The Effective “Agile” Executive

Most of us have read at least one of Peter Drucker’s more than 35 books. If you haven’t, you should know that Drucker’s writings are considered landmarks of the managerial profession. A long-time professor at Claremont Graduate University, he is credited with defining management as a distinct profession, and coining the term “gold-collar” and “knowledge workers.”

One of his most popular books, The Effective Executive, was published in 2004. Reading it now, almost two decades later, it’s easy to see why so many of Drucker’s insights have had such an enormous impact on the shaping of the modern corporation.

As an Agilist, I was gratified to see that the core principles of an strong, well-functioning Agile practice are the same disciplines Drucker outlines in the Effective Executive. If you and your organization are looking to become more Agile, here are two key take-aways from Drucker’s, The Effective Executive.

Know Thy Time

When I meet with clients who are dealing with failed projects, high turn-over, missed deadlines, spotty delivery, and assorted other maladies, my first question is this: How does the team track it’s time? The answer always is: They don’t.

My next question is: Do YOU track your time? The answer: I’m an “executive.” (In other words: No.) This is generally followed by an agitated, if not terse, lecture about why they are too busy to track time, or how time is not why their projects are over budget and behind schedule, and then I’m dismissed with: “Everyone is working hard…”

Consider the above, only now replace the word time with money. Were I to ask any executive or portfolio manager, “How do you track your money?” I would be treated to a barrage of spreadsheets, dashboards, and death by PowerPoint. I certainly would not hear, “We’re too busy to track money….”

Time IS money! If you don’t track it, you’ll never have any control over it.

Sure, people show up. People work hard, okay. But if you’re telling me that your Corkscrew Upgrade Project is your #1 priority, and I see that only 40% of your team is allocated to that project (and 60% of that team’s time is spent on website enhancements), then the Corkscrew Upgrade Project is NOT your #1 priority. (That’s assuming you actually have priorities because if you have more than three, you have none.)

People who sell time – attorneys, consultants, physicians – have a keen understanding the value of their time. They understand billable hours, and “The Thousand-Dollar Meeting.” Unfortunately, this intuitive understanding of time is not reflected in many of the steady-paycheck-white-collar Americans I’ve encountered. It’s even worse in the executive ranks, many of whom see time their subordinates’ time as endless (and free).

Executives are salaried; and, for the most part, they come and go as they please. I have yet to meet a single one didn’t think s/he worked hard, but I’ve never met a single one who tracked his/her time with any accuracy. Truly a missed opportunity.

If no one – including you – is tracking company paid time against tasks or goals, then you truly have no idea where time is spent until it’s gone. You don’t know the real duration of anything (there’s no roadmap for future efforts), nor do you have any data to determine whether or not the time expended in these activities was a good value compared with other tasks.

Tracking time is not about punching in and out. I’m not questioning your work ethic, I’m questioning the value of the work produced. Those are two different things.

Tracking time allows you to see exactly how projects are advanced (or hindered) by activities. It’s about metrics, priorities, difficult choices, saying no. By tracking time, you will learn exactly how much of your time, AND your team’s time is consumed in churn, or consumed producing low-value work. Keep in mind, low-value work is not the same as poor quality! A perfect widget only has value if someone wants to buy it!

The inability to assess the value of activities as it relates to time expended is why projects fail and, frankly, why people fail.

Tracking time and tasks is not difficult. It requires a little discipline, but it is one of the easier things to fix. In some organizations, though, this is akin to stepping on a scale. You know you’re overweight and not running a healthy show, but you’re just too afraid to see the actual number! What happens when people start tracking tasks and time? Just like your money (or your food!) you realize that you’re spending a lot of it on things that bring no joy and offer little long-term value.

What am I Contributing?

The mindset of an Agile executive is the humble acceptance that the higher-up the food chain you are, the more removed you are from the actual work, and the less likely it is that you are effectively contributing to the success of effort. You might have a bigger title, make more money, or sit in an office with a big window, that doesn’t make you valuable to the project.

Executives need to ask themselves: What, exactly, am I contributing? Does this team need my expertise to direct their work? Is my participation improving output? If so, how am I measuring that improvement? How much time is this taking from my other priorities? What, exactly, is my role? Role is not the same as title.

Effective Agile Executives don’t just report up to their managers, they are also responsible for owning the relationships with their peers, and even more importantly they need to meet their “downward” obligations to their teams. Scaled Agile Executives insure alignment, negotiate with peers and stakeholders, communicate strategy. They don’t dictate the manner and methods by which the work is completed.

Drucker and Agile agree: Executives accustomed to hierarchy who now support Agile teams must resist the temptation to pull rank, second guess the Team. If your organization is making an Agile transformation, understand that if you want to be an effective executive, you must change your work habits and your leadership approach.

