Build on Strength – Drucker’s The Effective Executive – 5

In earlier posts in this series on Peter Drucker’s book The Effective Executive: the definitive guide to getting the right things done, we reviewed his list of basic practices:

Effective managers:

  • “….know where their time goes.” 
  • “….focus on outward contribution”
  • “….build on strengths….” 
  • “….concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.”
  • “…. make effective decisions.”

Peter Drucker's The Effective ExecutiveThis posting is devoted to the third practice, build on strengths.((1))

The effective executive makes strength productive. He knows that one cannot build on weakness. To achieve results, one has to use all of the available strengths – the strengths of associates, the strengths of the superior, and one’s own strengths. These strengths are the true opportunities. To make strength productive is the unique purpose of organization. It cannot, of course, overcome the weaknesses with which each of us is abundantly endowed. But it can make them irrelevant. Its task is to use the strength of each man as a building block for joint performance.((2))

Enable Strengths and Make Weaknesses Inconsequential

A central purpose of organization is to structure work to enable the strengths of people and to make weaknesses inconsequential. Weaknesses are always present,, but to focus on them is to focus on what cannot be done. Focusing on strength leads to a focus on performance and results

The keys to building the organizational structure that enables, even demands, performance through the application of strengths are the following four rules.

  1. Create doable jobs, not jobs that require super humans.

  2. Make the jobs big and demanding.

  3. Understand clearly what your personnel can do. This appraisal takes place well before any thought of a job.

  4. Acknowledge that you have to put up with weaknesses.

Personnel decisions need to be based on the actual performance in current and earlier positions. Focus on results, not training, education, other personal attributes, focus on the results that the person has produced. This is by far the best indicator of future performance.

On the other hand the effective manager must move quickly to remove people who have proven not to produce the results required. “”To let such a man stay  on corrupts the others. It is grossly unfair to the whole organization. It is grossly unfair to his subordinates who are deprived by their superior’s inadequacy of opportunities for achievement and recognition.  Above all, it is senseless cruelty to the man himself. He knows that he is inadequate whether he admits it to himself or not.”

 Managing Your Boss

A key for every manager, regardless of the position, is to make their boss more effective, to make their strengths fully productive.((3)) Part of this requires an understanding of what your boss’s strengths are, how they think and communicate, and what their connections are in the organization. If the boss is a slow thinker and decision maker, then present the issues clearly and provide time for them to process and make the decisions. On the other hand, if they are more of the shoot from the hip decision maker, be careful to judiciously offer up the risks and alternatives, perhaps even a day later, if you think the impulsive decision might not stand up. Another aspect of making your boss more effective is to observe how they process information. Are they a reader, listener, or looker? Make your communication match their strength.

Make Yourself Effective

The centrality of the performance of the effective manager to the overall effectiveness of those around them is a proven organizational fact. “Effective executives lead from strength in their own work. They make productive what they can do.” The first question to ask is “What can I do?”. Evaluate the work that seems to come easily and which produces excellent results. Conversely, note that which is difficult and produces substandard results. What are your work styles, how do you learn and make decisions? Above all be sure to focus on your strengths and produce the highest quality results. Your reports will notice and emulate these qualities. Those who don’t will need further development and perhaps pruning from the organization.

Opportunities and Problems

Drucker closes his discussion of strengths with a riff on a theme that pops up throughout the book.

“In every area of effectiveness within an organization, one feeds the opportunities and starves the problems.” Nowhere is this more important than in respect to people. The effective executive looks upon people including himself as an opportunity. He knows that only strength produces results. Weakness only produces headaches – and the absence of weakness produces nothing.

He knows, moreover, that the standard of any human groups is set by the performance of the leaders. And he, therefore, never allows leadership performance to be based on anything bu true strength.”




  1. All quotes in this posting come from pages 71-99 in Peter Drucker The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done. Revised. Collins Business, 2006. []
  2. Note again the dated language from 45 years ago []
  3. Drucker presages the famous 1988

    Gabarro, John J., and John P. Kotter. “Managing Your Boss”. Harvard Business School Publication Corp., November 1988. If you have not read this article, do so. I used to give out copies to my new reports. []