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 / Autumn 2007 / Issue 48(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Productivity Promisers

The Effective Executive was a landmark work. Drucker wrote it after years of observing the practices of successful executives, and it was the first book to present a complete and integrated system of principles by which executives could have demonstrable impact. With characteristic intellectual ambition, he called his work the “definitive guide to getting the right things done.” And, at the time, his slim guide was just that.

Interestingly, although Drucker often spoke of the increasing autonomy of knowledge workers (who would be managed by “orchestra conductors” rather than “military captains”), he clearly wrote his book for upper management, whom he considered the levers for organi­zational productivity. He defined executives as those individuals whose decisions have a material effect on the firm. Drucker advised managers to emulate the following key practices of the effective executives he observed:

They know where their time goes. Effective executives record enough of their day to be aware of exactly how they spend their hours; they use this data to manage which ac­tivities they do, they delegate, or they think about.

They act from the outside in. That is to say that they “gear their efforts to results rather than work.” Action trumps mere motion: Effective executives consider the outcomes of their actions and understand what deeper purpose is to be achieved from their activity.

They make strength productive. Taking full stock of their personal strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their colleagues and employees, they constantly work to realize the full promise of these assets. Such an analysis requires real self-knowledge, strength, and vision to leverage what works instead of fighting what doesn’t.

They prioritize ruthlessly. “Effective executives know that they have to get many things done — and done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate — their own time and energy as well as that of the organization — on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.” Only by concentrating fully on what’s essential, says Drucker, can an executive become “the master of time and events instead of their whipping boy.”

They make effective decisions. By gathering data, inviting dissent, learning to find patterns, and reflecting on their results, effective executives can develop their prowess in this crucial function.

Each of the practices cited above has evolved into a virtual category of its own today. This essential handbook, moreover, has spawned the next generation of thinking in this field. By identifying the need to play to each person’s individual strengths, Drucker es­sentially integrated personal de­velopment with organizational well-being: “Self-development of the executive toward effectiveness…is the only way in which organization goals and individual needs can come together,” he wrote. One person’s productivity growth was personal and, to a degree, self-actualizing. Suddenly the boundaries of what could drive individuals to achieve were expanded.

Good(ness) to Great
By highlighting the individual nature of productivity improvement, Drucker opened the door for the first modern rock star of productivity, Stephen Covey, whose book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, debuted in 1989 and has since sold more than 15 million copies — earning the top slot in most polls of executives asked to name the most influential book they’ve read. The key to understanding Covey’s useful program is seeing how, at the core, he links the promise of moral self-improvement with becoming a more effective executive. Being good ultimately leads to doing better.

Covey preaches the importance of developing strong internal guidelines that ultimately work from the “inside out” to emerge as powerful habits that succeed both at home and in the office. He challenges readers to choose between the Personality Ethic, which uses cosmetic and instrumental tactics along with a positive mental attitude to win friends and influence people, and the Character Ethic, a time-tested code that draws from enduring internal values such as integrity, humility, fidelity, and temperance as a means of effecting positive change.

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Personal Productivity Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place (Little, Brown, 2006), 328 pages
  2. David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Viking, 2001), 282 pages
  3. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (1989; Free Press, 2004), 384 pages
  4. Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (1967; HarperCollins, 2006), 208 pages
  5. Henry Ford, Today and Tomorrow (1926; Productivity Press, 1988), 300 pages
  6. Brian Tracy, Time Power: A Proven System for Getting More Done in Less Time Than You Ever Thought Possible (AMACOM, 2004), 302 pages
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