What Makes an Effective Executive

Learn about the eight practices that HBR believe are ‘What Makes an Effective Executive‘. An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the typical sense of the word, and the demand for effective executives is much too great to be satisfied by those few people who are simply born to lead. Find out more below.

What Makes an Effective Executive


  • Effective Executives must think of the needs and opportunities of the organisation before they think of their own
  • Before springing into action, the executive needs to plan their course; thinking about desired results, probable restraints, future revisions, check-in points and implications for how they’ll spend their time
  • Listen first, speak last


8 Practices That Will Help You Become An Effective Executive

The author of the HBR article, Peter Drucker, recounted that what made an effective Executive was that “they followed the same eight practices: They asked, “What needs to be done?” They also 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. And they though and said “we” rather than “I”.”

Drucker expands on these highlighted behaviours, below;


1. Asking “What needs to be done”?

Asking what has to be done, and taking the question seriously, is crucial for managerial success. Failure to ask this question will render even the ablest executive ineffectual. The answer to the question “What needs to be done?” almost always contains more than one urgent task. But effective executives do not splinter themselves, they concentrate on one task if at all possible.

After asking what needs to be done, the effective executive sets priorities and sticks to them. For a CEO, the priority task might be redefining the company’s mission. For a unit head, it might be redefining the unit’s relationship with headquarters. Other tasks, no matter how important or appealing, are postponed. However, after completing the original top-priority task, the executive resets priorities rather than moving on to number two from the original list. They ask, “What must be done now?” This generally results in new and different priorities.


2. Asking “What is right for the enterprise?”

Asking “What is right for the enterprise?” does not guarantee that the right decision will be made. Even the most brilliant executive is human and thus prone to mistakes and prejudices. But failure to ask the question virtually guarantees the wrong decision. They do not ask if it’s right for the owners, the stock price, the employees, or the executives.

But, they also know that a decision that isn’t right for the enterprise will ultimately not be right for any of the stakeholders.


3. Developing action plans

Executives are doers; they execute. Knowledge is useless to executives until it has been translated into deeds. But before springing into action, the executive needs to plan their course. First, the executive defines desired results by asking:

  • What contributions should the enterprise expect from me over the next 18 months to two years?
  • What results will I commit to? With what deadlines?
  • Is this course of action ethical?
  • Is it acceptable within the organisation?
  • Is it legal?
  • Is it compatible with the mission, values, and policies of the organisation?

In addition, the action plan needs to create a system for checking the results against the expectations. Then, the action plan has to become the basis for the executive’s time management. Time is an executive’s most precious resource, and the action plan will prove useless unless it’s allowed to determine how the executive spends his or her time.


4. Taking responsibility for decisions

A decision has not been made until people know:

  • The name of the person accountable for carrying it out
  • the deadline
  • the names of the people who will be affected by the decision and therefore have to know about, understand, and approve it—or at least not be strongly opposed to it—and
  • the names of the people who have to be informed of the decision, even if they are not directly affected by it.

Effective executives know that periodic reviews throughout these processes are crucial. For instance, when hiring or promoting people, the success of the hire/promotion must be systemically monitored/reviewed over an extended period of time. If the effective executive finds that the decision has not had the desired results, they don’t conclude that the person has not performed. Instead, they conclude that they themselves made a mistake.

Allocating the best people to the right positions is a crucial, tough job that many executives slight, in part because the best people are already too busy. Systematic decision review also shows executives their own weaknesses, particularly the areas in which they are simply incompetent. In these areas, smart executives don’t make decisions or take actions. They delegate. Everyone has such areas; there’s no such thing as a universal executive genius.

In a well-managed enterprise, it is understood that people who fail in a new job, especially after a promotion, may not be the ones to blame. On the flip-side however, Executives owe it to the organisation and to their colleagues not to tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs.


5. Taking responsibility for communication

Effective executives make sure that both their action plans and their information needs are understood. Specifically, this means that they share their plans with and ask for comments from all their colleagues—superiors, subordinates, and peers. At the same time, they let each person know what information they’ll need to get the job done.

The information flow from subordinate to boss is usually what gets the most attention. But executives need to pay equal attention to peers’ and superiors’ information needs.


6. Focusing on opportunities rather than problems

Good executives focus on opportunities rather than problems. Problems have to be taken care of, of course; they must not be swept under the rug. But problem solving, however necessary, does not produce results. It prevents damage. Exploiting opportunities produces results, where effective executives make sure that problems do not overwhelm the opportunities at hand.

Effective executives treat change as an opportunity rather than a threat. They systematically look at changes, inside and outside the corporation, and ask, “How can we exploit this change as an opportunity for our enterprise?”. This outlook can be applied to anything, from change in industry/market structure to new technology and new consumer behaviours.


7. Running productive meetings

Every study of the executive workday has found that even junior executives and professionals are with other people—that is, in a meeting of some sort—more than half of every business day. The only exceptions are a few senior researchers. Even a conversation with only one other person is a meeting. Hence, if they are to be effective, executives must make meetings productive. They must make sure that meetings are work sessions rather than bull sessions.

The key to running an effective meeting is to decide in advance what kind of meeting it will be. Different kinds of meetings require different forms of preparation and different results;

  • A meeting in which one or several members report
  • To make an announcement
  • To inform the convening executive
  • A meeting whose only function is to allow the participants to be in the executive’s presence

Effective executives know that any given meeting is either productive or a total waste of time.


8. Think and say “we” rather than “I”

Effective executives know that they have ultimate responsibility, which can be neither shared nor delegated. But, they have authority only because they have the trust of the organisation.

And finally, one bonus point that is possibly the most important;


Bonus practice: 9. Listen first and speak last

Listening first and speaking last is an important skill. The main benefits of doing so as an executive is that it:

  • gives others the feeling that they’ve been heard,
  • it gives your time to understand the full context of what the person is saying and
  • it gives you time to think about your opinion before you speak.

When it’s your time to speak, you’ll have more clarity and a higher level of understanding and communication.


About Greenfields Recruitment & Search

GREENFIELDS RECRUITMENT & SEARCH is a specialist In-House Legal Counsel, Company Secretary and Corporate Governance Executive Search & Recruitment firm. We connect company secretary leaders with organisations who require company secretary services. Partnering with a diverse range of clients, from ASX listed organisations, non-listed organisations, multinationals, boutiques and not-for-profits across all industry sectors. Learn more about us here.


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About Greenfields

Founded by Managing Director, Catherine Wolfe-Coote, Greenfields is a market leader in Legal, Company Secretary & Corporate Governance appointments. Having a capable, well-established team, we offer bespoke and agile services which do not fall into the traditional ‘agency’ or ‘head hunting’ categories.

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