Lifestyle Design, Human Optimization

Team Health / Team Wealth Blog

Book Review 3: The Effective Executive


Hey Team! Hope you all are doing great.

Back again, with another book review. This is a great one.

There’s something about these older management tomes that stand the test of time. They are truly works of art.

The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker. A guide on how to be an effective (results-achieving) executive (knowledge worker with autonomy).

This book is particularly relevant to my situation and work at Perfect Keto. I’m tasked with a tremendous amount of responsibility, and tied to metrics that measure our ability to convert web traffic —> customers. I chatted with my mentor Ryan about my struggle balancing the various web problems, opportunities, and marketing campaigns.

I knew that 0 problems does not mean a thriving business. It means a dull one. Nor doing 100% what is expected of me around marketing campaigns, that will not 10x the business. I had to figure out a way to spend more, and more time in the opportunities I saw for our web presence. Those alone have the power to 10x our growth.

Before Perfect Keto, I judged myself primarily by my effort. And effort often does lead to solid results. But I recall when I started working at Iterable, in sales, I asked the new VP of Sales - “What do you prefer: a seasoned SaaS salesperson, or a scrappy newcomer, hungry to learn?” His answer shook me, replying “I like salespeople that make sales.” It was so matter of fact. I felt like he didn’t value me properly…and he ended up firing me later lol. But he was right. As a sales leader, he set his sights on increasing sales!

Your output is your value as a knowledge worker. Whether it takes you 1 hour or 100 hours is irrelevant. Great organizations depend on quality output. Burn that into your BRAIN!

Some time ago, most workers were manual, and effort = output. Product 1 widget per hour, 8 hours, 8 widgets. Move 2x as fast, produce 2x as many widgets. Easy.

For workers today, it’s not simple. We have so many demands on our time, Slack messages, Threads, Texts, Calls, Zoom Meetings, Email…the list goes on. More than ever, we must train ourselves to be effective. It can be learned, but it is a discipline, and it takes practice. Effectiveness produces uncommon output from common people. As said in the e-myth, we cannot expect to get excellent people everywhere, they are in short supply. We must, nonetheless, pursue excellent results.

Now - let’s discuss the 5 arenas of making oneself effective:

  1. Know where your time goes

  2. Focus on outward contribution-what results are expected of me?

  3. Build on strengths-yours and others!

  4. Focus on select areas, ignore the 2nd priorities. 

  5. Make effective, deliberate decisions based on systems

1) How well do you know your schedule? Executives claim they know how they spend their time. And they give themselves far too much credit for pouring time in the right buckets. In my case, I refer to my right buckets as “glaciers”, huge, slow moving projects with giant impact.

There will always be demands on our time, and the counterbalance is to measure those, and consistently prune. Prune, prune, prune. One hardly ever finds examples of over-pruning causing disaster.

This time audit should lead to eliminating pull tasks (others pulling you into things), delegating tasks that could be done by others (I suck at this), eliminating push tasks (ones we initiate) that waste other’s time and pruning time wasters that arise due to poor systems design. One of my favorite lines paraphrased: “A crisis that happens twice is not a crisis. It is a failure of systems.”

Ala Deep Work, more can be done in one 3-hour block, than in three 1-hour blocks. We must therefore pursue blocks of time, and protect those blocks. Especially since we are making judgements, and not widgets, all angles must be considered. Another great anecdote - one of the senior execs only allowed 2 interrupters during his consulting meetings: The President, and his Wife. He commented that he “Never met a crisis that could not wait 90 minutes.” His business was easily in the 10’s of billions. Love it!

2. What can I contribute? Start by thinking about year-end, quarter-end, month-end. What 1-2 things can you bring data on and demonstrate an org-wide impact? This will not always be the desired course of action. We can’t just focus on the things we’re good at if they contribute little to the overall org. I felt this pain deeply in my first startup.

What can I uniquely contribute? I love this question. What am I specially equipped to do? As a CEO in the book saw, he could motivate managers to promote young people. He checked up on the young people, and their bosses. He held bosses accountable to promised promotions. He created a culture where people grew quickly and felt rewarded. Hard for anyone but the CEO to do that.

