Book Review: The Effective Executive

The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things DoneThe Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done
by Peter F. Drucker

Originally written in 1967 by the father of business management, this book will help any business person journey towards greater responsibility and success. Having defined what an “Effective Executive” is, Drucker emphasizes that effectiveness is a learned skill. By examining what one can contribute to the success of the enterprise, and thus one’s personal success,

Drucker stresses the importance of managing one’s time, priorities, and playing to your strengths. A key part of business success is effective decision-making and Drucker breaks down the decision-making process and how to make effective decisions.

Much of Drucker’s wisdom is identifying personal and business processes that are dysfunctional and fixing, changing, or abandoning them. The book is filled with key questions that a business person must ask themselves to shed light on the path to choose and what to avoid. It is the most concise book of organizational management and professional development I have read and the principles are timeless. It is the one book I consistently recommend to young people entering the business world.

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Nick Saban on the Scoreboard That Matters

Nick Saban on the Scoreboard That Matters

bama-picIn the post-win news conference after Alabama beat USC in the 2016 season opener, Alabama head football coach Nick Saban shared insights on the team preparation and attitude that are important for personal and professional success.

  1. Focus on your internal scoreboard, not the external scoreboard (wins, praise, hype, rewards…).
  2. Continually improve your skills and performance, especially when you’ve had success.
  3. Challenge your experienced personnel to improve their performance and mentor the younger players.
  4. Train your inexperienced team members early and give them practical experience so they will be ready to step into their expected role at an unexpected time.
  5. Develop a disciplined proven system of excellence that focuses on what you can control, infuse it into the culture, then trust the process to prepare you and your team for any challenge.

“If you want to know the truth about it, I wasn’t pleased with the way we played. And, again, you know, if you look at your internal scoreboard rather than the external scoreboard and you say, “What do we need to do to improve? What do we need to do to get better?” Well, you just get satisfied with the result that we got. So you don’t take coaching, you don’t try to improve, you don’t think that there are things that we can improve on, then we’ve got some really tough games with some really good teams. If we don’t get better, we’re going to struggle. And we play some of those teams in very tough places to play.

So my focus with our team right now is what can we do better? How can we get better? How can every guy improve? How can we get more guys to play better? And, look, I’m happy that we won. And I’m proud of our team for beating a good team. And I don’t want you to think that I’m not. …we have a lot of young guys playing out there now. If you notice, when those second teams went in, there was a whole bunch of freshmen out there. Well, those guys are going to have to grow up, all right. Because they’re going to be the depth of this team. And, if we lose players, they’re going to have to play. So we’re going to need those guys to improve dramatically.

And I think every guy needs to look at what they can do to get better and make their unit better and their team better. Look, you’ve got to trust in the plan, you’ve got to trust in your teammates, and you’ve got to trust in yourself that you can do your job on a consistent basis. And our consistency wasn’t always great, you know, tonight, especially on offense. So it’s definitely something we need to get better at.”

Is Email the Scapegoat for Dysfunctional Practices?

Like the cycles of seasons, a parade of articles calling for the death of email regularly march through the business press. Praise of organizations that banned email in favor of direct messages, a return to phone calls and desk visits, or automated systems that shut down email during “non-work hours” are offered as saviors for our email plagued society.

Like most knowledge workers, I’ve had my struggles with email but when I hear the cacophony of voices with pitchforks and torches are calling for the death of email, it is apparent that the technology is not the problem, it is how people manage it.

What’s Really the Problem

Who is to blame for your “always on” feeling? Were you instructed to check email on your smartphone at all hours? Do you feel that others will not think you professional if you do not answer an email at 11 pm or on the beach with your family? Certainly, some organizations may explicitly require you to be always checking but I hope they compensate you accordingly or, if they have no sense of boundaries, you find a healthier environment. Otherwise, honestly ask yourself who put this expectation in place: your organization or your insecurity?

Do you feel a disconnect from other employees? Then occasionally use the phone or make a desk visit. Go with coworkers to lunch or walk together during a break. As I’ll note below, realize that what seems better to you could be disruptive to your colleague.

Are there better tools than email? Email is not the universal solution to all business communication challenges. Project communication is probably handled better in a project workspace where document circulation and communication is centralized. Some communications are better handled through phone, visit, or texting. Because email has been abused or forced into communication situations that are inappropriate doesn’t mean that all email should be banned.

It may be that you work in a dysfunctional organization that places unrealistic demands on employees and uses email as the tool to propagate the problems. But that is not the fault of the technology and, if email didn’t exist, certainly another means would encourage ineffective interactions.

