The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 6, Number 2
Apr 1982

Maybe You're an Executive and Don't Know It

Sooner or later, most binders and conservators have to deal with problems of management, whether they are employees, supervisors or entrepreneurs. In principle if not in scale, the problems they run into with difficult bosses and subordinates, or with money and time, are the same that have concerned management specialists ever since Harvard Business School and MIT started teaching the first courses on business management in the 1930's. Quite a few answers have been found since that time--and even before that time--which can be applied with relative ease. Management literature of the last few decades has been especially interesting and useful because it addresses a wider range of problems than it did earlier, and is less exclusively concerned with top management, Many sound contributions of a general nature have also been stimulated by the Women's Movement. Although one has to mentally filter out the parts that obviously do not apply to smaller organizations, and interpret other parts, a surprising amount of it can be taken as it is written.

The catch is to distinguish what applies to one's own situation from what does not, and for this one has to build up an understanding of the more universal aspects of one's work situation. This is not easy, because many phenomena in organizations are not what they seem; but one improves with practice.

Peter Drucker, management consultant and author, makes the case in The Effective Executive* that managers are not the only people who need knowledge about effectiveness in handling management problems. "Knowledge workers" (specialists hired for what they know rather than for their muscle or manual skill) have responsibilities that are essentially the same as those of managers: planning, organizing, integrating, motivating, and measuring. (Other writers have different lists of functions: David R. Hampton, for instance, prefers planning, organization, leading and controlling.) Since the success of the organization depends on the effectiveness of its knowledge workers in carrying out these functions, he says, specialists are now seen as part of the management picture.

Drucker's book, published first in 1966, was the first to discuss effectiveness as such in detail. The value of his approach for us is that it addresses problems that an individual can deal with. Although it is written from a theoretical and analytical point of view, the book can be helpful as a guide to self-development or survival in a bureaucracy. Like all guides, it should be supplemented by personal instruction and guidance, and it may not work for everybody.

According to Drucker, most managers and an important minority of knowledge workers qualify as executives. The criterion is not whether they supervise anybody, but whether they "are expected, by virtue of their position or their knowledge, to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have significant impact on the performance and results of the whole." Jobs that may be filled by executives in a hospital, for instance, are: X-ray and lab technicians, dieticians, therapists, social workers and other health-service professionals, in addition to doctors and nurses. Specialists in all kinds of organizations-- government, army, hospitals, business and so on--may be executives. (He does not include the lone entrepreneur or professional in his definition, though much of this book seems to be more or less relevant to what they do.)

Conservators and some binders must qualify as knowledge workers by this definition, and most of them must be qualified as executives as well--regardless of the fact that they also have hand skills--because of the nature of the decisions they have to make.

The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself towards performance and contribution, that is towards effectiveness. (p. 4)

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an executive if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results. This may be the capacity of a business to bring out a new product or to obtain a larger share of a given market. It may be the capacity of a hospital to provide bedside care to its patients, and so on. Such a man (or woman) must make decisions; he cannot just carry out orders. He must take responsibility for his contribution. And he is supposed, by virtue of his knowledge, to be better equipped to make the right decision than anyone else. He may be overridden; he may be demoted or fired. But so long as he has the job, so long the goals, the standards, and the contribution are in his keeping. (p. 5-6)

Anyone who still wonders whether all this applies to them can probably decide by reading the following four "executive realities." Drucker says these realities are built into all organization; they are essentially impossible for the executive to control; and each exerts pressure toward nonperformance.

  1. Time. "The executive's time tends to belong to everybody else. If one attempted to define an 'executive' operationally (that is, through his activities) one would have to define him as a captive of the organization."
  2. Distractions and immediate pressures. "If the executive lets the flow of events determine what he does, what he works on and what he takes seriously, he will fritter himself away operating."
  3. Reaching people. "Usually, the people who are must important to the effectiveness of an executive are not people over whom he has direct control. They are people in other areas, people who in terms of organization, are 'sideways.' Or they are his superiors. Unless the executive can reach these people, can make his contribution effective for them and in their work, he has no effectiveness at all."
  4. Less of perspective. ". . . The bigger and apparently more successful an organization gets to be, the more will inside events tend to engage the interests, the energies, and the abilities of the executive to the exclusion of his real tasks and his real effectiveness in the outside."

The thesis of this book is that effectiveness can be learned. Other chapters deal with time management, building on the strengths of oneself and others, "managing upward," sorting out priorities, and decision-making. As the opportunity arises, these topics will be summarized in the Newsletter.

* London: Pan Books in Association with William Heinemann, 1970. Excerpts quoted with the permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.

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