Another impact of the focus on contribution by managers, is that it bleeds into their teams. From “What can I contribute?” follows how do I improve that answer? Self-development. Reading. Learning. As stated in the book: “The executive who sets his sights on contribution, raises the sights and standards of everyone with whom he/she works”.

3. Building on strengths. I think I’m actually not bad at this. We need not be good at everything. Be competent, but not great. When staffing - maximize strength, do not minimize weaknesses. Drucker believes that strong people have strong weaknesses, and I’m inclined to agree, to a certain extent. I think in our economy, information is so freely available we must be competent everywhere and excellent in a few places. Online learning and such makes weakness the trademark of lazy people.

The question in selecting people becomes “What can this person do uncommonly well? Then find a job that has those characteristics. Retrofitting a job to a personality may work in the short term, but if that person leaves, it causes a wave of change as the org must adapt. I must say that I disagree with Drucker’s discussion of tolerance, such as the stage manager dealing with a great musician who causes drama but produces great music. I have a strict no assholes rule. No matter how good the work.

Among the ways to to build on strengths as an executive, is to fit your job to yours, the jobs of your team to theirs, but also your boss to theirs! Yes, you must maximize the effectiveness of your boss. Assume first they are not ‘out to get you’ and have a few areas of excellence you can benefit from. More often, you’ll find them. A plan to reform one’s boss rarely plays out in real life.

4. First things first - ruthlessly prioritize. This one is so hard for me.

Unlike with people, where you take value as the premise, with tasks, you should assume they are useless until they prove otherwise. I quote — “All programs outlive their usefulness fast and should be scrapped unless proven productive and necessary”. That’s ruthless baby! Ask yourself “Is this still worth doing?” and be courageous enough to say no. “Do not defend yesterday.”

When prioritizing, recognize who is making the decision. It is either:

  1. The executive

  2. Pressure

GENIUS. Pressure comes from within, but a business depends on the outside world, on customers, deals, trends. The executive task is to produce results to those aims.

Now to my favorite line in the book - priorities vs. posterities. Priorities are things we will do. Posterities are things we decide not to do. They are much harder to set that priorities. Postponing is a weak form of a posterity. I already did this TODAY at Perfect Keto. Nope, not important, deleting off the to-do list. What a relief. It’s unpleasant, telling someone no. Again, courage. Recurring theme: effectiveness + bravery.

5. Decision Making. First, to borrow from Dahlio’s Principles, this is all about a systems approach.

Begin with the boundary conditions - what is absolutely necessary? In procuring food, a loaf of bread vs. a half loaf of bread? Both could work. How about a baby vs. half a baby? One is workable, the other quite morbid.

Second, identify if this is truly a unique situation. Is this a symptom, or a cause? Match a generic solution to a generic problem, and unique to unique. The tendency is to think everything is unique.

Automobile accidents are the example used - it was thought that driver safety and training was the solution to reduce overall accidents. However, when it was uncovered that 5% of drivers (drunk) caused 75% of accidents, the car manufactures came under huge fire for not making safer vehicles, assuming they did crash. There’s an emotional barrier here too, engineering cars for the people using them right, AND for those using them wrong. Almost as if to reward the misbehavior. In the battle of plausibility vs. morality - always take the plausible approach.

Third, decisions demand alternatives. A “yes” or “no” does not qualify. To improve the quality of decisions, we should pursue disagreement, so as to see problems from all angles. And if we are wrong, we’ll have another course of action waiting in the wings.

Fourth, one option is always to do nothing at all. This one does not come naturally either. But sometimes inaction is best and things really do work themselves out. Especially with scarce resources, some problems should be tolerated in favor of tackling big opportunities.

Finally, the effective executive decides, and then he acts. There is no halfway here. Once a decision is reached, it often feels jubilant, and loses momentum from that instance. Effective decisions demand courage. They will upset people, they cause friction, they will cause doubt in the process. But more often than not, it’s just an emotional barrier to doing what’s right.

Whew. What a book. It’s got me in an incredible mental place at the day job now…I will be pruning, pruning, pruning….until next time :)

Will McLellarn