Book Notes – The Effective Executive

Book Cover of The Effective Executive

Chapter 1: Effectiveness Can Be Learned

To be effective is the job of the executive. “To effect” and “to execute” are near-synonyms.

Most knowledge workers are executives in some capacity, as they are expected to make decisions about their work.

There are four key struggles an executive faces:

  1. Your time belongs to everyone else. Everyone needs your input to be effective themselves.
  2. You’re forced to keep on operating as a default. The flow of events – not what is important to be effective – can easily determine your focus.
  3. Your effectiveness is constrained and enhanced by the wider organisation. You are effective only when others make use of what you contribute. You usually have no direct control over those who are most important to your effectiveness.
  4. Your view of the world is through the distorted lens of the organisation. It takes special effort to avoid becoming inward-focused. Results only happen on the outside.

An effective executive has five practices to manage these struggles:

  1. Systematically understand and manage where your time goes.
  2. Aim towards outward contribution, gearing your efforts to results rather than work.
  3. Build on strengths, not on weakness.
  4. Focus on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results. Do the first things first and the second things not at all.
  5. Make effective decisions that unlock strategic progress.

What is often wanted when hiring is universal genius, but the only person in abundant supply is the universal incompetent. Humans are not logical super-computers. We are slow and sloppy, but we are able to have insight. If we can’t increase the supply of a resource we can only try to increase its yield. We have to extend the range of our capabilities through the tools we have to work with.

Results are co-determined at best. Outcomes are the result of your decisions and actions plus everyone else’s.

Outside events are often qualitative and not capable of quantification. The truly important events on the outside are not the trends, but the changes in trends.

Chapter 2: Know Thy Time

Effective executives don’t start with tasks; they start with time.

Record: We’re bad at remembering how we spend time. At a minimum, log actual time use for three to four weeks at least twice a year.

Manage: Systematically identify ineffective uses of your time.

  1. Stop: Identify and eliminate the things that need not be done at all.
  2. Delegate: Ask what can be done by somebody else just as well, if not better? (80% will do!)
  3. Unlock Others: Look for things that cost others’ time that you impose.
Symptom Problem
Recurring crisis Lack of system/foresight
10%+ time on “HR-type” work Overstaffing
25%+ time in meetings Malorganisation
Multiple sources of truth/backchannels Information malfunction

Consolidate: Set your expectations low; 25%+ discretionary time is a miracle! Block time for deep work (90 minutes deep; 30 minutes shallow; ↺).

Deep Work: Most serious tasks require an amount of focused time. Breaking up this time into small chunks results in waste and ineffectiveness. Using focus time to get work up the hill allows the remainder of the work to be done in smaller instalments.

Managing People: People are time consumers. You can’t convey big impactful ideas in a few minutes; you need an hour. Building a human relationship requires infinitely more. Since knowledge workers are self-directed, they need a clear understanding of what’s expected and why. This requires a significant amount of information, discussion and instruction, and especially an understanding of the wider context and goals of the organisation.

Outcome Focus: A leisurely exchange up, down and across the organisation is needed to keep enthusiasm high and so that people direct their attention towards opportunities and results rather than inwards towards their specialty. Some good questions to ask on a regular schedule are:

  • What should the leadership team know about your work?
  • What do you want to tell me regarding this organisation?
  • Where do you see opportunities that we don’t exploit?
  • Where do you see dangers to which we are still blind?
  • What do you want to know from me about the organisation?

People Decisions: People are always “almost fits” at best.

Meetings: An organisation in which everybody meets all the time is an organisation in which no one gets anything done. Too many meetings signify that responsibility is diffused and that information is not addressed to the people who need it.

Information Malfunction: Look at availability, timing and form of information.

Chapter 3: What Can I Contribute?

Effective executives focus on contribution, They look outward towards goals and the performance and results of the organisation. The majority focus downward and become occupied with efforts rather than results, and what they believe they are owed.

Effective contribution covers three major areas:

  1. Direct results: Ensure clarity. When there is confusion there are no results.
  2. Build & reaffirm values: Communicate what we stand for. The next generation should take for granted what the hard work and dedication of this generation has accomplished.
  3. Develop talent: Enable & encourage others to be effective. People adjust to the level of demand made on them.

