5 Characteristics of the Effective Executive — And Why This Matters for Everyone, Including People in Ministry

From Drucker’s The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done:

  1. Effective executives know where their time goes. They work systematically at managing the little of their time that can be brought under control.
  2. Effective executives focus on outward contribution. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done, let alone with its techniques and tools.
  3. Effective executives build on strengths — their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates; and on the strengths of the situation, that is, on what they can do. They do not build on weakness. They do not start out with the things they cannot do.
  4. Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results. They force themselves to set priorities and stay with their priority decisions. They know that they have no choice but to do first things first — and second things not at all. The alternative is to get nothing done.
  5. Effective executives, finally, make effective decisions.

But Does This Apply to Everyone?

It’s easy to dismiss counsel on effectiveness by saying “everyone is different and has their own way.” But that objection falls apart upon closer inspection.

It is certainly true that everyone has their own style and uniqueness. Drucker points out that effective executives differ from another widely in their style and temperaments and unique talents — and so do ineffective ones.

However, effectiveness is not about style or temperament, but rather a set of practices. “What all effective executives have in common is the practices that make effective whatever they have and whatever they are. And these practices are the same, whether the effective executive works in business or in a government agency, as hospital administrator or university dean.”

He goes on:

But whenever I have found a man, no matter how great his intelligence, his industry, his imagination, or his knowledge, who fails to observe these practices, I have also found an executive deficient in effectiveness.

Effectiveness, in other words, is a habit; that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned. Practices are simple, deceptively so….But practices are exceedingly  hard to do well. They have to be acquired….Practices one learns by practicing and practicing and practicing again.

Is Effectiveness Possible for Everyone?

Since effectiveness is a practice, not an innate talent, the answer is yes:

There is, in other words, no reason why anyone with normal endowment should not acquire competence in any practice. Mastery might well elude him; for this one might need special talents. But what is needed in effectiveness is competence. What is needed are “the scales.”

In fact, even if you are really bad at being effective and getting the right things done, there is much hope, because it turns out that nobody (except, I think John Piper) is a natural at being effective. As Drucker points out earlier:

In forty-five years of work as a consultant with a large number of executives in a wide range of organizations — large and small; businesses, government agencies, labor unions, hospitals, universities, community services; American, European, Latin American and Japanese — I have not come across a single “natural”: an executive who was born effective. All the effective ones have had to learn to be effective. And all of them then had to practice effectiveness until it became a habit. 

But all the ones who worked on making themselves effective executives succeeded in doing so. Effectiveness can be learned — and it also has to be learned.

Does Effectiveness Matter for Everyone?

There are two other, and related, significant objections that can be raised. First of all, one might misunderstand and think I am only talking about top management here. That effectiveness matters if you are a CEO, vice president, or otherwise very high up, but not if you are in the other far more common positions in an organization.

Drucker dispatches this objection very well. He points out that “executive” is not equal to “top management.” Rather, an executive is anyone whose decisions affect the capacity of the organization to make its contributions. This means you don’t even have to be a manager at all to be an executive. You could be a developer who codes the website, or a content editor who writes content for the web, or someone in customer service. If your work requires any self-direction at all (and all knowledge work does) and you make decisions that affect the performance of your organization, you are an executive. 

This means that just about everyone in today’s knowledge economy is an executive.

On the other hand, you can be a manager of people and not be an executive at all, if your goal is simply to supervise, do what you’re told, and get other people to do what they’re told. If you remove all need for judgment from your role, you are not an executive, no matter how many people you manage or how high up you are.

Should Even People in Ministry Learn About Effectiveness?

The second objection that could be made here is that this may apply to knowledge workers in all areas of life, except for those who work in churches and at ministries. There has indeed been, I would say, an unfortunate lack of attention to the unique needs and situations of those who work in ministry roles. Many books on effectiveness and getting things done focus almost entirely on the secular arena. I’m seeking to change that in the things I write by directly applying things to and thinking things through in relation to the non-profit and ministry sector, just as much as the business sector.

But there is also an odd notion among some in ministry that everything is different in ministry, and that therefore people in ministry ought to look with skepticism upon most thinking on being effective and getting things done.

I disagree. The reality is that whether you are in ministry or the business world, your work is about dealing with people and managing yourself. These things are the same across all industries and areas. There certainly are unique factors that apply to ministry, as to any specific area. There are some real adjustments that need to be made. But, having worked extensively in both ministry and non-ministry roles, the unique factors are about 10 – 25% of what you do; a full 75 – 90% of the principles for effectiveness and managing yourself (and your organization) well are the same across all areas.

Further, and ironically, I think some ministries get things backward here. They think that if you learn from “the business world” you risk bringing worldly thinking into your organization. But in my experience, worldly thinking exists just as much in some churches and ministries as it does in the business world, and often this is precisely because of looking upon business practices with skepticism and failing to learn from the best of secular thinking.

The reason is that there are two kinds of business thinking: good business thinking, and bad business thinking. Most of the time those in ministry who reject “business thinking” have only been exposed to the bad kind of business thinking. They then superficially, and wrongly, think that’s what all business thinking is like.

But it’s not! The bad business thinking is, in fact, bad not just in ministries but in businesses as well. The best business thinkers in our day are realizing this, and coming to show that effectiveness in business actually comes from putting others first, from putting people before profit, and from seeking to serve others and do them good before yourself. They are coming to see (as the best business thinking always has) that the most significant trend in business is actually the downfall of the barracudas and sharks and the rise of “nice, smart people” (as Fast Company summarizes Tim Sanders’ excellent book Love Is the Killer App).

In other words, some in the business world are actually outdoing the church right now in their commitment to serve others and put them first. Ironically, by closing ourselves off from this kind of “business thinking,” we  are not protecting ourselves from worldliness at all, but rather inviting it to come in by roping ourselves off from the very important practice of “outside-of-your-area-awareness.” By roping ourselves off from “business thinking,” the all-too-often-result is that we actually end up adopting the worst practices of business out of the air, while remaining ignorant to what truly are the actual best practices that apply across all areas of life, work, and ministry.

Hence, to tie this back: effectiveness is indeed possible for you, whether you work in the business world or in ministry (or whether you stay at home with the kids), and there is a lot we can learn from the best business books out there (though, at the same time, we certainly need more written from a specifically Christian perspective).

If you are seeking the need to become more effective, especially if you work in ministry, here are three books I’d recommend for where to start:

  1. The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (Peter Drucker)
  2. Love Is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends (Tim Sanders)
  3. Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time (Keith Ferrazzi)