What Makes An Effective Executive - My Homage to Peter Drucker

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2007   

Peter Drucker passed away a little over a year ago. I’ve been re-reading several of his articles and books and was struck by how well he understood the mind of executives and how clear and to the point he could be. Much of what I’ve been reading resonates with my experience working with executives.

One of the things that bugs me to no end is when I run into HR folks who have an idealized vision of what an executive should act like. They expect that their executives should be exceptional “people persons” who are naturally extroverted, who can and do take the time to listen empathically to their employees, who have the capacity to be both calm and enthusiastic and never fly off the handle. Furthermore, they expect these executives to be strategic, methodical and master tacticians in leading and managing their organizations. Give me a break.

The effective executives I’ve met come in all shapes and sizes. Effective to me means that they run financially successful organizations, are respected by their employees and customers and are good corporate citizens. They’re human, with human frailties and imperfections. They try to do their jobs well, care about their people and try to leave a good corporate footprint. Some are quiet types while others fit the stereotype of the charismatic executive (e.g., Steve Jobs). Yet, they tend to do many of the things Drucker observed below, not all the time, but most of the time.

Rather than paraphrase Drucker, I’m quoting a section from an article he wrote after 65 years in consulting. I’ll conclude with some additional thoughts from my experiences.

“An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the sense that the term is now most commonly used. Harry Truman did not have one ounce of charisma, for example, yet he was among the most effective chief executives in U.S. history. Similarly, some of the best business and nonprofit CEOs I’ve worked with over a 65-year consulting career were not stereotypical leaders. They were all over the map in terms of their personalities, attitudes, values, strengths, and weaknesses. They ranged from extroverted to nearly reclusive, from easygoing to controlling, from generous to parsimonious.

What made them all effective is that they followed the same eight practices:

  • They asked, ‘What needs to be done?’
  • They asked, ‘What is right for the enterprise?’
  • They developed action plans.
  • They took responsibility for decisions.
  • They took responsibility for communicating.
  • They were focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said ‘we’ rather than ‘I.’

The first two practices gave them the knowledge they needed. The next four helped them convert this knowledge into effective action. The last two ensured that the whole organization felt responsible and accountable. I’m going to throw in one final, bonus practice. This one’s so important that I’ll elevate it to the level of a rule: Listen first, speak last.”

Drucker concludes with: “Effective executives differ widely in their personalities, strengths, weaknesses, values, and beliefs. All they have in common is that they get the right things done. Some are born effective. But the demand is much too great to be satisfied by extraordinary talent. Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.”

Drucker also makes a point that no matter the style of the executive, the effective ones also treat people with respect. Quoting Drucker again: “… they have authority only because they have the trust of the organization. This means that they think of the needs and the opportunities of the organization before they think of their own needs and opportunities. This one may sound simple; it isn’t, but it needs to be strictly observed.”

One of my rules of thumb for assessing an executive (when I’m asked to make new hire or promotional assessments) is to ask myself: Do I trust this person? Are they sincere? Do they make others feel valuable? I remember meeting the CEO of one of the largest financial service firms in the country when I was working with one of his direct reports (executive coaching assignment). He treated me like I was a guest in his home. This was in contrast to the CEO of another firm who was (I’m being generous) pompous and was mostly interested in hearing his own voice. In both companies, I interviewed key executives as part of the executive coaching assessment process. In the financial service firm people talked about how privileged they felt working for the executive while in the latter, they mostly talked about how beleaguered they felt. Both companies were “successful” by financial standards. Which one would you rather work for? The executive I was coaching in the latter company eventually left (about a year later). He’s now working for their major competitor. I’m betting on the competitor.

Peter Drucker lived a long and productive life (95 years). We management consultants (and executives) are greatly indebted to him.