Peter F. Drucker’s well-known article, “What Makes an Effective Executive” is one I wish I’d read earlier in my tenure as a non-profit leader. You can find it here: https://hbr.org/2004/06/what-makes-an-effective-executive.
Drucker passed away in 2005 and is considered the founder of modern management, famous for the principle of managing through objectives. In the non-profit sector, managing through objectives brings us to the world of logic models and theories of change. Those are the tools we use most often to create the measurable objectives we deem most likely to drive our mission forward. Embedded in any logic model are a number of priorities that must be managed. In the article, Drucker argues that an effective executive must first ask “what needs to be done?” He also argues that the answer to this question should be only one thing.
So, what does Drucker mean by focusing on one thing? My guess, and the reason I believe I appreciated this article, is that Drucker is talking not about business as usual and the day-to-day tasks of management, but what change needs to happen right now.
I’ve served in a leadership role in this field for more than 20 years, with 14 as the organization’s senior leader. I read this article only recently and realized I needed to hear that an effective executive can’t splinter him or herself into multiple priorities at the same time. We must ask the question, “what needs to be done?”, and base the answers on information from a variety of roles in the organization (and maybe some stakeholders too). We must also realize that while the answer to the question will always be more than one thing, Drucker notes that he has never seen an executive who can effectively focus on more than two things at once, and most can only tackle one.
Getting answers on what needs to be done is one of eight practices that Drucker argues make one effective. The other seven are: asking what is right for enterprise (insert mission/organization in the non-profit sector); developing action plans; taking responsibility for decisions; taking responsibility for communication; focusing on opportunities rather than problems.
I am particularly good at the last practice, focusing on opportunities. The downside to this is that I see opportunity everywhere, making it even harder to answer the “what needs to be done?” question with only one or two things at a time. One might ask, how could any executive really focus on one thing at once? We have oversight in so many areas that this seems impossible and perhaps even ineffective.
So, I assert a slight paraphrase to the question. What change needs to happen? Effective organizations must always be asking where they can adapt and change to better serve the sector. This question generates answers and priorities that result in a need to change business as usual. Change means an executive must work hard on communicating different priorities throughout the organization, ensuring there are clear systems to make the change effective. A change in culture is needed, and that doesn’t happen unless there is lots of communication and follow up and systems change. I serve an organization that has grown, changed and adapted in many ways over the years. Sometimes I led us to take on too much change at once and it took too long for our systems and culture to catch up with the change.
I encourage other executives and leaders to read (or re-read) this article. Another of the eight practices may stand out more for you. For me, I would adapt practice one to say: Effective executives ask, “What change needs to happen?”. Practice the other seven steps as you decide the answer in your organization, and keep practicing them as you stay focused on that one thing.