Becoming an Effective Executive - Part 1

Knowledge workers must be their own chief executive officers. It’s up to you to determine your best fit, to know when and what to improve or change in your personal skills and performance, and to keep yourself engaged and productive. To do these things well, you to really understand yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution. The challenge of being self-aware and knowing yourself well is that you often do not get this information directly from superiors, peers, and mentors (although mentors and your own protégés can help greatly) and people have a tendency to be defensive (and thus in denial) when they do get it. Many times, you only get information about yourself from others indirectly. Only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence. This post is based on Peter Drucker's Harvard Business Review article "How to Manage Oneself."

Key Questions

  • What are My Strengths?
  • How Do I Perform?
  • What Are My Values?
  • Where Do I Belong?
  • What Should I Contribute?


The only way to discover your strengths is through feedback analysis.  Whenever you face a difficult problem, make a key decision or need take a key action, write down what you expect will happen. After the results have occurred, compare the actual results with your expectations.

The method will show you what you are doing or failing to do that deprives you of the full benefits of your strengths. It will show you where you are not particularly competent. And finally, it will show you where you have no strengths and cannot perform.

Implications from feedback analysis.

  • Use it to learn what your strengths are so you can concentrate on them. I have learned that my strengths are mentoring, teaching, and communicating so I try to put myself in situations where my strengths can produce results.
  • Work on improving your strengths. Analysis will rapidly show where you need to improve skills or acquire new ones because you are not getting the results you expect. It will also show the gaps in your knowledge—and those can usually be filled.
  • Discover where your intellectual arrogance is causing disabling ignorance and overcome it. While some maintain their ignorance of “soft” topics as a source of pride, taking pride in such ignorance is self-defeating. Go to work on acquiring the skills and knowledge you need to fully realize your strengths. It is equally essential to remedy your bad habits—the things you do or fail to do that inhibit your effectiveness and performance. In implementing “Getting Things Done,” I often write down what aspects I am struggling to practice effectively. If I get some harsh feedback from a superior or peer, I suppress my hurt and anger and take the time to write it down and analyze it. Seeing my weaknesses on paper helps me develop plans to improve them.
  • Spend as little effort as possible on improving areas of low competence. It takes far more energy and work to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than it takes to improve from first-rate performance to excellence. Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer. This is a judgment call, of course. Some weaknesses can be remedied without much effort as long as you are aware of them. I have a tendency to talk to fast and too long when I get excited or passionate about something, giving others limited time to speak. I am never going to completely fix this problem, but I have developed coping strategies to keep this from becoming a debilitating weakness (reminding myself to pause for feedback, letting others know it is a problem so they can help me, especially in large meetings). This advice calls for some judgment. There may be some things that are crucial for success in your field that you don't do very well so ignoring them or using this advice as an excuse for not improving could be counterproductive.


Drucker states that “For knowledge workers, 'How do I perform?' may be an even more important question than 'What are my strengths?'” He suggests that some common personality traits usually determine how a person performs.

  • Reader or Listener? Do you learn and assimilate information best through reading or listening? Most people do not think much about this or even know that there are readers and listeners and that people are rarely both. The listener who tries to be a reader and the reader who tries to be a listener will not perform or achieve.
  • Learning style. The second thing to know about how one performs is to know how one learns. Many first-class writers do poorly in school. This is because writers do not, generally learn by listening and reading. They learn by writing. Because schools do not allow them to learn this way, they get poor grades. Some people learn by doing. Many people who know how they learn struggle to explain how they act on this knowledge. Acting on this knowledge is the key to performance.
  • Other questions for managing yourself effectively. Do I work well with people (in what relationship?), or am I a loner? Do I produce results as a decision maker or as an adviser?
  • The conclusion bears repeating: Do not try to change yourself—you are unlikely to succeed. But work hard to improve the way you perform. And try not to take on work you cannot perform or will only perform poorly.


Ethics requires that you ask yourself, “What kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning? What is ethical behavior in one kind of organization or situation is ethical behavior in another.” I do this all the time when facing decisions that make me uncomfortable (like counseling an officer about poor performance). Organizations, like people, have values. To be effective in an organization, a person’s values must be compatible with the organization’s values. They do not need to be the same, but they must be close enough to coexist. Otherwise, the person will not only be frustrated but also will not produce results.

Where You Belong

Many people do not give this issue the attention and introspection it deserves. It requires you to know the answers to the three questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How do I perform? and,
  • What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.

Knowing the answer to these questions enables a person to say to an opportunity, an offer, or an assignment, “Yes, I will do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way the relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”

Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values. Knowing where one belongs can transform an ordinary person—hardworking and competent but otherwise mediocre—into an outstanding performer.

Knowing What to Contribute

Knowledge workers have to learn to ask: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements:

  • What does the situation require?
  • Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally,
  • What results have to be achieved to make a difference?  Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half? The results should be hard to achieve—they should require “stretching” and they should make a difference. They should also be measurable, if possible. From this will come a course of action:
    • what to do,
    • where and
    • how to start, and
    • what goals and deadlines to set.

Final Thoughts

Managing yourself requires taking responsibility for relationships. This has two parts.

First is to accept the fact that other people are as much individuals as you yourself are. They perversely insist on behaving like human beings. This means that they too have their strengths; they too have their ways of getting things done; they too have their values. To be effective, therefore, you have to know the strengths, the performance modes, and the values of your coworkers.

The second part of relationship responsibility is taking responsibility for communication. You need to make sure people (especially your boss and your team) understand:

  • what you are trying to do,
  • why you are trying to do it,
  • how you are going to do it, and
  • what results to expect.

It is also important for members of your team to know:

  • what your goals are,
  • how you work, and
  • what you expect of yourself and of each one of them.

Even military organizations function best not on coercion but on trust. The existence of trust between people does not necessarily mean that they like one another. It means that they understand one another. Taking responsibility for relationships is therefore an absolute necessity.

The challenges of managing oneself may seem obvious, if not elementary. And the answers may seem self-evident to the point of appearing naïve. But managing oneself requires new and unprecedented things from the individual, and especially from the knowledge worker. In effect, managing oneself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer. Further, the shift from manual workers who do as they are told to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves profoundly challenges social structure. Every existing society, even the most individualistic one, takes two things for granted, if only subconsciously: that organizations outlive workers, and that most people stay put. But today the opposite is true. Knowledge workers outlive organizations, and they are mobile. The need to manage oneself is therefore creating a revolution in human affairs.