The CEO Test: Master the Challenges that Make or Break All Leaders – Adam Bryant Book Summary

The CEO Test: Master the Challenges that Make or Break All Leaders – Adam Bryant | Free Book Summary

The CEO Test: Master the Challenges that Make or Break All Leaders – Adam Bryant

The CEO Test: Master the Challenges that Make or Break All Leaders is a book by authors Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer, who have both spent extensive time in the corporate world. The book provides an in-depth look at the challenges that CEOs must face in order to succeed in their roles, from the day-to-day tasks to the larger, long-term decisions that can have a far-reaching impact. 

Through interviews with over 600 CEOs, Bryant and Sharer provide insight into the expectations, qualities, and strategies of successful leaders, as well as the pitfalls that can lead to failure. 

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The book also offers practical advice and tips, based on the authors’ own experiences, to help readers become better leaders, and better understand their own potential as a CEO.

Test #1: Can You Develop a Simple Plan for Your Strategy?

Simplifying complexity is a leader’s superpower.

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Focus on outcomes, rather than priorities. Rather than framing the discussion around the question “What are we going to work on?” ask yourself, “What do we need to accomplish? What are the three or four things that, if we accomplish them over the next twelve months, will make this a good year?”

This is the approach that John Donahoe, the CEO of Nike, uses with his leadership teams. “Priorities for priorities’ sake are dangerous,” he said. “Priorities have to be geared to a specific outcome in mind. And they have to be measurable, but they don’t always have to be quantitative.”

There might not be metrics for everything, but the question is, have we achieved that outcome, and can we identify the specifics that we need to tackle to achieve it?

Edit ruthlessly

The simple plan is not an exercise in giving space to everyone’s hobby horse. The goal is a succinct summary of the actions that the top team will own. What are the areas that are going to get new or greater focus to achieve the outcome? Check the verbs in your document.

Prune out flowery adjectives and jargon, too, applying the test that Susan Salka, the CEO of AMN Healthcare, a staffing company, learned from her father. She said: “Can you create a vision that the frontline person can understand, and see how they fit into it?”

Test it!

Beware of becoming too much of an expert in your field, as it can make it difficult to see the bigger picture. What may seem obvious to you may not be obvious to others, so don’t dismiss simple concepts as common knowledge.

To ensure that your simple plan is effective, you should test it with key focus groups, including employees and important directors if you’re the CEO. This will help you identify what is clear, what is missing, and whether employees understand how their work fits into the plan and why it matters.

Test #2: Making Your Company Culture Real and Relevant

A company’s culture is unique and varies based on its industry and history. However, leaders who want to ensure their company’s culture matters can follow certain practices.

These include clearly defining and reinforcing expected behaviors based on company values, recognizing employees who embody those values, and periodically reviewing and assessing the culture.

Guidewire’s cofounder and Chairman, Marcus Ryu, emphasized the importance of creating a culture that employees want to belong to as citizens, rather than simply consume.

This requires a commitment from senior leaders to define, model, and assess the culture, as well as to usher out employees who consistently behave in ways that contradict the stated values. Regular anonymous surveys of employee perceptions of the culture are also crucial to ensuring that the day-to-day reality aligns with the company’s aspirations.

Test #3: Building True Teams

According to Greg Brenneman, Executive Chairman of CCMP Capital, even good companies may have only 75% of the right people. Identifying talent on the bubble can be tricky, but one way to assess it is to ask: who would you rehire if all positions were open?

One can gauge the strength of the team by assessing their “forward radar” – their ability to evolve and help the company drive growth.

David Politis, CEO of BetterCloud, looks for signs that someone isn’t ready for the next growth stage, such as not seeing problems in their part of the business or not wanting to bring in a team that could replace them.

The team you need three years from now may be different than the team you have today. Remember: the top three keys to success are the team you build, the team you build, and the team you build.

Test #4: Leading Transformation

Transformation requires constant disruption and leaders who can balance refining current operations with questioning everything. It’s a mindset of reinvention that every leader should aspire to, without settling for the status quo.

Bracken Darrell, CEO of Logitech, emphasizes the need for regular change, even when things are going well. He once fired himself to rehire himself with no sacred cows, compressing his reinvention timeframe. The ultimate goal is to come in unbiased every day, a goal he considers impossible but worth striving for.

Test #5: Can You Really Listen?

Leaders need to create a culture where employees feel comfortable sharing honest feedback.

  • Bracken Darrell of Logitech emphasizes the importance of speaking up.
  • Kelly Grier of Ernst & Young asks her team to actively work on her blind spots.
  • Anand Chandrasekher of Aira Technologies encourages his team to share bad news via text to build an early-warning system.

It’s crucial to listen to bad news as it can be an early signal of danger, and leaders need to set the tone and expectation for their employees to share unvarnished truths with them.

Test #6: Can You Handle a Crisis?

Test #6 is all about handling a crisis as a leader. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that leading through a crisis is a complex task that requires understanding the facts, acting fast, communicating widely, fixing the root cause of the problem, and staying calm while projecting confidence.

  • To understand the facts, talk to those closest to the action and develop a hypothesis early on.
  • Act fast by mitigating the effects of the crisis, briefing key stakeholders, and monitoring social media.
  • Communicate accurately and build a shared understanding of the crisis.
  • Once the immediate fallout is managed, focus on fixing the underlying problem.
  • Finally, stay calm, focus on the facts, and move forward with confidence and humility.

Test #7: Mastering the Inner Game of Leadership

As a leader, you will face conflicting demands and challenges that need to be managed effectively. To improve your decision-making skills and lead your team successfully, you must master six paradoxes that are hallmarks of a leader’s life.

  • First, you must balance confidence with humility. Confidence comes from a track record of good judgment and inspiring trust in others, but it can’t turn into arrogance.
  • Second, you must balance urgency with patience. You must fine-tune your speed, slow down when necessary, bring people along by sharing context and rationales, and make sure you have proper processes and resources in place.
  • Third, you must balance compassion with demanding high performance. You need to set high expectations for your team while acknowledging that they are human beings who do their best work when treated like volunteers, not mercenaries. Compassion means recognizing that we all make mistakes and knowing when to push and when to be empathic.

Mastering the Inner Game of Leadership: The Six Paradoxes Part 2

  • Fourth, you must balance optimism with realism. You need to be optimistic and enthusiastic about ambitious goals while recognizing the risks, building contingency plans, and creating a wide landing zone for success.
  • Fifth, you must balance reading the weather with setting the weather. You need to be able to sense the mood in meetings and other settings, but you also play an outsized role in setting the tone through your body language and energy.
  • Finally, you must balance freedom with structure. In some areas, such as nuclear power plants or surgery, there is little margin for error and more focus on safety and compliance. In others, like advertising or television, creativity and improvisation are essential.

Mastering these paradoxes will determine whether you can become the leader you want to be and succeed on your own terms.

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