The Highest and Best Application of You

A model for the never-ending pursuit of effectiveness



Li #210 The Highest and Best Application
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THE PURSUIT OF greater effectiveness is never ending. Each step toward that goal simply raises the bar and issues a challenge to do even better.


The pursuit of greater efficiency (“doing things right”) is also essential. Every member of an organization at all levels should be interested in doing their work smarter, quicker, easier, and cheaper.


But, as Peter Drucker insisted for decades, the drive for greater effectiveness (“doing the right things”) must be the particular concentration of leaders. The higher you rise in organizational influence and authority, the more important it is to increase and protect your effectiveness.


I like to compare it to a captain of a ship. The captain is certainly interested in the efficient operation of all the various departments on the ship: Engines, galley, navigation, weapons, sanitation, and much more.


But if the captain is personally occupied working on any of those applications, who is guiding the ship? Somebody must bear responsibility for the overall safety and successful mission of the ship as a whole, and that is the captain.


In April 1912, a ship called Titanic was steaming very efficiently across the north Atlantic at a record-setting pace. But efficiency proved meaningless for Titanic. Effectiveness would have been making it to New York safely.


A model from the world of medicine


I spent five enjoyable years working for a large medical system creating leadership development processes and providing one-on-one executive coaching for executives, physicians, and others. Though I didn’t work on the clinical side, I picked up much working with those who do. One of the most helpful concepts I learned about was the idea of “working at the top of your license.” For those unfamiliar with it, let me share a sketch of what it means.


Medical practitioners cover an enormous range of activities, from amazing state-of-the-art surgery to simple things like having patients step on a scale or taking their blood pressure. Along with this, there are specific procedures that medical personnel are permitted to do based on the literal license they hold.


Imagine a window with the highest functions at the top, and the simplest at the bottom.

A physician might be licensed to do them all, from surgery to checking a patient’s weight. The next level down, a Nurse Practitioner or Physician’s Assistant can do many things a doctor can do, including writing prescriptions. A Registered Nurse is the next rank down, then a Licensed Practical Nurse. Finally, the lowest rank is a Medical Assistant.


The main point: All these can operate from the top of their window to the bottom. A physician can, for example, take someone’s blood pressure or ask them to step on a scale ­─ but should she? Are those simple but time-consuming activities a good use of a physician’s education, training, knowledge, and experience? Of course not. Consider also the economic impact. As you move up the window, people are paid much more. Do you want to pay someone $150 an hour to check people’s blood pressure or $15 an hour?


That’s why team medicine is one of the dominant trends today. There is a constant drumbeat calling people in all these roles to strive to work at the top of their license; that is, to devote the dominant amount of their time and energies to the highest and best use of their knowledge, education, experience, and skill at the highest level for which they are authorized. They are pursuing effectiveness.


The model applied to business


I didn’t have to listen long to them before I realized that this concept applies to any kind of work. I have found in the years since that the concept of “working at the top of your license” resonates with executives and leaders from all industries. It’s a sticky mental concept that you don’t forget once you have learned it.



What if we remake the model to reflect the ranks of team members in a typical organization? Each person has the organizational authority to perform activities from the top of his or her window to the bottom.


Is the President or CEO capable of making copies, sweeping the floors, calling in orders to the office supply store, or keeping financial books? Of course. But should she or he devote time and energy to these things? No.


That may seem obvious, so let me make this serious point: A great many leaders in powerful positions spend significant amounts of their time and energy working at levels far below the top of their license. I have found this in at all levels in all kinds of industries, both nonprofit and for-profit.



Consider again the economic impact of ineffectiveness. Take your annual salary and divide it by 2600 (assuming an average of 50 hours per week). The result is an estimate of your pay by the hour. Then think of how you spent your time in your last workday. Your company paid you that much per hour for the activities you did. Was it a good investment?


As much impact as that thought may have in your mind, it does not consider all the things you did not do: The achievement not accomplished, the team development that did not happen, steps toward a valuable long-term goal that were not made. Failing to consciously pursue effectiveness is incredibly costly!


This is why Max De Pree says in Leadership Is an Art, “Leaders can delegate efficiency, but they must deal personally with effectiveness.”


What You Can Do


Here are some suggestions of how you can pursue greater effectiveness in your work:


  • Embrace the need to work at the top of your license


Whatever your area of responsibility, there is a window in which you are capable and authorized to work. Accept that the pursuit of effectiveness (“doing the right things”) must be your ongoing focus in professional growth.


  • Identify what activities and roles constitute the top of your license


This is the hardest part, the brain work of answering questions like these: “What is the highest and best application of ME in this organization?” “What are the most important roles, functions, and results for which I am responsible?” “What things are truly important but seem to be put off indefinitely because there is no obvious urgency attached to them?”


Don’t think of a 25-point list here, but broad categories. If you are a leader, don’t forget that part of the top of your license is time to lead, serve, and develop your team.


There is always a middle section of your window including things that must be done, but not necessarily by you. Delegate all you can. If you don’t currently have anyone able to handle something, create a development plan to be able to do so in the future.


  • Create a “Stop Doing List”


This is another idea promoted by Peter Drucker. “Most leaders don’t need to learn what to do,” he said. “They need to learn what to stop.” Some items must be eliminated.


  • Plan for regular reevaluations


One of the reasons many people find themselves working in the middle zone of their window is habit. They simply keep approaching their work the way they did in the past. The job and organization have grown but they have failed to notice or grow with it. Even if you remain in the same position for years, the top of your license will change over time, requiring you to reevaluate at least a couple times a year.


Don’t settle for seeking efficiency alone, as good as that is. Determine to be effective. Li

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