In Praise of Email

I come not to bury email but to praise it. For all of its problems, it is the perfect solution for asynchronous communication,

Focused Work: Productivity experts understand that some of the best work is performed when a person is able to focus on a task for a specified period of time and get into a flow state. However, interruptions disrupt that flow and degrade productivity as one returns back to the task. Those who advocate calling, desk visits, and instant messaging as the primary medium fail to realize that the priority of the caller should not dictate the priority of the recipient. If I have designated 30-40 minutes for focused work, I can cut off my email and silence my phone but if you walk into my office with some matter that is not urgent because you hate email, you will disrupt my work that I have deemed important. When you email me (or leave a voicemail), I can give it proper attention at the end of that focused work session.

Task Triage: Even when a person is not in focused work, email allows a productive person to triage what needs attention now and what should be delayed in favor of another task. Calling or texting just adds another channel that I must track for task management outside of my inbox whereas the email inbox becomes a good centralized location for current actionable items. As a GTD’er, I do consolidate inboxes but my email grouping system allows for efficient task organization of work that comes in my most commonly used channel.

Thoughtful Support: With email, I can see your subject and review the matter and thoughtfully respond. I will probably give a better answer when I can think about it than when I am on the phone with you and must answer immediately with whatever is on the top of my mind minus any distractions going on during your call. Of course, a scheduled call with a proposed subject helps with this issue.

Recommendations

The Franklin Covey organization explains the solution well in its 5 Choices program; Rule your technology, don’t let it rule you. Great advice for email, social media, and other technology. Here are some of my recommendations for handling email effectively:

  • Unless directed otherwise, answer email when appropriate for you. Some people send an email at 7 pm because they just remembered something that they need to share and expect that others will read and respond the next morning. You are probably not expected to respond unless it is an emergency and, if it is an emergency, wouldn’t someone call you?
  • Learn to write effective emails. Take more time up front to learn to communicate succinctly and effectively. It will help in more areas of life than just email.
  • Use rules to automatically direct newsletters and similar email to a folder for batch processing during down time.
  • Customize notification rules to only provide screen and sound alerts when you get emails from key individuals.
  • Delete or archive old emails and get them out of your active inbox. If not, how do you know what is important and actionable and what no longer needs attention?
  • Don’t create complex folder structures for saved emails. I have a couple for key projects, one for temporary projects that I don’t want to keep in the inbox, and one called “Archive” that everything else worth saving goes into. The search function gets everything I need.
  • Use categories to sort emails in the Inbox by generic reusable names (Defined Task 1, Defined Task 2…, Document Review, Waiting For…) and only keep the last email in a conversation thread. When you finish tasks and drag them into an archive folder so you can reuse the category.

Additional Reading

Book Review: Re-work

ReworkRework
by Jason Fried

The Internet has transformed how many businesses operate and Re-Work clearly explains how to build and run a business in this new era. However, in contrast to some Internet-era business approaches that encourage fantasy accounting and venture capital infusions until the patient is alive, the author encourages bootstrapping, building within real-world financial considerations, and being methodical.

Using examples from his company’s internal technology development, the author shares ideas on using and managing a distributed workforce operating out of the normal office structure. I applaud his desire to kill the oft misused word “entrepreneur.” I also appreciate the focus on building a business that creates value for the customer, not just a financial parachute for the founders.

Focus on business guides instead of plans. Business plans are based on thinking in the past about how things will be in the future. When you are in that “future” don’t be constrained by the plans of the past. View it for what it is: an educated guess from the past about how things would be and what you wanted to accomplish. As things change, adjust. Don’t be constrained.

Great book for rethinking the modern workplace and company.

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Book Review: Making It All Work

Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of LifeMaking It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life
by David Allen

At the turn of the millennium, David Allen released his landmark work Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity and changed how many of us managed our time and work environment. Striving for the “mind like water”, Allen, urges readers to use straightforward filing systems and trusted systems, like calendars and useful lists, freeing the mind to focus on the needs of the moment.

Allen has various techniques for effective work such as performing a “mind dump,” unloading all the things that are on our mind, organizing them into meaningful lists of what we can do now and what can, or should be, delayed until some future date. He describes techniques for identifying projects that need multiple actions that do not seem like projects initially, The goal is to develop focus that allows one to decide what is the next action to perform and stay “in the moment” with that task knowing that the other work is not forgotten and has its place.

One unfounded criticism of Allen’s work is that it doesn’t solve the overwork problem but only organizes it. This is far from the truth. Completing the exercises for the horizons of focus honestly and thoughtfully should eliminate some demands one has placed on himself and define a vision for one’s life that allows them to deal with some of the work that appears that would be more appropriate to delegate to others or simply ignore.