The four basic requirements of effective human relations:

  1. Communication: Ask others how they can/should contribute and how best to use their skills.
  2. Teamwork: The focus on contribution leads to communications sideways according to the logic and demands of the task rather than the formal organisational structure.
  3. Individual self-development: Knowledge workers must be professionals in their attitude towards their own field of knowledge. They must consider themselves responsible for their own competence and the standards of their work.
  4. Development of others: Set standards which are not personal but grounded in the requirements of the task. At the same time, they are demands for high aspiration and excellence.

The tools of executives:

  • Meetings
  • Reports
  • Presentations

Know what to expect out of these typical work situations. Know what its purpose is, what it achieves and its output.

  • To inform
  • To stimulate thinking
  • To decide

To ask “what can I best contribute towards results?” is to look for the unused potential in the job. What is considered excellent performance in many positions is often a fraction of the job’s full potential of contribution.

The world changes around you. The relative importance of between the three dimensions of performance changes. Failing to understand this will result in suddenly doing the wrong things the wrong way, even though they were previously the right things done the right way.

Knowledge workers are expected to take responsibility for being understood. If you want to be an executive – responsible for your own contribution – you must concern yourself with the usability of your “product”.The knowledge worker is usually a specialist. The task is not to breed generalists; it is to enable the specialist to make themselves and their specialty effective. The only meaningful definition of a generalist is a specialist who can relate their small area to the universe of knowledge. You should learn enough of the needs, directions, limitations and perceptions of others to enable them to use your own work.

The objectives set for themselves by subordinates are almost never what the superior thought they should be.

Chapter 4: Making Strength Productive

Only strength produces results; one cannot build on weakness.

To focus on strength is to demand performance. Organisation enables multiplying the performance capacity of the whole while making weakness irrelevant. The job is not to find genius – there aren’t enough – but to enable common people to achieve uncommon performance.

  • Make the job roles effective
  • Make others’ strengths effective
  • Make your own strength effective
Look out for the impossible job Role has defeated 2-3 able people in succession
Make jobs demanding and big Challenge brings out whatever strength a person may have
Measure task-oriented performance Don’t diagnose & remedy weakness unless it limits full development of strength
Tolerate weakness Focus on opportunity, not problems

In every area of effectiveness within an organisation, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problem.

For the ability of a knowledge worker to contribute in an organisation, the values and the goals of the organisation are at least as important as their own professional knowledge and skills.

Job Descriptions: The tendency is to start with the job as being a part of the order of nature. Then one looks for a person to fill the job. It is too easy to be misled this way into looking for the “least misfit”. This invariably leads to mediocrity. Structuring jobs to fit the personalities available is worse than the disease of mediocrity. Jobs have to be objective, determined by the task not the personality.

Jobs in an organisation are interdependent and interlocked. You can’t change everybody’s work and responsibility just because you have to replace a single person in a single job. To structure one job to a person is almost certain to result in greater discrepancy between the demands of the job and the available talent.

Pick people for jobs based on what they can do. What do they need to know to use their strength, and how do I provide it?

To tolerate diversity, relationships must be task-focused rather than personality focused. Otherwise the accent will at once be on “who is right?” rather than on “what is right?”. Keep a distance between close colleagues to measure the relationship on task-oriented performance.

The effective executive tries to make fully productive the strength of their own superior. Start out with what is right and present it in a form which is accessible.

People are either readers or listeners; inform accordingly (sum up; document thought process; provide the figures; bring in early; ripen privately)

Finding your strength: What can I do with relative ease that others seem to struggle with?

In the American civil war, the “well rounded” men Lincoln had appointed were beaten time and agin by Lee’s “single-purpose tools”, the men of narrow but very great strength.

Andrew Carnegie chose for his tombstone: “Here lies a man who knew how to bring into his service better than he was himself.”

Chapter 5: First Things First

The more an executive focuses on upward contribution, the more he switches from being busy to achieving results.

If there’s any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. There are always more important contributions to be made than there is time available to make them. Effective executives do first things first, and do one at a time.

Doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The way to apply productively mankind’s great range is to bring to bear a large number of individual capabilities on one task. The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources, the greater the number and diversity of tasks one can actually perform. Doing things fast means you need much less time than others do.

Hedging by doing a bit of everything means that nothing gets done.

