I (finally) finished reading Peter Druckers The Effective Executive 50th Anniversary Edition this morning. I even dabbled in Farnam Street’s advice to write in the book (gasp!) as a form of personal edition commonplace book. Here’s a quick review and some of the passages I underlined.


  • Foreword: Ten Lessons I Learned from Peter Drucker by Jim Collins
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. Effectivenes Can Be Learned
  • 2. Know Thy Time
  • 3. What Can I Contribute?
  • 4. Making Strength Productive
  • 5. First Things First
  • 6. The Elements of Decision-Making
  • 7. Effective Decisions
  • Conclusion: Effectiveness Must Be Learned
  • Afterword: Don’t Tell Me You Had a Wonderful Meeting with Me
  • Index

If I remember nothing from this book, I will remember what Drucker told Jim Collins: “And you seem to spend a lot of energy on the question of how to be successful. But that is the wrong question. The question is: how to be useful!” Like Thomas the Tank engine, seek usefulness as opposed to success (or glory or fame). Not to get ahead of myself, but the Afterword quotes a parable Drucker used in The Practice of Management: Three stonecutters were asked what they were doing and they replied in turn: “I am making a living.” “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” And “I am building a cathedral.” The challenge is balancing the near-term utility of your actions with seeing the long-term bigger strategic picture of your cathedral, book, or whatever your project is.

The introduction outlines the structure of the rest of the book and echoes themes from Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The eight practices of effective executives (paraphrased below):

  • Asked “What needs to be done?”
  • Asked “What is right for the enterprise?”
  • Developed action plans.
  • Took responsibility for their decisions.
  • Took responsibility for communicating.
  • Focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • Ran productive meetings.
  • Thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

The great thing about these practices is that they can apply to the civilian sector, the military, and one’s personal life. If you ask yourself these questions prior to taking an action, and are honest with yourself, you will be more effective and achieve more than a “base level” of productivity.

Skipping ahead, Chapter 2: Know Thy Time underscores the importance of tracking your time to truly see where you spend it. (“Show me your calendar and I’ll tell you your priorities.”) I have not read it yet, but the premise of Cal Newport’s Deep Work could be applied as Drucker describes a minimum of 90 minutes applied to a topic to truly accomplish anything (feel free to take bathroom breaks as needed). A quote I liked: “A well-managed plant, …, is a quiet place. A well-managed factory is boring.

Contribution talks about needing performance in three major areas: direct results, building and reaffirming values, and developing people tomorrow. Ask yourself, “What can I and no one else do which, if really done well, would make a real difference to this company?” A prescient statement that could be applied to email: “The more we automate information-handling, the more we will have to create opportunities for effective communication.” A note on meetings implores the executive running the meeting to always go back to the opening statement and relate the final conclusion to the original intent of the point of the meeting.

Strength: Too often we focus on problems, rather than true opportunities for greatness. Focusing on “opportunities instead of problems not only creates the most effective organization, it also creates enthusiasm and dedication.” Reminds me of Jim Collins’ Good to Great discusses how the great companies focused on what they could do that no other company could do. Regarding bosses: “Few things make an executive as effective as building on the strengths of his superior.” And probably the thesis of the chapter: “one feeds the opportunities and starves the problems.”

Some bulletized thoughts about First Things First:

  • Focus on one thing at a time. Forget multitasking.
  • Ignore sunk costs.
  • Decide what not to do, as well as what to do.

Elements of decision-making applies extremely well to the military decision making process, whether it is MDMP (US Army Military Decision Making Process), JPP (Joint Planning Process), or using the OODA (Observe Orient Decide Act) loop.

  1. Realize the problem is generic and can be solved through a rule or principle.
  2. Define boundary conditions (i.e. restraints and constraints).
  3. Think through what is right, before attention is paid to compromises (best military advice).
  4. Build the execution into the decision.
  5. Define the feedback (assessment) which will test the validity of the decision.

The seventh chapter has some nuggets as well:

  • One starts with opinions from real people, not facts.
  • There are no facts unless one defines a criterion of relevance.
  • Ask any statistician: no one has ever has failed to find the facts he is looking for.
  • Executives looking to make a decision create dissent and conflict. Otherwise, groupthink takes hold or “yes-men” rise.

The conclusion sums up the book by hinting at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, describing modern knowledge organizations needing to provide economic and psychological benefits (the why) to its workers.

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