Some business books are great because of their narratives. Shoe Dog and Bad Blood are two that come immediately to mind. Some are comprehensive operating manuals for running a company—Andy Grove’s High Output Management is one of my favorites.
But some business books are useful—even if they’re not great storytelling or a virtuoso playbook—because they get you thinking. As you read them, you’re able to reflect on your own experiences and think about how you might apply what they’re saying.
That’s the tradition of the “Corner Office” interviews with chief executives in The New York Times. And it’s what you can look for in The CEO Test, a recent book by Adam Bryant, who created the “Corner Office” franchise when he used to work for the Times, and Kevin Sharer, the former CEO of Amgen, the biotech company.
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Their goal was to present lessons from the experiences of CEOs that are relevant to a broader group of leaders and aspiring leaders. “Learning to lead like a CEO will make you more effective in your role today and lift the trajectory of your career,” they assert (p. 2.)
The CEO test they refer to in the title isn’t a literal test, but more a series of challenges that can make or break any executive. They devote a chapter to each of these seven questions:
1 - Can you develop a simple plan for your strategy? Bryant and Sharer contend that it’s critical for an executive to crystallize the outcomes their company is pursuing and how they expect to get there, and then clearly and repeatedly communicate that to colleagues.
- Sharer would tell colleagues “Don’t come into my office and dump jigsaw puzzles at my feet to start inventorying the pieces together. I want you to tell me what your hunch is about the picture.” (p. 12)
- Dinesh Paliwal, the former CEO of Harman International, would present a business strategy to the company board in a single page listing the goal, the three key actions, the three key challenges, and how to measure success in 12 months.
- Bryant and Sharer suggest focusing on outcomes, rather than just priorities, and asking “What are the three or four things that, if we accomplish them over the next 12 months, will make this a good year?” (p. 25)
- The goals should be ambitious enough that they make you uncomfortable.
2. Can you make the culture real—and matter? Bryant and Sharer focus on values and expected behaviors as the foundations of an organization’s culture, and believe leaders should be evaluated based on how well they model it.
- Tech company Twilio wrote and rewrote its values as it grew, aiming to use plain language. “No shenanigans” is one value. “Draw the owl,” is another, a reference to an internet meme meant to convey it’s up to employees to figure things out.
3. Can you build teams that are true teams? Some questions Bryant and Sharer say are the foundation to ensure a team is thriving: “What is our purpose? Do we have the best people on the team? Are we clear on how we’re going to work together? Am I, as the leader, owning the responsibilities of running the team and personally coaching everyone to get better?” (p. 89.)
- Sharer would write each of his direct reports a two-page letter every December telling them what they did well, what he was counting on them to do in the coming year, and three things to focus on to improve. He would meet with them to discuss the letters in January and again mid-way through the year.
4. Can you lead transformation? Bryant and Sharer explain the importance of making an “unassailable” case for the need for change, being transparent about challenges and uncertainty, communicating a lot, and involving others in crafting plans.
5. Can you really listen? Sharer acknowledges he was a “horrible listener” for many years of his tenure at Amgen. The cost of that became evident during a crisis at the company.
- “The single defining characteristic of every underperforming company we went after was that the CEO had walled himself off from any kind of skepticism,” said Nell Minnow, a shareholder activist. (p. 125)
- Anand Chandrasekher, CEO of Aira Technologies, tells his team to text him if they have bad news and wait to tell him in person if the news is good.
6. Can you handle a crisis? In a crisis, Bryant and Sharer believe executives should prioritize understanding the facts, especially since it helps offset bad tendencies of denial and wishful thinking. Acting fast, communicating widely, fixing the cause of the problem, and staying calm are also important.
7. Can you master the inner game of leadership? Bryant and Sharer preach the importance of calm and self-awareness in executives, which they link to a series of paradoxes, such as: Be confident and humble. Be urgent and patient. Be compassionate and demanding. Be optimistic and realistic.
To be sure…
- The book is a tacit exercise in valorizing the small club of American chief executives who traditionally have gotten more credit and compensation for companies’ success than they generally alone deserve. Some of the executives’ comments are at least slightly patronizing, with one comparing employees to unruly bunnies that need to be kept in a box. Another refers to how “dumb” a group of staff can be.
- The CEO challenges don’t include anything directly about the need for executives to engage around issues such as fairness, climate change, and human and democratic rights. Shouldn’t contributing to the wellbeing of the workers, community, democracy, and planet be part of the test for a CEO today? If a CEO doesn't have a positive record in those areas, have they really succeeded?
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Former Disney CEO Bob Iger set three simple priorities for the company that he repeated over and over and put in the second sentence of his bio on the company website. (They could be summarized as: invest in creativity, embrace technology, and grow globally.)
- Greg Brenneman, the chairman of CCMP Capital, will analyze companies by dividing a paper into four columns—for market, financial, product, and people—and then write down what the company could do to improve in each.
- During his first dinner with his direct reports as Amgen CEO, Sharer warned against engaging in internal politics. “If any of you try to be politicians, I will know it, and I will fire you,” he told them. He was greeted with dead silence. (p. 66)
- New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, when he was leading the team producing the company’s 2014 “innovation report,” wanted the report to consist entirely of unassailable facts. “Once you’ve introduced ideas that reasonable people can disagree with, you’ve created a relationship with your recommendations that feels like it could be a matter of opinion,” he later explained. (p. 96)
- Former commerce secretary Penny Pritzker would tell finalist job candidates: “If you want to get fired, here’s what you need to do: first, lie, cheat, or steal. But the other thing that will get you fired is if you have a problem and you keep it to yourself. Problems are going to happen, and it’s my job to help you with your problem.” (p. 130)
- “If your employees roll their eyes and say what you’re going to say before you open your mouth, consider that a victory because they have internalized the message.” (p. 34)
- “Our purpose is to bring clarity, alignment, and intensity. What is it that we want to get done? Are we aligned in order to be able get it done? And are we pursuing that with intensity?”—Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, on the role of his leadership team (p. 68)
- “There’s really only two kinds of days—ones when your team gets better and ones when your team gets worse. And if you just spend time getting better, then over a prolonged period of time you become essentially unbeatable.”—Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke (p. 83)
- “Don’t let yourself get trapped in your office. You need to be in the world. And the world is not just other executives.”—Abbe Raven, the former CEO of A&E Networks (p. 184)
The bottom line is that it would be hard to argue that The CEO Test is a comprehensive guide for executives, and it has obvious blind spots. But its structured collection of anecdotes and quotes from business leaders is interesting, thought-provoking reading for leaders or people who aspire to lead companies in the future.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email. You can read all of our book briefings here.