What can I contribute?

Originally published on Butterfly Mind, February 2016.

Effective executives focus on outward contributions. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start out with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done.

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

I love checklists. I love organizing. I make to-do lists, I create Trello boards.

I derive supreme satisfaction from striking through tasks I’ve completed.

In other words, I’m really good at organizing the work that needs to be done, executing it to completion, and marking it off my list.

That’s really great, right? Well, yes, but only if that work is useful. While I feel like I’m super productive, I often wonder, To what end? Am I applying myself in a way that best puts my skills to work for what our company is striving to achieve?

At Automattic, the company where I work, we’ve started talking about OKRs — Objectives and Key Results — and when I created my personal OKRs, I had a great list of lots of to-dos: wrangle conference, execute team meetup, publish “Learn to chat” posts, build self-performance reviews into my week.

While I “felt” that all of those things were important, every time I looked at my list, I knew I wasn’t quite getting to the heart of OKRs. I had lots of to-dos — lots of work –but there were no ambitions, no results, other than the completed task. The biggest, and most important question was missing: the Why?

There are no results within the organization. All the results are on the outside.

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

All of the things we do at work should be focused on what happens externally as a result of what we do internally. The external result is what our employers pay us to accomplish, and this — the external result — is the Why?

This seems very obvious, now, but it was not obvious to me for a really long time. I work in customer support. Some parts of my job have clear results: chatting with customers via live chat and helping them resolve their support requests has an obvious external result. The customer gets helped and has a positive experience with our products.

But when we get to more internal endeavors — training, building tools, developing new skills — that’s when it’s really important to start thinking about those external results. Like a child, we should always ask, “But why?”

The first practice is to ask what needs to be done. Note that the question is not “What do I want to do?”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

When we are at work, we have jobs to do. If I want to lead a workshop, I need to keep in mind, Why? What is the expected result customers will experience from our support team taking part in this training? Asking that question before preparing the workshop will 1) tell me if there is an actual external result or if it’s just something I think would be fun to do and 2) help me focus the training on our goals instead of simply brain-dumping a bunch of information.

Chapter 3: What Can I Contribute?

The effective executive focuses on contribution. He looks up from his work and outward toward goals. He asks: “What can I contribute that will significantly affect the performance and the results of the institution I serve?”

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

In case you can’t tell, I recently read The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, by Peter F. Drucker. This little book — holy moly. I found myself practically cheering when I got to “Chapter 3: What Can I Contribute?” and everything clicked.

I love my job. I love the company I work with. I want to give Automattic my very best, and this, this question of, What Can I Contribute? has helped me see how I can do that.

I’m working on a new project, and while it’s exciting, and builds on work I’ve done over the past year and a half, it’s also a departure from my normal daily role. To be honest, I was pretty scared about it. The day before our first project powwow, I thought, What was I thinking? What did I just sign up for? What if I don’t do a good job?

But the timing for reading The Effective Executive was perfect: it changed the way I approach my work, and it helped me go into this new adventure prepared.

Effective executives build on strengths… They do not start out with the things they cannot do.

— Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive

After reading about external results and outward contributions, when I got to Chapter 3 and read the words “What can I contribute?”, my brain fired, I finally get it! I grabbed a sheet of paper and made a list of the ways I’ve contributed to Automattic over the past year and half. I did this to get an idea of my strengths, and to put away my fears. I then researched the new project and determined what the expected end results are for it, both internally and externally. Finally, I put those lists together to answer, What skills do I bring? What can I contribute to help us us achieve the results we hope to achieve?

When I went into our first project meeting, I was ready. I’ve still got my Trello board and my checklists, but now they are tailored to our end goal, toward outward contribution, and what I can provide to help us get there. They’ve got meaning, they’ve got direction, and they answer the question, “But why?”

*Hat tip to Andrew Spittle for recommending this book.


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