis of what a man can do. He does not make staffing decisions to minimize weaknesses but to maximize strength.
Whoever tries to place a man or staff an organization to avoid weakness will end up at best with mediocrity. The idea that there are “well-rounded” people, people who have only strengths and no weaknesses (whether the term used is the “whole man,” the “mature personality,” the “well-adjusted personality,” or the “generalist”) is a prescription for mediocrity if not for incompetence.
There is no prouder boast, but also no better prescription, for executive effectiveness than the words Andrew Carnegie, the father of the U.S. steel industry, chose for his own tombstone: “Here lies a man who knew how to bring into his service men better than he was himself.” But of course every one of these men was “better” because Carnegie looked for his strength and put it to work.
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 man may have. It should have scope so that any strength that is relevant to the task can produce significant results.
The young knowledge worker whose job is too small to challenge and test his abilities either leaves or declines rapidly into premature middle-age, soured, cynical, unproductive. Executives everywhere complain that many young men with fire in their bellies turn so soon into burned-out sticks. They have only themselves to blame: They quenched the fire by making the young man’s job too small.
For a superior to focus on weakness, as our appraisals require him to do, destroys the integrity of his relationship with his subordinates.
Effective executives, therefore, usually work out their own radically different form. It starts out with a statement of the major contributions expected from a man in his past and present positions and a record of his performance against these goals. Then it asks four questions:             a. “What has he [or she] done well?”             b. “What, therefore, is he likely to be able to do well?”             c. “What does he have to learn or to acquire to be able to get the full benefit from his strength?”             d. “If I had a son or daughter, would I be willing to have him or her work under this person?”         i.          “If yes, why?”         ii.        “If no, why?”
They are above all intolerant of the argument: “I can’t spare this man; I’d be in trouble without him.” They have learned that there are only three explanations for an “indispensable man”: He is actually incompetent and can only survive if carefully shielded from demands; his strength is misused to bolster a weak superior who cannot stand on his own two feet; or his strength is misused to delay tackling a serious problem if not to conceal its existence.
Conversely, it is the duty of the executive to remove ruthlessly anyone—and especially any manager—who consistently fails to perform with high distinction. To let such a man stay on corrupts the others. It is grossly unfair to the whole organization. It is grossly unfair to his subordinates who are deprived by their superior’s inadequacy of opportunities for achievement and recognition. Above all, it is senseless cruelty to the man himself.
But how do I manage my boss?” It is actually remarkably easy—but only effective executives know that. The secret is that effective executives make the strengths of the boss productive.
The assertion that “somebody else will not let me do anything” should always be suspected as a cover-up for inertia. But even where the situation does set limitations—and everyone lives and works within rather stringent limitations—there are usually important, meaningful, pertinent things that can be done. The effective executive looks for them. If he starts out with the question: “What can I do?” he is almost certain to find that he can actually do much more than he has time and resources for.
In human affairs, the distance between the leaders and the average is a constant. If leadership performance is high, the average will go up. The effective executive knows that it is easier to raise the performance of one leader than it is to raise the performance of a whole mass. He therefore makes sure that he puts into the leadership position, into the standard-setting, the performance-making position, the man who has the strength to do the outstanding, the pace-setting job.
IF THERE IS ANY ONE “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.
The people who get nothing done often work a great deal harder. In the first place, they underestimate the time for any one task.
Effective executives periodically review their work programs—and those of their associates—and ask: “If we did not already do this, would we go into it now?” And unless the answer is an unconditional “Yes,” they drop the activity or curtail it sharply.
An organization needs to bring in fresh people with fresh points of view fairly often. If it only promotes from within it soon becomes inbred and eventually sterile. But if at all possible, one does not bring in the newcomers where the risk is exorbitant—that is, into the top executive positions or into leadership of an important new activity. One brings them in just below the top and into an activity that is already defined and reasonably well understood.
Systematic sloughing off of the old is the one and only way to force the new. There is no lack of ideas in any organization I know. “Creativity” is not our problem. But few organizations ever get going on their own good ideas. Everybody is much too busy on the tasks of yesterday. Putting all programs and activities regularly on trial for their lives and getting rid of those that cannot prove their productivity work wonders in stimulating creativity even in the most hidebound bureaucracy.