I listen to this audiobook frequently to perfect my execution of the model and deepen my understanding of the methods and philosophy behind the system. It was very influential in an article I wrote for high school and college students to help them develop focus and flow in school work.

I would recommend Making It All Work instead of the classic volume that introduced us to Allen, Getting Things Done. Making It All Work provides a mature analysis of the philosophy of his organizational approach and better focus on the horizon view of planning. Much of the criticism of his work arises from a misconception that Allen is not solving the task overload problem, only organizing it. Making It All Work is clearer, though GTD explained it as well, the framework includes determining what needs to be done, what can wait, and what should be ignored.

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Book Review: The Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People

The Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive PeopleThe Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People
by Kevin Leman

How do you write a management book? Choose your metaphor and let the analogies unfold. Business books based on military organizations and leaders, sports teams and stellar athletes, and historical figures and events fill the shelf. Leman reaches back to a pastoral occupation to draw out modern lessons on leadership.

The author uses a story analogy: a business professor, who raises sheep on the side, mentoring a student by taking him out of the classroom and into the field, the grazing field. I’m not a fan of the story analogy approach as the story is often a weak vehicle to carry the meat of the message. The story in this book is not distracting but it is not engrossing either.

The leadership lessons are solid but will strike some readers as paternalistic as the shepherd-manager is the wise leader and the sheep-employees are foolish, blind, and directionless. If you can look past this there are extremely valuable lessons on engaging with employees and dealing with their personal and professional issues as it affects their work and their interrelationships with fellow workers. The attention to the employee needs, witnessed in popular shows like “Undercover Boss”, is the important lesson of this book. “Have a heart for your sheep” and “remember that great leadership isn’t just professional; it’s personal.” The section on knowing the SHAPE (Strengths, Heart, Attitude, Personality, and Experiences) of employees, I mean the flock, is good reading for any manager. The importance of addressing employee concerns and conflicts is something every manager needs.

It is an easy and short read with many valuable, though not unique, observations. Managers need to be reminded of these principles. A manager who feels disconnected from those who report to him and wants to mentor them, address good and bad behaviors, and learn to develop their talents will benefit from reading this book.

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Book Review: How Good Do You Want to Be?

How Good Do You Want to Be?: A Champion's Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in LifeHow Good Do You Want to Be?: A Champion’s Tips on How to Lead and Succeed at Work and in Life
by Nick Saban

I will readily admit that my favorite motivational books are written by coaches at the top of their profession. In order to achieve their goals they have to inspire assistants and athletes with their vision and direct their actions to achieve excellent results. In college football’s Southeastern Conference, one of the toughest conferences to achieve consistent success, Nick Saban has won both conference and national championships as head coach of LSU and the University of Alabama and enjoyed success in the National Football League.

How Good Do You Want To Be was written before Nick Saban became the coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide but it is obvious from his speeches and results at the University of Alabama that he adheres to the principles in this book. A central theme of the book, and his coaching philosophy, is to focus on what you need to do to perform as a champion and not the results themselves. While this might seem obvious, too often people focus on external factors they can’t control and make excuses for why they cannot be successful due to the economy, environment, their upbringing, or a hundred other reasons. As Saban notes regarding the LSU national championship team:

We never talked as a team or as a staff about championships. We simply focused on the process of becoming champions. p.12

Throughout the book he describes in great detail the importance of maintaining focus, discipline, and healthy communication. His focus on developing effective processes and working the system is critical to business or team success. His principles of leadership are evident in the successful careers of coaches who once served as his assistants. He, in turn, credits Bill Belichick, who wrote the forward to the book, for being a positive role model who helped shape his approach.

I appreciate his focus on success in one’s personal life as a component of overall success. If you have great professional success but leave a trail of broken relationships in your wake you have not succeeded. He practices what he preaches and provides sound guidance in this book for integrating work and personal life.

The book is very well organized and it is easy to highlight the important lessons to learn and the takeaway points. Each chapter ends with a summary of the main points that is useful as a review list.

In contrast to a lot of motivational books that are heavy on platitudes and pep talks, Nick Saban’s process oriented approach inspires by demonstrating that if we develop a good system, focus on our preparation and the factors we can affect, we will achieve good results. His advice for dealing with roadblocks, difficult people and situations, and deficiencies through good decision making, not wishful thinking, is a welcome change from the “grit your teeth and bear it” philosophy of many motivational books.

If you are inspired by the book, I would also recommend you watch the DVD Gamechanger (al) which also discusses the championship approach as practiced by the Alabama Crimson Tide’s 2009 National Championship season. The access to planning, practices, and his home life reflect what you learn from the book.

Roll Tide.

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