Back to Basics: Peter Drucker and What Makes an Effective Executive

Mario Sikora
Nov 27, 2019

One occupational challenge I face is trying to stay current with the literature on management and leadership. As in every other field, we have more access to more ideas than those even a generation ago could have ever imagined. In addition to internet-based information, there are a number of good business magazines and newspapers to keep up on and each week brings compelling new titles to the local bookstore.

The world is always changing (the rapid rate of technological change presents a significant set of new challenges and opportunities for leaders, for example), but most of the leadership literature is little more than an attempt to put a new spin on existing ideas. Other books contain some novel ideas, but are of marginal value.

Sometimes it is useful to go back to the basics of management principles and practices and remind ourselves of the importance of the fundamentals. When doing so, there is no better place to start than with Peter Drucker.

Drucker (1909-2005) was an Austrian-born management consultant and scholar who arguably did more to advance the study of effective management of organizations than anyone.. A prolific writer and teacher, his ideas about organizational structure and individual performance are so ubiquitous that they are taken for granted today. He was particularly focused on the transition of management and the work-force from an emphasis on physical labor to “knowledge workers.” Drucker’s work is the foundation upon which most modern management theory is built.

Below is a list of Drucker’s key articles and books, but here I want to focus on an article I recently reread and that I think is worth reading by any manager. (Note—While it is popular today to draw a distinction between “leader” and “manager,” Drucker would have none of it—“leadership,” the ability to motivate people to action, was to him simply an aspect of effective management.)

What Makes an Effective Executive” is a seven-page article that originally appeared in the June 2004 edition of “The Harvard Business Review.” He points out that over his 65-year career as a consultant, he worked with executives of all personality styles. “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.”

Those practices are:

  • 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 focused on opportunities rather than problems.
  • They ran productive meetings.
  • They thought and said “we” rather than “I.”

The beauty of this list is that there is nothing new or revolutionary on it. Each item seems obvious, like something learned in a Management 101 course. But they are the practices that separate great managers from mediocre managers and they are the basics that are easy to forget and neglect in the chaos of running a business. The best managers stick to them through thick and thin.

Drucker goes into each of these practices and gives just enough detail to make them clear and implementable. He does it with writing that is so clear and precise that not a moment of the reader’s time is wasted. He understands that his readers—effective managers and managers who want to be more effective—want the meat of a topic without a lot of fluff.

When working with a client, I encourage them to create a scorecard for developmental areas and rate themselves weekly on their progress. I encourage every manager to do the same regarding these eight practices—create a simple spreadsheet with each practice listed and track your progress for 12 weeks. Note how well you did in each area for that week using a simple Red/Yellow/Green scoring system. Take notes on how you can do it better next week. (I’ve created a spreadsheet for you that you can access and download here.)

The greatest professional athletes still practice the fundamentals of their sport endlessly. If you want to become or remain a great manager, follow their lead and work on these practices.

Recommended Writings of Peter Drucker
The Effective Executive
The Essential Drucker: The Best of Sixty Years of Peter Drucker’s Essential Writings on Management

Other Articles:
Managing Oneself
Information Executives Truly Need
They’re Not Employees, They’re People
The Theory of the Business

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