A good many studies of research scientists have shown that achievement (at least below the genius level of an Einstein, a Niels Bohr, or a Max Planck) depends less on ability in doing research than on the courage to go after opportunity. Those research scientists who pick their projects according to the greatest likelihood of quick success rather than according to the challenge of the problem are unlikely to achieve distinction. They may turn out a great many footnotes, but neither a law of physics nor a new concept is likely to be named after them. Achievement goes to the people who pick their research priorities by the opportunity and who consider other criteria only as qualifiers rather than as determinants.
Effective executives do not make a great many decisions. They concentrate on the important ones. They try to think through what is strategic and generic, rather than “solve problems.” They try to make the few important decisions on the highest level of conceptual understanding. They try to find the constants in a situation. They are, therefore, not overly impressed by speed in decision-making. Rather they consider virtuosity in manipulating a great many variables a symptom of sloppy thinking. They want to know what the decision is all about and what the underlying realities are which it has to satisfy. They want impact rather than technique, they want to be sound rather than clever.
They know that the most time-consuming step in the process is not making the decision but putting it into effect. Unless a decision has “degenerated into work” it is not a decision; it is at best a good intention.
When Bell Labs took its final form, during the World War I period, this was a breath-taking innovation in industry. Even today few businessmen understand that research, to be productive, has to be the “disorganizer,” the creator of a different future and the enemy of today. In most industrial laboratories, “defensive research” aimed at perpetuating today predominates. But from the very beginning, the Bell Labs shunned defensive research.
The alternative was to leave the former owners in their commands with a minimum of interference from the new central office. It was “anarchy tempered by stock options” in which, it was hoped, their own financial interest would make the chieftains act for the best interests of the entire business.
The truly important features of the decisions Vail and Sloan made are neither their novelty nor their controversial nature. They are: 1.    The clear realization that the problem was generic and could only be solved through a decision which established a rule, a principle; 2.    The definition of the specifications which the answer to the problem had to satisfy, that is, of the “boundary conditions”; 3.    The thinking through what is “right,” that is, the solution which will fully satisfy the specifications before attention is given to the compromises, adaptations, and concessions needed to make the decision acceptable; 4.    The building into the decision of the action to carry it out; 5.    The “feedback” which tests the validity and effectiveness of the decision against the actual course of events.
The effective decision-maker, therefore, always assumes initially that the problem is generic. He always assumes that the event that clamors for his attention is in reality a symptom. He looks for the true problem. He is 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.
One has to start out with what is right rather than what is acceptable (let alone who is right) precisely because one always has to compromise in the end. But if one does not know what is right to satisfy the specifications and boundary conditions, one cannot distinguish between the right compromise and the wrong compromise—and will end up by making the wrong compromise.
Converting the decision into action is the fourth major element in the decision process. While thinking through the boundary conditions is the most difficult step in decision-making, converting the decision into effective action is usually the most time-consuming one. Yet a decision will not become effective unless the action commitments have been built into the decision from the start. In fact, no decision has been made unless carrying it out in specific steps has become someone’s work assignment and responsibility. Until then, there are only good intentions.
Converting a decision into action requires answering several distinct questions: 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? The first and the last of these are too often overlooked—with dire results.
Here one has to make sure not only that responsibility for the action is clearly assigned and that the people responsible are capable of doing the needful. One has to make sure that their measurements, their standards for accomplishment, and their incentives are changed simultaneously. Otherwise, the people will get caught in a paralyzing internal emotional conflict.
All military services have long ago learned that the officer who has given an order goes out and sees for himself whether it has been carried out. At the least he sends one of his own aides—he never relies on what he is told by the subordinate to whom the order was given. Not that he distrusts the subordinate; he has learned from experience to distrust communications.
Of course, some existing companies would love to host the digital you. Google, for example. Sergey Brin says that “we want Google to be the third half of your brain,” and some of Google’s acquisitions are probably not unrelated to how well their streams of user data complement its own. But, despite their head start, companies like Google and Facebook are not well suited to being your digital home because they have a conflict of interest. They earn a living by targeting ads, and so they have to balance your interests and the advertisers’. You wouldn’t let the first or second half of your brain have divided loyalties, so why would you let the third?