How to Become an Effective Agile Executive

The first step toward becoming an effective Agile executive is understanding that hierarchy – as an organizational model – is a relic of the industrial age, and it is poorly suited to managing knowledge workers and knowledge projects.

Traditionally, to be a “boss” implied that you were an excellent individual contributor. Being made “boss” was a reward for your hard work. The thought behind this structure of hierarchy was that the boss, as an all-star worker – would impart his wisdom and best practices to others. The result of his supervision and management would be subordinates who produce the same excellent results as the boss did.

In theory, this sounds perfectly reasonable, but in practice, we all know, it is a failed model. While being a good individual contributor offers some advantages when you’re the boss, now, it is commonly accepted that management – in itself – is a profession that requires special skills and aptitudes.

This boss-helper model is the foundation for factory management where work is repetitive and “neck down.” In knowledge industries, such as tech, this model is just not scalable. Why, because these industries are dependent upon high-skilled, highly-specialized “gold-collar workers.” Moreover, The Standish Group in Boston annual report shows, through data analysis, that traditional top-down management actually has a negative impact on an organization’s ability to deliver consistent value in cognitive and creative work like, IT, marketing, and sales.

Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming evidence of its lethargic ineffectiveness, top-down leadership is still practiced and greatly loved – by those at the top. Decisions are made, late or ad hoc, good or bad, thoughtful or capricious, and everyone jumps. It’s awesome. Having people do what you say, when you say it, without argument or push-back is kind of sweet. As time goes on, hierarchical organizations develop cultures that value compliance, over disruption. Inevitably, they become stale, risk adverse, old. No one ever gets fired for the bold decision that they never made.

Drucker correctly predicted that “Gold Collar” knowledge workers would ultimately elevate the role of labor and demolish hierarchy in future organizations, and it looks like he was right on trend. In 2020, Gartner predicted that AI would replace as much as 70% of a traditional manager’s workload. This shift will change the executive’s role to that of coach, not commander.

The relationships and mindset essential for a strong, successful, progressive, and high-performing Agile organization are the the exact same qualities Drucker encourages in The Effective Executive,

Executives are not paid to tell people what to do. They are paid to ensure that the right things are done, and that the money and the time expended return a value to the organization. The best way to support a meaningful value stream in a modern organization is to move from top-down boss-helper to bottom-up team-roles where the effective executive functions as a coach and advocate, not as a boss and commander.

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For a more nuanced view on change in mature organization, view this outstanding Ted Talk from Martin Danoesatro, What are you willing to give up to change the way we work? (15 min)

Turn the Ship Around, a video of one of L. David Marquet’s outstanding Talks at Google. In this session Capt. Marquet discusses common myths of leadership and how to become a more effective “flat org” leader in a large organization. (45 min)

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Copyright 2021 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission.

So…You Want to Be a “Consultant”?

I’ve worked as a contractor, consultant, and direct employee. Each of these relationships is different; none of them is perfect. Are you ready to ditch your FTE and become a consultant? Here’s a few things to think about….

Can You Run a Business?

I’ve met hundreds of talented individuals who are terrible business people. Consider the great doctor who can’t manage or afford his/her private practice. The finish carpenter who can’t accurately bid out a project or generate an invoice. The full-stack software architect with no ability to write a statement of work or manage a project.

This is where I hear, “Ohh, puh-leeze, I’ll hire someone for that!” to which I respond, “Oh, puh-leeze, no one is interested in working for you!” (Small shops are not competitive employers – don’t think you can hire “some kid” to manage your website). Moreover, hiring help entails huge legal and financial responsibilities, and BTW, where are you going to come up with a weekly salary and benefits and pay taxes when you have one client and can barely support yourself?

Consider the following activities:

  • Marketing/Sales: Finding, qualifying, and pipelining new clients; promoting the business. You.
  • Legal: Licenses, in$urance, banking, taxes. You.
  • $oftware: Updates, equipment, desktop troubleshooting, web page(s), WiFi, Cloud storage. You.
  • Finance: Contracts, proposals, invoices, time cards. You.
  • Overhead: Office rent, supplies, printer cartridges, computers. You.
  • Benefits: Vacations, holidays, sick days, medical insurance, family leave. You.

And that’s before you do any real “billable” client work – which is often >40 hours per week, more if you are juggling multiple projects.

If you read that list and thought, “Ugh!” stay an employee.

Can You Run a Project?

Do you track your time? Do you track your money? Are you disciplined and organized in your personal life? Can you put together a schedule? Can you write a contract? What about a statement of work? Can you track, measure, and demonstrate progress? Can you make a deadline? Can you manage change and say no to difficult people?

