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. ((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.))

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. ((Note again the dated language from 45 years ago))

Enable Strengths and Make Weaknesses Inconsequential Continue reading

Podcast – Delegation (Outsourcing) and Keeping a Focus on Strategy and Results

Delegation and Outsourcing Share a Common Management Focus on What Needs To be Done, What Are the Results Required, and When?


Delegation (Outsourcing) and Keeping a Focus on Strategy and Results

Yesterday I was scanning through the Tweets from my friend Bruce Peters and came across a reference to a blog posting by Bernadette Doyle, “Discern Your Strengths – Delegate The Rest“. Its always good to return to these complementary concepts – strengths and delegation (outsourcing), so I read on.

Ms. Doyle’s concatenation of “delegation” and “outsourcing” is a very productive idea. Delegation is normally seen to be a personal act by a manager. A manager delegates certain tasks or responsibilities to someone else in the organization. Outsourcing is most frequently the retention of a third party, external to the company, to perform a function or tasks. Setting these two side by side provides an interesting example of the overlap between the personal skills and attributes of the manager and the larger practice and processes of the organization.

Delegation and outsourcing share many management requirements

Delegation and outsourcing share many management requirements. And they illustrate the overlap between the personal and organization spheres. Both benefit from a more nuanced use of the general management maxim, “Build on Your Strengths”. Both require a substantial understanding of what needs to be done, how it should be done, the results required, and the needed timelines. And, finally, both require ongoing management involvement to assure that those responsible for the tasks or functions, whether individuals or vendors, succeed.

Discern Your Strengths

Ms. Doyle argues that we should examine ourselves to determine our strengths as an initial step. She even provides a link to a tool to help in this adventure. I have talked about this earlier in my posting “Managing for Weakness – a mis-management myth

“What are my strengths?”

The simplest way to answer this question is to look at the activities where you have had the most and best results. These are your strengths. You might enrich this line of thinking by asking which activities make you happy, put you into a state of flow where you really concentrate and loose track of time? An external, third party assessment can be helpful. I have used StrengthsFinder 2.0. It is good, adequate detail without overreaching. There are others.

Then ask this question:

“Am I spending most of my time working on my areas of strength?”

If we turn to the classical argument for outsourcing, companies are encouraged to define their core competencies (strengths) and strategic must do functions and outsource everything else. This quickly became reduced to a simple examination of the relative cost of doing a function in-house versus via a third party.

At this point delegation (here Ms. Doyle uses the term “outsourcing”) becomes an obvious solution to increasing the amount of time and energy spent doing work that fits into your strengths by offloading tasks.

Focusing on Strength Is Not Always a Good Idea

Although in general it makes eminent sense to focus on your strengths, this is not a rule that should be followed without some thought.

In my practice I can think of numerous examples where the business owner is doing a good job of obeying the “follow your strengths” rule, but, in fact, not achieving the results that the market opportunities are providing. For example, some business owners who are highly detail and control oriented find it easy and fulfilling to remain intimately involved in all sorts of processes that fit into their strengths profile like bookkeeping, inventory control, purchasing management, human resources administration, etc. They are happy doing this work because it feeds into their need for work that is detail and control oriented. Here is a case where I argue that even though they are comfortable following their strengths, they need to drop many of these tasks and devote their time to driving the marketing and sales efforts. For these particular owners, this is uncomfortable territory. This is work that focuses on some of their weaknesses. But, in small firms, even medium size firms, there is no replacing the impact of the owner/CEO in the mind of the customer. So, even though the owner may not be the best possible person to do this marketing and sales work, they are the resource available. And, the impact on the marketing and sales results will show the wisdom of this refocusing on weakness.

I would also note that managers do learn new skills, even in areas of weakness. though your natural bent may not be the world of sales and marketing, for instance, the approaches and skills required are not particle physics. There are plenty of learning tools and business coaches who can help you become more than competent even in fields that you might describe as weaknesses.

In an example of strength misdirecting, I recall a large size electronics firm, a Fortune 500 company, in the 1980s and 1990s. The great strength of this company was manufacturing. Almost all of the managers in the top ranks came from manufacturing functions. Manufacturing widgets was what they did really well. As the world of electronics evolved, they kept doing what they were good at and let product and market development work, activities critical to the future of the company,  take a back seat. Soon market share fell from 45% to 20% and the game was over. There were certainly managers at this firm who intellectually understood that they needed to make product development work and marketing a strength, knew that they needed to make these core competencies, but the inertia of the past strengths was too difficult to overcome.

So, one can not follow strengths blindly.

Three Questions for Success in Delegation and Outsourcing

What Needs to be Done, When, and What are the Results Required?

