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BOOK REVIEW: What it takes to be an effective executive

Jul 19 2016 07:44
Ian Mann

Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time, by Laura Stack

LAURA Stack’s book has as its foundation Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. Drucker, one of the world’s few genuine gurus of management, produced this slim book in 1967, and it has been a staple for executives ever since. Time has not diminished its importance.

Drucker outlines five “habits of the mind” that are required of executives: understanding and controlling where time goes; focusing on results; building on your strengths; prioritising work; and making effective decisions.

Stack believes "if the book (Drucker’s) has a flaw… it’s in not examining the 'how'." Her book is intended to correct this flaw.

However, Stack’s book feels like being sprayed by a fire-hydrant, rather than being drip fed – it is simply far too much, all at once. The volume of issues she covers from strategy to team-effectiveness, to personal efficacy, decision-making and more, is too superficial to be instructive.

Despite this serious deficiency, I still think this book is worth reading, because it is aimed at executives who have been exposed to the ideas she presents. This book serves only as a reminder of what you most probably know, but may well have forgotten, or overlooked. Therein lies its value.

Below are some ideas you might find worth reconsidering. “Regularly re-evaluate your progress to ensure you’re on the right path,” Stack suggests.
 
The dictionary definition of an executive is a person appointed and given the responsibility to manage the affairs of an organisation and the authority to make specific decisions. As such, an executive might be a middle manager, a senior leader, or even an individual contributor who hasn’t received a title. An executive is anyone who is responsible for results.

Effectiveness is successfully producing what needs to be done, and efficiency is doing it with the minimum expenditure of time, effort, and money. “It doesn’t matter how well your team climbs Mount Everest if your intention was to climb the Matterhorn,” Stack points out.

As an executive, you must execute because the decisions are ultimately yours to make. If you’re in command, be in command. Execution and results are all that really matters in any business. If you don’t decide, circumstances will make your decisions for you, and the circumstances may not have your best interests in mind.  

Performance isn’t everything - it’s the only thing

Producing results is at the heart of what it means to be efficient and effective, or as Vince Lombardi, the great football coach, famously said: “Performance isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Analysts Collinson and Jay estimated that the 200 largest Fortune 500 companies alone suffer from “value-destructive complexity”, costing them $237bn a year. It is the leader who is responsible for making things easier and faster for the organisation through the formulation and application of simple rules.

“You may discover that rather than having dozens of processes to deal with, you actually have one core process that applies to dozens of situations. Cleaning up your processes accelerates business wonderfully, resulting in greater simplicity and greater profits,” Stack explains.

The number of meetings you attend and your high rating in culture surveys don’t really matter. What does matter is whether you and your team can consistently produce at a high level that meets or exceeds your goals. This requires that your team has clear goals, with guardrails. Focus on a few major goals, and execute them superbly. “If your team lacks clear goals, it may as well be a drunken octopus on roller skates.” (What a great image!)

Multitasking is as serious a timewaster for a team as it is for individuals. Goal effectiveness requires that you are using each person’s key strengths and insights into the company, and your customers’ business.

Goals should never be seen as cast in stone. Once people thought they would never be able to travel faster than 35 miles per hour, the speed of a galloping horse. Nowadays, airplanes regularly exceed 500 miles per hour. Not long ago, typewriters were an essential piece of office equipment until they were displaced in quick succession by word processors, monochrome computers, PCs and Macs, handheld devices, smartphones, and cloud computing. And all this within 20 years.

Everything changes, so should your goals.

Everyone wants to be happy with and proud of their work, yet so few are. “Effective communication sets profitable, productive organizations apart from the duds,” explains Stack - it makes a huge difference. Effective communication is more art than science. You needs to check in with your people regularly to make sure they’re in tune with the team and also with the organization.

“Keep your mission in front of your team. Repeat your goals until you’re blue in the face—you can’t over-communicate, and you won’t insult people with repetition.”

Getting discretionary effort from team members begins with a genuine concern for them and their lives. Gone are the days when employees were nothing more than their job descriptions, interchangeable machine parts. Smart leaders know they get further by forming partnerships with their employees and acting as visionary facilitators; sometimes even cheerleaders, but never, ever as dictators.

They’re people. If you take care of your people, they are more likely to take care of you - loyalty flows both ways. Treated well, staff are more likely to stay with you, and good staff are expensive to replace. You constantly need to find reasons for your people to pour their discretionary effort into their work.

“Never lose track of your team’s best interests while pursuing your own. That’s one touchstone of a good executive,” Stack notes.

Stack’s collection of ideas will either make you proud of your leadership, or embarrass you. Either way it is a worthwhile read.

Readability:    Light -+--- Serious
Insights:        High ---+- Low
Practical:        High ---+- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews
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