When I meet with clients who are dealing with failed projects, high turn-over, and assorted other maladies, my first question is this: How does the team track their time? (They don’t.) Do YOU track your time? (Answer: I’m an “executive.”) Then, I get a big lecture about how hard everyone works, and they don’t have time to track their time.

Here’s my point:

I wasn’t questioning their work ethic, I was questioning their activities.

The inability to assess the value of activities as it relates to time expended is why people fail at consulting – and fail at a whole bunch of other stuff as well.

When you’re a consultant – time is EVERYTHING. Billable time, bizdev time, vacation time, career development time, commute time. And, there’s other things that take your time: Laundry. Food prep. Cleaning. Video Games. Your relationship(s). Did I mention the kids? You’ll need to manage ALL your time like the precious, finite, resource it is. That means you need to say, “I’m sorry, but that’s not a good use of my time,” even to your spouse.

Are You a Push-Over?

If you suffer from people pleasing, or have a hard time saying no, I beg you: For the sake of your personal health, personal finances, and happiness do NOT become a consultant!

Consulting is not all Power Point presentations and conference rooms with killer views. Consultants are small business owners, project managers, and buzz-kill realists. To be one requires a certain amount of cold, capitalist, callousness. How will you handle scope creep? Can you give bad news? Can you graciously deal with getting fired? (coz you will be). What about your ethics? Can you graciously dump a client (coz you’ll need to).

You want to run with the big dogs? You’re going to get pissed on. Consultants don’t have a boss, or HR, or a union, or labor laws – you have client and a contract. What are you going to do if they don’t honor it?

Are You Just Assuming You’ll Get Paid?

Very early on in my career, I worked for a couple of unscrupulous salesmen who refused to reimburse me for almost $2K in travel expenses I had foolishly put on my personal American Express card. This was back in the ’90’s, so that was a LOT of money then, and even more for an irresponsible 20-something who didn’t even have a savings account.

Although I eventually got my money, this whole thing was a huge financial fiasco, and it took me a l-o-n-g time to recover from it. These guys had let me go on Christmas Eve (for real), no severance, no final paycheck. I had to borrow money from family to pay AmEx and rent and bills. I had to go to court to get commissions, expenses, and back wages due me; and I had to freeze their bank account to collect. All of this taught me very important lesson:

No one is more unpleasant than someone who owes you money.

When you are a consultant, you’re a vendor. You don’t have the same legal protections that you would as a W2 employee. Consider the Crystal Geyser guy. If the customer decides to go with Sparkletts, Crystal Geyser doesn’t file for unemployment. If the delivery truck gets stolen, Crystal Geyser still has to service their accounts. They don’t call and ask their customers to buy them a new truck and front them for water.

An employee must be paid no less than twice a month. But you’re not an employee, so your clients will want you to bill every 30 days, and then pay you in 30 days – just like they do all their other vendors. But, what if they don’t pay you? What if they’re late? What if they disagree with the invoice? How long are you prepared to work without being paid? A week? Two weeks? A month? Three months? What if they claim your work is defective and refuse to pay? What about travel? Are you putting that on your personal credit card? What if they don’t reimburse you or take months to do so? What are you going to do about it?

I’ve worked for big, corporations my entire life.

You’d be amazed how many rich companies don’t pay their bills on time.

When you truly work for yourself, you can’t put up with excuses. Other people’s bills, emergencies, sick kids, corporate “process” and vacation time is NOT your problem. If you can’t write clear acceptance criteria for your work, can’t say no, or could never see yourself suing someone, don’t waste time trying to be consultant. I’ve listened to lots of people (mostly women, I’m sorry to say), who thought they could handle this kind of relationship, and ended up being taken advantage of by someone who was really, really, going to pay them when <crisis> passed.

When you consult, you need to track your time and tasks, keep copies of all your work, be prepared to withhold work until you’re paid for it, be prepared to walk out if you’re not paid, and be prepared to sue.

If you have a tough time sticking up for yourself, can’t handle people’s anger, or just can’t be “mean,” being a consultant is absolutely NOT for you!

Final Thoughts

Do you want to consult, or do you want more control over your scope and the direction of your career? Do you want to consult, or do you want more free time?

If you’re a full-time employee, and if you’re wondering if consulting could be for you, I strongly encourage you take a few contract, “temp” jobs. This will give you a feeling for what it’s like to have a client instead of a boss, and also give you some practice at managing the scope of your work and duration of your project.

My book, The Temp Job: A Survival Guide for the Contingent Worker offers straight-forward, no-nonsense advice to anyone navigating today’s contingent labor market. If you’ve never worked as a contractor or consultant, it’s essential reading.

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Copyright 2021 Pierce/Wharton Research, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this post shall be reproduced without permission.

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