Once you have made decisions about what to delegate or outsource, a key to success is developing a clear statement of what needs to be done, when, and what are the results you want to achieve. The answers to these three questions arm you to select the best person or organization to perform the work and the basis for useful discussions of progress. Nothing like having a clear statement of the results expected to focus the collective minds. With a clear definition of what needs to be done and the results expected you can make the best choice for whom to delegate a task to. Has this person had success in achieving results in the task area defined, do they have the functional expertise required to produce the results? If you are looking at outsourcing, the same information arm you to ask questions about the track record of the various vendors. Do they have the capacity to deliver the results on time? And so on.

Taking Responsibility for the Results – Delegation and Outsourcing Do Not Get You Off The Hook

I wrote recently in a posting, “Outsourcing – not a strategy that is as simple as a make or buy decision“,

However, people may think that outsourcing gets you off the hook and solves all of the problems involved in the outsourced functions. The truth is that whether as a one armed paper hanger or a global giant like Boeing, outsourcing must be managed.   You can not manage functions that you do not understand. So, the executive level of any organization (back to the single entrepreneur to global giant span) must understand all of the basic functions of a business (strategy, sales, marketing, product/service development, personnel, operations, finance, information systems, and legal (these are the most important ones)) in order to decide which must be internal and which can be outsourced. Then, you have to have enough knowledge of the outsourced functions to decide on the desired results required, choose vendors, and manage for the results. This may seem to be daunting for the low end of the size scale, but most of this stuff isn’t rocket science at the basic concepts level and one can always draw on people in your network and consultants (like me obviously) to help out.

The same line of thinking applies to delegation. it is simply not acceptable to delegate a task and then not come back to the person tasked for six months to ask, “How are things going?”. Just as with new hires or promotions attentive, timely, and responsive supervision is required. The same rules of responsibility apply to delegated tasks. You made the choice of the person, defined the task and the results required and established a timeline for the results. It is your responsibility to assure that the person succeeds. You have the power and resources to assure that. Although I doubt that delegation is as fraught with failure as hiring new personnel, the failure rate is still high and you can not afford to simply through up your hand six months into the mission and say, “Why did you screw this up?” More here about this management issue, “It’s Always Your Fault – taking responsibility for personnel“.

Successful Intelligence – R. J. Sternberg – book review

Successful Intelligence: how practical and creative intelligence determine success in life by Robert J. Sternberg (NY: Penguin Putnam, 1997)

(download a PDF of this book review whitepaper)

Throughout my life I have been interested in intelligence, mine and that of others. From early years at Taft School where I was regularly described as a “gross underachiever” to later in my work life when I began to understand that “smarts” came in all shapes and sizes, intelligence has been an interesting issue. Who has it and how can you figure out what kind each person has?

Successful Intelligence (SI) presents an interesting addition to my own practical knowledge of intelligence and a further jumping-off point from Howard Gardner’s efforts in Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences.

The preface gives away the whole story. Let me quote a bit:

“Successful intelligence is the kind of intelligence used to achieve important goals. People who succeed, whether by their own standards or by other people’s, are those who have managed to acquire, develop, and apply a full range of intellectual skills, rather than merely relying on the inert intelligence that schools so value. These individuals may or may not succeed on conventional test, but they have something in common that is much more important than high test scores. They know their strengths; they know their weaknesses. They capitalize on their strengths; they compensate for or correct their weaknesses. That’s it.” (bold in text) (p. 12)

So, this is quite an invigorating start! Intelligence is something we use in day-to-day life.

The first half of SI takes up a review and critique of traditional efforts to define and measure human intelligence. For those of us who followed the uproar over The Bell Curve (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994) or have otherwise been exposed to critiques of standard approaches to intelligence, skip quickly to Part III “Successful Intelligence Is What Counts”.

SI posits three key elements of successful intelligence:

  • analytical
  • creative, and
  • practical intelligence

Analytical intelligence focuses on problem solving. SI discusses this under the following headings:

  • Problem recognition
  • Problem definition
  • Formulating a strategy for problem solving
  • Representing information
  • Allocating resources
  • Monitoring and evaluation
  • Well-structured and ill-structured problems
  • means-ends analysis
  • working forward
  • working backward
  • generating and testing
  • Mental sets and fixation
  • Decision Making
  • economic models
  • utility models
  • game theory
  • satisficing

Creative intelligence focuses on finding good problems. Here SI struggles to develop a coherent and satisfying definition for creative intelligence by posing an “investment theory of creativity”. Unfortunately, this discussion struggles with a metaphor standing in as a definition: “Creatively intelligent people are like investors. They buy low and sell high.” This line of argument leads to the following notion of what creativity is about:

