Anna Shipman : JFDI

The Effective Executive

30 December 2019

This year, I finally read The Effective Executive. It was great. Here are some of the things I took from it.

You want to be effective, rather than efficient

Knowledge work is not defined by cost, it’s defined by results, and the effective executive has the ability to get the right things done.

Knowing and analysing how you spend your time is the most important thing

“Nothing else distinguishes effective executives as much as their tender loving care of time.”

Innovation and change make inordinate time demands on the executive. All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and do as one has always done.

Research, to be productive, has to be the disorganised, the creator of a different future and the enemy of today.

However, he says in any executive job a large part of the time must be wasted. Rarely as much as 25% of one’s time is discretionary. So you should set deadlines for the discretionary work.

First things first and second things not at all

Effective executives do first things first, and they do one thing at a time.

A decision has to be made about which tasks deserve priority – the only question is who makes the decision, the executive or the pressures. (This reminds me of “schedule maintanance for your machines before they schedule it for you”).

You need self-discipline and an iron determination to say no

Keeping many balls in the air is a circus stunt but even the juggler only does it for ten minutes or so.

The secret of people who do many things is that they do one thing at a time, so as a result they need much less time in the end.

People who get nothing done work a lot harder. They underestimate how long everything will take, don’t expect the unexpected, and do several things at once, so if any one thing falls behind, the whole house of cards collapses.

Concentration – that is, the courage to impose on time and events your own decision about what matters and comes first – is the only hope of being the master of events and time, rather than at their mercy.

Plan for the activities of tomorrow not yesterday

Effective executives periodically review their work programme and ask, if we didn’t already do this would we start now? And unless the answer is a resounding yes they drop the activity or curtail it. Pull out their resources and put them on the activity of tomorrow.

Every executive has to spend time, energy and ingenuity on patching up or bailing out the actions and decisions of yesterday, whether their own or their predecessors. This takes up more hours of the day than any other task.

The need to slough off the outworn old to make possible the productive new is universal.

Don’t sacrifice the future on the altar of today

It is more productive to convert an opportunity into results than to solve a problem – which only restores the equilibrium of yesterday.

Executive work is always postponable because it doesn’t try to solve yesterday’s crises but to make a difference tomorrow. One abandons what one postpones.

The pressures favour the crisis over the opportunity, what has happened over the future, the immediate and visible over the real, and the urgent over the relevant.

Decide your ‘posteriorities’

As well as priorities you should set ‘posteriorities’ – things not to tackle – and stick to them. One rarely over-prunes.

Circumstances change and so do priories and posteriorities – sometimes as a result of doing your priority task. That is why you must focus on one task, and then when that is done, figure out the next.

The most important part of priorities and posteriorities is courage

Setting a posteriority is unpleasant. Every posteriority is someone else’s priority. It’s much easier to just do a little bit of everything – but nothing gets done.

Most effective decisions are distasteful

Executives are not paid for doing things they like to do, they are paid for getting the right things done.

Decisions require courage as much as judgment. Make sure you are not uneasy, but also do not delay. Act or do not act, but don’t hedge. (Or, as I prefer to think of it, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”)

One always has to start out with what is right rather than what is acceptable, because one always has to compromise in the end.

It is fruitless and a waste of time to worry about what is acceptable and what to say – the things one worries about never happen. And in the process of starting out with what is acceptable you lose any chance of coming up with the right answer.

Establish a principle rather than making decisions case by case

An executive who makes many decisions is lazy and ineffectual – everything should be an example of a few rules.

When making decisions, focus on what is strategic and generic rather than trying to solve problems, or adapting to the apparent need of the current moment. Choose what is sound rather than what is clever.

The trickiest decision is between the right and wrong compromise.

Until a decision has been acted on it is just a good intention

No task is complete until it has become part of organisational action or behaviour. When the pressures make the decision, this part is slighted.

In the military you give an order and it happens, but this is because all military organisations have learned long ago that the officer who has given an order goes out and sees for herself whether it has been carried out.

Failure to go out and look is the typical reason for persisting in a course of action after it has ceased to be appropriate.

Do not aim for consensus

Effective executives create dissension and disagreement rather than consensus in order to make good decisions.

Disagreement means well thought out opinions on all sides. And the executive starts out with a commitment to find out why people disagree. First start with understanding. Only when you can understand the other party’s position can you be sure your position is right.

What do we have to know to test the validity of this hypothesis? What would the facts have to be to make this opinion tenable?

In meetings, one can either direct and listen or take part and contribute.

Effective executives think about what they can contribute

What can I contribute, that others cannot? Why am I on the payroll?

Results come from building on strength not shoring up weakness. Do what you are good at.

Ask how can I help, what can I do? How do my goals align with the goals of the organisation? Focus work on upward contribution. The executive who works at making strengths productive, works at making organisation performance compatible with personal achievement.

Making your boss successful is the best way to progress

Making the strength of your boss productive is the key to your own effectiveness. It enables you to focus your contribution in such a way that it finds receptivity “upstairs”, and will be put to good use.

What does my boss do well, and what do they need from me to perform? Your boss is also human, with human weaknesses, that you can help shore up. And few things make an executive as effective as building on the strengths of their superior.

You do not need exceptional talent

This is not the leadership of brilliance and genius but the more modest leadership of dedication, determination and serious purpose.

Common people achieving uncommon results. It goes from mechanics, to attitudes, values and character; from procedure to commitment.

The task of the executive is not to change human beings but to multiply performance of everyone by putting strengths to work.

Put into the leadership position the person who can do the pace-setting job. As executives work towards being effective they raise the sights of their own and others and raise the performance level of the organisation.

I loved this book

A lot of it really resonated with my own views about discipline, prioritisation and focusing on the strategic solution rather than solving problems on a case-by-case basis. It promises a utopian vision of not running around all the time fighting fires: “A well managed plant is a quiet place, a well managed organisation is a dull one.”

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