to the 50th Anniversary Edition of
The Effective Executive
Don’t Tell Me You Had A Wonderful Meeting With Me
By Zachary First
When Peter Drucker was asked at the end of his long life what his greatest contribution was, he answered: “What I would say is I helped a few good people be effective in doing the right things.”
Of the millions of words Drucker wrote through six groundbreaking decades, not one is more important than effective. Effectiveness, he said, is “doing the right things well.”
This is a definition much richer than the conventional wisdom that effectiveness simply means getting things done. Indeed, this book asks you to be yourself, to aim beyond yourself and to work with courage.
Being yourself means identifying and building on your own unique strengths.
From 1980 through 2003, the investment firm Edward Jones retained Peter Drucker as consultant, advisor and teacher for its top executives. During that time, the company grew from 200 offices in 28 U.S. states to more than 9,000 offices throughout the United States, Canada and the U.K.
Early on, Edward Jones’ Managing Partner wrote to Drucker that he and his team had read Drucker’s 1973 classic, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, so many times that “our copies are literally worn out.” Drucker replied:
I have only one negative comment, but a pretty important one. Stop talking about “Druckerizing” your organization. Indeed, stop reading in very dubious sources. The job ahead of you is to “Jonesize” your organization—and only if you accept this would I be of any help to you. Otherwise I would rapidly become a menace—which I refuse to be.
For Edward Jones, this translated into using Drucker’s teachings not to become a generically “effective” company, but rather to more effectively carry out the company’s distinctive mission of democratizing investing and financial planning.
Distinctiveness alone, however, is not a sufficient guiding principle. “The great majority of executives,” Drucker writes, “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.”
The effective executive aims beyond himself by focusing on contribution. This requires turning one’s attention away from “one’s own specialty, one’s own narrow skills, one’s own department,” Drucker writes, “and toward the performance of the whole.”
In The Practice of Management, Drucker retells a favorite story about three stonecutters who were asked what they were doing:
The first replied: “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said: “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third one looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said: “I am building a cathedral.”
The last person is the one who is ready for effectiveness. He is focused outward, on contribution. It is likely, of course, that along the way he will make a living. He may even become the best stonecutter in the county. But for the effective executive, gain and glory are only ever side effects of doing the right things well.
Still, for the stonecutter, it all begins by getting to work shaping stone. And so, too, for you and me. Effectiveness, Drucker writes again and again, demands doing. The timeless wisdom in The Effective Executive is meant to be used, not merely read and admired.
Don Keough, the legendarily effective former president of The Coca-Cola Company, was one of Drucker’s consulting clients. Recalling their time together, Keough said, “He would tell me after each session, ‘Don’t tell me you had a wonderful meeting with me. Tell me what you are going to do on Monday that’s different.’”
As executives like Keough often found, Drucker’s challenge to make Monday different was deceptively tough. It requires figuring out not only what you should do, but also what you shouldn’t.
Ultimately, the effective executive must set a large number of posteriorities—tasks one chooses not to tackle—so as to focus with exquisite clarity on a small number of priorities. This is a daunting proposition, especially in today’s world that is awash in data, information and knowledge. No matter how smart a list of posteriorities and priorities, it seems that one could always be smarter.
In one of The Effective Executive’s most striking passages, however, Drucker writes, “The most important thing about priorities and posteriorities is…not intelligent analysis but courage.”
Aiming first to be smart is a deadly sin for an executive, every bit as detrimental as preoccupation with one’s own interests, talents, power or position. Although analysis should always shape and inform action, it cannot provide the initial spark required to create action.
Courage is what serves that special purpose. Without courage, an executive in possession of the most brilliant idea in history can only ponder what might be. With courage, knowledge becomes productive.
For Drucker, courage is more than mere motion in the face of uncertainty. Courage manifests in four specific ways of taking action: “Pick the future as against the past. Focus on opportunity rather than on problem. Choose your own direction—rather than climb on the bandwagon. And aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is ‘safe’ and easy to do.”
Long before Drucker wrote The Effective Executive, he was a young man fleeing totalitarianism in search of a way to defeat it. He did not create the discipline of management because it was a smart idea. He created it because he had the courage to ask what he could do to strengthen the institutions of society—and thus society itself—against the horrors of the 20th century.
The Effective Executive is an expression of Drucker’s courageous choice to focus on society’s future possibilities as against its past tragedies; on the opportunities management created, not the problems it solved; on his own direction by advocating for a humanistic practice of management; and on the high aim to make society both more productive and more humane.
The Effective Executive is, in short, Drucker’s gift to you so that you can learn to be yourself, to aim beyond yourself and to work with courage.
Now don’t tell me you had a wonderful time reading this book. Tell me instead:
What will you do on Monday that’s different?