Allow margin for the unexpected; set an easy but steady pace.

Hire new people to expand an established and smoothly running activity. Start new things with people of tested, proven strength.

Look to tomorrow: If operational pressures set the priorities the important tasks of paying attention to the outside of the organisation will predictably be sacrificed.

Periodically review work programmes and ask “if we didn’t already do this, would we do it now?” Commit today’s resources to the future. Stop an old activity before committing to a new one – weight control.

Successful companies are those that innovate new technologies or businesses; not those that just expand their existing product line. Courage rather than analysis is needed for setting priorities.

  • Pick the future over the past
  • Focus on opportunity over problems
  • Chose your own direction rather than climb on the bandwagon
  • Aim high to make a difference rather than for safety

Chapter 6: The Elements of Decision-making

Decision-making is usually a small fraction of time but is the specific executive task.

The important decisions are strategic and generic at the highest level of conceptual understanding.

Know when to make a principled or pragmatic decision. Know which is the right or the wrong compromise.

There are 4 types of situation. A decision will inevitably be wrong if the situation is classified incorrectly.

  • The truly generic
  • Internally novel; externally generic
  • Truly novel
  • Early manifestation of internally generic

Elements of decisions:

  • Always assume the problem is generic. If faced with a generic problem, the decision is to establish a rule or principle.
  • Set the boundary conditions concisely and clearly – the specifications as to what the decision has to accomplish
  • Establish what is right before making compromises
  • Decisions must degenerate into work or actions, otherwise it is not a decision, just good intention. So many policy statements contain no action commitment.
  • Build feedback into the decision. Organised information like reports and figures is necessary, but direct exposure to reality is the best way to test whether the decision is still valid. Reality never stands still very long.

Mistakes to be on guard for:

  • Treating a generic problem as a series of novel events
  • Treating a new event as an old problem, therefore applying the wrong, old rules
  • Accepting a plausible but erroneous definition of the problem
  • Incomplete definition of the problem

Bell Laboratories was deliberately designed to make obsolete the present, no matter how profitable and efficient. In most industrial laboratories, “defensive research” aimed at perpetuating today predominates.

Beware the longevity of the temporary. Improvisation is always going to be necessary, but ask “if I had to live with this for a long time, would I be willing to?”

Chapter 7: Effective Decisions

A decision is a judgement, rarely a choice between wrong and right. Most are between options that aren’t obviously better or worse. There are no facts to base these decisions on, so you must start with opinions, treating them as untested hypotheses.

You must test a hypothesis against reality. Assume that the traditional measurement is not the right measurement, otherwise there would likely be no need for a decision.

Whenever one has to judge, one must have alternatives among which one can choose. Effective decision-makers create dissent and disagreement, rather than consensus, but starting with the commitment to find out why people disagree.

  1. It safeguards against the decision-maker becoming a prisoner of the organisation. Everyone is always trying to get the decision they favour, so dissent puts the decision back in the decision-maker’s hands.
  2. Dissent generates options, and if alternatives have been thought of during the decision-making process one has something to fall back on.
  3. Disagreement is needed to stimulate the imagination. It can generate new options through working through the disagreements.

Is a decision really necessary? One alternative is the alternative of doing nothing. Every decision is like surgery; an intervention into a system carrying a risk of shock. You have to make a decision when a condition is likely to degenerate if nothing is done, but there’s no point if it will take care of itself or, while annoying, the decision is unlikely to make any difference.

The majority of these decisions will be between the extremes. You must compare risk of action to risk of inaction. Either act or don’t act. Don’t take half-action. This is the one thing that’s always wrong.

Decisions require courage as much as judgement. Ask if additional studies are likely to produce anything new, and whether that the new is likely to be relevant.

The strength of the computer lies in it being a logic machine, it’s strength being fast and precise. This also makes it a total moron. The human being by contrast is perceptual. This makes us slow and sloppy, but also bright and insightful.

The adaptation to the decision in principle has been going on for a long time. In WWII middle-level commanders increasingly had to know the framework of strategic decisions within which they were operating. They increasingly had to make real decisions, rather than adapt their orders to local events. As long as we handle events on the operating level by adaptation (feel) rather than by knowledge and analysis, operating people will be untrained, untried and untested when, as top executives, they are first confronted with strategic decisions.