“In the investment view of creativity, then, the creative person buys low – comes up with an idea that is likely to be rejected and derided. That person then attempts to convince other people of the value of the idea and thus increase the perceived value of the investment. If he has finally convinced others of its value, the creative person sells high – leaves the idea to others and moves on to the next unpopular idea.” (p.190-191)

From my perspective and experiences in the business world, this gives much too much importance to the Don Quixote aspects of the process. What exactly is the “investment” here? Is it really true that creative people set out to be “rejected”? (Perhaps, some reading in the literature of innovation in industry might be helpful here. Although these are looking at the problem of creativity from a more macro level, Eric von Hippel’s Sources of Innovation and Everret Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations might shed some light on creativity.)

Leaving aside my quibbles about the difficulties SI has with defining creative intelligence, this chapter closes with a set of observations about how to develop creative intelligence. The section headings provide a good slice though these (paraphrased here):

Successfully intelligent people:

  • actively seek out, and later become, role models
  • question assumptions and encourage others to do so
  • allow themselves and others to make mistakes
  • take sensible risks and encourage others to do the same
  • seek out for themselves and others tasks that allow for creativity
  • actively define and redefine problems, and help others to do so.
  • seek rewards for, and themselves reward, creativity
  • allow themselves and others the time to think creatively
  • tolerate ambiguity and encourage tolerance of ambiguity in others
  • understand the obstacles creative people must face and overcome
  • are willing to grow
  • recognize the importance of the person-environment fit

The discussion of practical intelligence is altogether too brief because too much of this chapter is taken up with further efforts to debunk various standing notions of the connection between standard views of intelligence and real world success.

Practical problems are characterized by, among other things, an apparent absence of the exact information necessary for solution and also by their relevance to everyday experience.” This leads to a discussion of the roll of “tacit” knowledge. BUT, SI’s use of the word “tacit” bears little resemblance to either my own usage or a dictionary definition (in this case my usage and the dictionary are in good synch).

“What, exactly, is tacit knowledge? It has three characteristic features. First, tacit knowledge is about knowing how – about doing. It is procedural in nature. Second, it is relevant to the attainment of goals people value, not the kind of academic drivel without practical value that teachers sometimes try to stuff in students’ heads. And, third, it is typically acquired with little help from others.” (p. 236)

Now, if we strip out SI’s confusing use of the word “tacit” (perhaps you may want to substitute “practical” or “worldly”), we now have a statement about that body of knowledge that one gains through the actions, association,and activities of day-to-day life – the world of knowledge accumulated through work, hobbies, social interactions and play. Go back and reread the paragraph quoted above. Excise “tacit” and substitute “worldly”. Now we can see what SI is trying to say. I have more than a small quibble with SI’s third feature. In my experience, most of my “worldly” knowledge was directly or indirectly gathered from the people around me. This usually occurred in an expressly “helping” mode.

Although SI is hardly a comprehensive or mature statement of exactly what successful intelligence is or how we can encourage its development, it at least moves the discussion of intelligence onto a plane where we can think of intelligence as a poly-dimensional entity. This gets us beyond the intellectually barren territory of IQ and other such nonsense. Further, SI helps to move us towards notions that can support practical thinking and policy making to support increasing the body of successful intelligence in all human beings.

Viewing this from my personal perspective as a business manager, I could not help but note the immense surface overlap between SI’s description of successful intelligence and many of the underlying principles ascribed to high-performance organizations. Here, for example, are statements (bolded in the SI text) from the discussion of Problem Solving:

“Successfully intelligent people don’t wait for problems to hit them over the head. They recognize their existence before they get out of hand and begin the process of solving them.“(p. 158)

“Successfully intelligent people define problems correctly and thereby solve those problems that really confront them, rather than extraneous ones. In this way, the same problems don’t keep coming back into their lives. They also make the effort to decide which problems are worth solving, in the first place, and which aren’t.” (p. 160-161)

“Successfully intelligent people carefully formulate strategies for problem solving. In particular, they focus on long-range planning rather than rushing in and then later having to rethink their strategies.” (p. 163)

“Successfully intelligent people represent information about a problem as accurately as possible, with a focus on how they can use that information effectively.” (p.165)

“Successfully intelligent people think carefully about allocating resources, for both the short term and the long term. They consider the risk-reward ratios and then choose allocations that they believe will maximize their return.” (p. 169)

“Successfully intelligent people do not always make the correct decisions, but they monitor and evaluate their decisions and then correct their errors as they discover them.” (p. 170-171)

Now, if you substitute the words “successful companies” or “successful organizations” for “successfully intelligent people, you will get a set of useful statements about high-performance organizations. Hmmmm…

(download a PDF of this book review whitepaper)

Podcast: Managing for Weakness – a mis-management myth

Shifting your focus from weaknesses to strengths is a powerful step towards being personally more effective and building a more effective organization.


