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What Makes An Effective Executive?

One of the most encouraging things that Peter Drucker says in “The Effective Executive” is that effective leaders are made, not born. He reminds us that the skills for leading teams and managing time are not innate- these skills have to be practiced and refined. Encouragingly, these practices are easy enough to learn.

Get Better at Understanding Your Time

Time is our one common resource. We all have the same amount in each day and regardless of the demand for more, time is inelastic. Not everything is going to be accomplished, even by the most competent people. Given that, the effective leader will ask, “What is the unique contribution I can make that will have the biggest impact on my organization?”

If you’ve ever done a time study you’ve seen how suprising the results can be. For example, if you believe you should spend about 20% of your time leading your team, 50% on cultivating your top customer relationships, and 30% on project work, how does that compare to the real amount of time you spend? What if you were to find you spent 60% of your time just returning emails and phone calls? Taking the time to actually do a study and apply some critical analysis could be very helpful.

Even applying a level of conscious questioning throughout the day is a way to gently help yourself realign with your goals- “Am I doing what I should be doing right now? Is this the best use of my limited time? Is there something more effective I could be doing?”

Asking these questions is like a mini-meditation that can help you get back to where you need to be.

time management calendar

Focus on contribution.

To focus on contribution means to understand how your actions actually impact the outside world. How is the task you are doing now meant to improve the daily life and work of your audience? If you don’t know the answer to that, you need to either get more information from your customers, or stop doing the work. If you understand how your actions actually carry through to the customer, then you’ve got the ability to put much more critical and helpful thought into your work.

One element that Drucker stresses is to take responsibility for your own self-development. Get better and improve within your area of expertise. Ask yourself what you could be doing better and go after it.

Do First Things First.

This sounds exactly like the 7 Habits. One of Drucker’s more ruthless comments is that we do first things first, and second things never. Don’t be afraid to have a list of “things we’re not doing” and “situations we don’t accommodate.” This really reinforces the first practice of understanding where your time goes. Sometimes “Phase 2” is the equivalent of “Never Happening”- and that might actually be ok as a way to de-prioritize the things that won’t contribute much value.

The other element of doing first things first is doing one thing at a time. The great classical music composers would work on one symphony at a time, not on 5. There is so much of our work, especially as knowledge workers, that is intangible, but takes the form of projects.

If each project is a symphony, wouldn’t it be more impactful for you to concentrate your mind on the project and work on it from start to finish?

The ability to focus and do one thing at a time is what allows busy people to get so much done. Concentrating resources on a project and spending focused time thinking about it and building it is both satisfying and effective.

Drucker likely influenced a more contemporary book, Cal Newport’s Deep Work. The premise of Deep Work is that the marketplace for knowledge workers is competitive and getting increasingly more so. In order to maximize your contribution and maintain a strong position, you must create a high amount of value. But that is not possible when we work in small, distracted bursts. To create a valuable result, you must spend uninterrupted stretches of time thinking and working deeply. This results in your mind “learning” that it is doing important, interesting work. It also strengthens the neural networks in your brain responsible for concentration.

When we spend time interrupting ourselves to check email and induce distractions, we compromise those neural networks. They can be permanently changed. In order to avoid that, we must spend time practicing staying in a state of deep work. This is similar to the state of flow that has been getting coverage as we seek ways to combat distractions.

work first things first

Build on Strengths.

This premise reminded me of Tim Ferris’ Tools of Titans. There is an interview in that book that talks about this very thing. Stop trying to “fix” your many weaknesses and instead, build on your strengths. This doesn’t just apply for people analyzing their own strengths and weaknesses internally. It also goes for managers trying to hire the right team.

Most people will develop skills and expertise in just a few areas. Knowing that, how can you strengthen your skills in your area of specialty and partner or hire those with complementary skills?

Effective Executive Skills

All of the above comprise “effective executive” skills that can be learned and practiced. Drucker emphasizes that your innate abilities will only get you so far- but if you can take the time and energy to practice these skills,  you will go so much further. Despite a point of view that unrelentingly associates leadership with men, (you must re-word things mentally in order to not feel completely crushed), the text has some lucid and timeless ideas that clearly influenced some of the best business books, from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to Deep Work .

There is always so much to learn from writers who distill their career knowledge into business books- what are some of your favorites?

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