For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don't do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer's tool chest - that is, ourselves.

Within every industry, certain individuals stand out. In many cases, they are the inventors, the innovators, and the creators. They have constructed the artifacts that define the industry. In other cases, they are the analysts - the ones who sit down, study the surrounding context and environment carefully, and come up with the insights and analysis that can only be termed brilliant. In the Java world, we have people like Brian Goetz, Venkat Subramaniam, or John Rose. In the .NET world, it's Mads Torgersen, Don Syme, or Anders Hejlsberg.

To managers, it's Peter Drucker.

The Effective Executive

Within the world of management, Drucker was, to many, the patron saint. His classic, “The Effective Executive,” now 52 years since its publication, still ranks as one of the top “must-reads” of the management world. His analysis was precise, his recommendations clear, and his suggestions equally applicable to the 1960s world in which his book was born or the 2010s world in which his 50th anniversary edition was published. (To be clear, “Effective Executive” was not his only book - in fact, he had twenty-six titles to his name.)

Part of what made Drucker famous was his modesty. He met with some of the world's most powerful and influential CEOs from a wicker chair in his house (in Claremont, California, just a few miles from where my own grandparents lived); no formal office, no research assistants, no secretary, no staff. Drucker worked in the spare bedroom of a modest house, writing his books on a manual typewriter.

But Drucker also pulled no punches about management, or what made managers effective. The introduction, in fact, opens with a refutation of what most people think management is about: “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.” Drucker spend 65 years consulting with CEOs of all sorts of businesses and non-profits, and “they ranged from extroverted to nearly reclusive, from easygoing to controlling, from generous to parsimonious.”

And then Drucker, right in the second paragraph, gets to the heart of the matter. "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.

If there is no other paragraph you read in any management book, modern or classic, that is the one to read.

The Questions

The effective executive begins with the question, “What needs to be done?” and then chooses one - possibly two - tasks to complete. Undoubtedly, there will be thousands of things that need to be done, but by forcing a decision on one of them, the executive is required to prioritize which tasks are the most important things. (This decision will, by the way, make itself felt to those reporting to said executive, thus eliminating one of the most common negatives cited by employees working for ineffective executives: that of no clear direction or priority.) This isn't something that need only be done at the top; although the CEO may need to redefine the company's mission, the VP of Engineering may see the need to solidify the Engineering department's reliability, or even improving Engineering's relationship to the rest of the company. (If the IT department has been pushing buggy internal applications out into the company, its credibility may be shot, and nothing else will be accomplishable until that credibility is rebuilt.) In many cases, an executive will try to focus on something they do very well, knowing that companies perform if top management performs - and don't if it doesn't.

The follow-up question, “Is this the right thing for the enterprise?” helps determine the value of the task to the company as a whole. In modern parlance, we might re-phrase it as, “What value does this bring?” Value, of course, is always in the eyes of the beholder: Value to the customers may be different than value to the stakeholders, which, in turn, will be different than value to the shareholders (if this is a publicly held company). Note that Drucker's word is “enterprise,” meaning the entire entity as a whole, not just one department or sliver of it. A decision that isn't right for the whole entity - the “enterprise” - isn't going to sit well over time, even if it yields a short-term boost to one particular facet.

The Execution

Once the priorities are in place, next the executive needs to “do.” It's not enough to simply hoard knowledge. Knowledge without action is essentially money buried underground - it serves no purpose and has no value. Once that knowledge is in hand (or head, as it were), the effective executive needs to plan out a statement of intentions. Plans must remain flexible. (It's commonly attributed to Napoleon that "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.") As the plan executes, if it succeeds, it may create new opportunities, which will require consideration. So too, ironically, will failures. And sometimes the change will come in the surrounding environment, entirely perpendicular to any action (or inaction) espoused by a plan. Because we know that the plan can change the situation, the plan should have built within it a system for checking results. Think of it as basic unit testing 101: We can only tell if the unit test passes if we have expected results that we assert against, but we will only know whether the test passes if we actually run the tests. When will you check the results? How will you check the results?

Once the plan is drawn up, the execution comes next; however, at the executive level, execution usually isn't about going out and doing the actual work. If the executive is carrying out the work, then it's an indication that the executive doesn't have qualified people working for her; Executives are instead responsible for decision-making, communication, meetings, and opportunities. Decision-making, in that it's the executive's responsibility to ensure that a decision has identified the accountable individual responsible for carrying it out, the deadline by which it must be done, and the names of anyone affected by or needing to be informed of the decision. Communication, in that the executive needs to make sure that the information flows bi-directionally to the people carrying out the decision and those around them who need updates. Meetings, in that meetings need to be streamlined, purposeful, and terminable (as in, it's clear when they end - and the executive ends them when that moment is reached).

All of this requires a great deal of discipline on the executive's part. Most non-managers will assume that the hard part of her day is the decision-making; in truth, particularly in a software organization, the decisions are often left up to the people working for the executive. Formulating the plan, bringing the right people together to meet, and then following up to ensure that the plan is being executed - these are the “hard parts.” All along the way, the executive needs to keep an eye out for the aforementioned opportunities: changes in the industry or tools, gaps between what is and what could be, changes in the mind-set/perception/mood of the various players involved (including her own management or peer executives), as well as the more obvious changes in technology around us.

The Organization

Above all, the effective executive realizes that it's not them doing the work - it's the rest of the organization around them. Executives may have ultimate responsibility for everything that happens under their particular point on the pyramid, but they only have authority because they have the trust of the organization. (When that trust is lost, it's usually not long after that the organization gets rid of said executive - or, if the individual is too enmeshed within the organization, such as the founder or central family member of a family-owned business, the company starts hemorrhaging people at a tremendous rate.) To keep that trust, the executive needs to ensure that she's thinking of the needs and the opportunities of the organization before their own. To quote another military-born adage, “A good general ensures that his troops eat first.” In modern management lingo, this goes by the name “servant leadership.” When in doubt, follow Drucker's simple rule: Listen first, speak last.


If all of this seems overwhelming, good! It means that the weight of what this actually entails is getting through. Fortunately, Drucker leaves us with a positive note of reinforcement: “Effectiveness is a discipline. And, like every discipline, effectiveness can be learned and must be earned.”

Nobody ever said that being an effective executive was going to be easy. But to the people working for the would-be effective executive, the payoff is often well worth the work.