This podcast is based on an earlier blog posting: “Managing for Weakness – a mis-management myth”.

This podcast is 7 minutes 21 seconds long.

You can download a PDF file with the transcript of this podcast

Managing for Weakness – a mis-management myth

The Myth

Managers spend a lot of time worrying about the weaknesses of their employees. “If only I could get her to perform better we would have a really great team.” And countless more along that line. Companies have performance evaluation systems that focus attention on how employees should overcome their weaknesses by additional training, supervision and mentoring, and, above all, more work on self-improvement by the employee. Perhaps this focus on weakness flows from an educational system that has always been more attuned to the “Cs” and “Ds” and what must be done to raise those scores, rather than building on the strengths. Our focus on overcoming weakness is reflected in a saying like, “You can become anything you want to be, if you just try hard enough.”


In the management world, Peter Drucker, the great god-father of modern management, spoke clearly about this matter way back in 1966 in his still prescient and useful little book, The Effective Executive (still in print). He wrote, “The effective executive fills positions and promotes on the basis of what a man can do. He does not make staffing decisions to minimize weaknesses but to maximize strength…. Performance can only be built on strengths. What matters most is the ability to do the assignment.”

More recently, others have also come to see that when it comes to both people and organizations the only way to build for results is to build on strengths. One example of this is the work of the Gallup Organization and Marcus Buckingham and Donald D. Clifton in Now, Discover Your Strengths ( (Free Press, New York 2001) and Tom Rath, Strengths Finder 2.0 (Gallup Press, New York 2007). Go to the website ( and check this out.

A Better Approach – Build on Strength

Focusing on strengths engages peoples’ best attributes, skills, and experiences. Focusing on strengths engages people where they have the most passion, energy and success. Focusing on strengths focuses on the activities where people have already demonstrated results. Focusing on strengths creates a positive relationship because you a talking about activities that the employee is good at and has the best chance of producing good results.

Managers should focus their attention on how to be sure that every person is working on their strengths as much as possible.

There is another reason for this focus on strengths, it removes a crutch that managers use to avoid taking complete responsibility for their performance and the performance of the organization – the myth of lousy personnel – “If I only had better people, I could get my organization to really perform.” I wrote about this recently in another posting, It’s Always Your Fault – taking responsibility for your personnel”.

Start With Your Strengths

To move us beyond this discussion, ask yourself:

“What are my strengths?”

The simplest way to answer this question is to look at the activities where you have had the most and best results. These are your strengths. You might enrich this line of thinking by asking which activities make you happy, put you into a state of flow where you really concentrate and loose track of time? An external, third party assessment can be helpful. I have used StrengthsFinder 2.0. It is good, adequate detail without overreaching. There are others.

Then ask this question:

“Am I spending most of my time working on my areas of strength?”

Make a list of your activities over the last two weeks. Do a large number of your strengths play a significant role in many of your day-to-day activities? If there are, great!! If not, you need to take action.

The most important step is to move your work day towards your strengths. Start by asking yourself how you can make changes. Many times my clients find that they are doing tasks out of their strength zones simply because they always have. Habits are made to be changed. Look around the organization to find someone whose strengths include these tasks. Off load them. Keep your eye on the results required, but, off load. Other clients have realized that they need a new employee or business partner to take on the tasks that are in their weak zones.

One of the great side effects of moving to your strengths is that the tasks you shed will be performed better, in a more productive fashion, by somebody who feels good about exercising their strengths in carrying them out.

Look for Strengths in Others

Once you have identified your own strengths and acted to move towards them, you can turn to asking others in your organization, “What are your strengths?”. It is important that you empower them to answer the question for themselves. Then, together, you can act to move them towards their strengths. This is a task requiring more space and time than possible here. A hint is that you will need to build a matrix that displays all of the organization’s primary activities’ strengths requirements on one axis and the strengths of all personnel on the other.

What About The Weaknesses?

OK, so it is true. Everyone has weaknesses. It is true that inevitably these weaknesses show up in the results. The only useful answer to this quandary is the old saying, “Just take your lumps.” Whenever you find a bad result due to someone working in a weakness zone, ask yourself, as the general manager, “Could I have assigned someone else to do that job and have it in their strength zone?”

If you work seriously for yourself and those in your organization to focus on strengths, you will find that the results overall are much better and you and everyone else feels better because they are working in the strength zone.