The best way to not lose your job is to automate it yourself. Then you’ll have time for all the parts of it that you didn’t before and that a computer won’t be able to do any time soon.
If a computer has learned to do your job, don’t try to compete with it; harness it. H&R Block is still in business, but tax preparers’ jobs are much less dreary than they used to be, now that computers do most of the grunge work.
The best chess players these days are so-called centaurs, half-man and half-program. The same is true in many other occupations, from stock analyst to baseball scout. It’s not man versus machine; it’s man with machine versus man without. Data and intuition are like horse and rider, and you don’t try to outrun a horse; you ride it.
Conversely, the long-term prospects of scientists are not the brightest, sadly. In the future, the only scientists may well be computer scientists, meaning computers doing science. The people formerly known as scientists (like me) will devote their lives to understanding the scientific advances made by computers. They won’t be noticeably less happy than before; after all, science was always a hobby to them. And one very important job for the technically minded will remain: keeping an eye on the computers. In fact, this will require more than engineers; ultimately, it may be the full-time occupation of all mankind to figure out what we want from the machines and make sure we’re getting it—more on this later in this chapter.
The newly unemployed majority will vote for generous lifetime unemployment benefits and the sky-high taxes needed to fund them. These won’t break the bank because machines will do the necessary production. Eventually, we’ll start talking about the employment rate instead of the unemployment one and reducing it will be seen as a sign of progress. (“The US is falling behind. Our employment rate is still 23 percent.”) Unemployment benefits will be replaced by a basic income for everyone. Those of us who aren’t satisfied with it will be able to earn more, stupendously more, in the few remaining human occupations. Liberals and conservatives will still fight about the tax rate, but the goalposts will have permanently moved. With the total value of labor greatly reduced, the wealthiest nations will be those with the highest ratio of natural resources to population. (Move to Canada now.) For those of us not working, life will not be meaningless, any more than life on a tropical island where nature’s bounty meets all needs is meaningless. A gift economy will develop, of which the open-source software movement is a preview. People will seek meaning in human relationships, self-actualization, and spirituality, much as they do now. The need to earn a living will be a distant memory, another piece of humanity’s barbaric past that we rose above.
Teaching ethics to robots, with their logical minds and lack of baggage, will force us to examine our assumptions and sort out our contradictions. In this, as in many other areas, the greatest benefit of machine learning may ultimately be not what the machines learn but what we learn by teaching them.
The third and perhaps biggest worry is that, like the proverbial genie, the machines will give us what we ask for instead of what we want. This is not a hypothetical scenario; learning algorithms do it all the time. We train a neural network to recognize horses, but it learns instead to recognize brown patches, because all the horses in its training set happened to be brown. You just bought a watch, so Amazon recommends similar items: other watches, which are now the last thing you want to buy. If you examine all the decisions that computers make today—who gets credit, for example—you’ll find that they’re often needlessly bad. Yours would be too, if your brain was a support vector machine and all your knowledge of credit scoring came from perusing one lousy database. People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.
Kurzweil is overfitting. He correctly faults other people for always extrapolating linearly—seeing straight lines instead of curves—but then falls prey to a more exotic malady: seeing exponentials everywhere. In curves that are flat—nothing happening—he sees exponentials that have not taken off yet. But technology improvement curves are not exponentials; they are S curves, our good friends from Chapter 4. The early part of an S curve is easy to mistake for an exponential, but then they quickly diverge. Most of Kurzweil’s curves are consequences of Moore’s law, which is on its last legs. Kurzweil argues that other technologies will take the place of semiconductors and S curve will pile on S curve, each steeper than the previous one, but this is speculation. He goes even further to claim that the entire history of life on Earth, not just human technology, shows exponentially accelerating progress, but this perception is at least partly due to a parallax effect: things that are closer seem to move faster. Trilobites in the heat of the Cambrian explosion could be forgiven for believing in exponentially accelerating progress, but then there was a big slowdown. A Tyrannosaurus Ray would probably have proposed a law of accelerating body size. Eukaryotes (us) evolve more slowly than prokaryotes (bacteria). Far from accelerating smoothly, evolution proceeds in fits and starts.