Book Review: The CEO Test

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I’ve been a fan of Adam Bryant’s work since the earliest Corner Office columns. He writes about what it’s like to be a CEO better than anyone I’ve read. Adam’s name as an author was reason enough to buy the book.

His co-author, Kevin Sharer, is the former CEO of Amgen. He’s also one of the first people that Adam interviewed for his Corner Office column.

I worried a little bit about the title, The CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders. Most people who read business books aren’t CEOs. They’re much more limited in the scope of the actions that they can take. I needn’t have worried. The authors wrote this book for all leaders. So, why the “CEO” in the title? Here’s what they have to say:

“We believe that all leaders face their own version of a CEO’s tests; it’s just that the intensity and consequences of those challenges grow as you move higher into roles with more breadth and complexity.”

The authors tell you what they intend to do early in the book. They’re not a fan of “cookie-cutter” approaches to leadership. They point out that how you lead depends on three things. One is your experience, abilities, and personality. Then there’s the experience, abilities, and personalities of the people on your team. And there’s the context where you lead. When you consider all the permutations in those three variables, you realize that there’s an infinite number of leadership situations. That’s what makes leadership so challenging and so rewarding.

“Our goal is to start conversations, not end them, and to provide guidance and frameworks to help refine your thinking and strategies on the aspects of leadership that matter most.”

I read that as “We’re not going to tell you how to do your job. We are going to point out the most important aspects of leadership in any situation and leave it to you to do the rest.”

Bryant and Sharer define seven of those “aspects of leadership that matter most.” They say that your challenge is to achieve “a certain level of proficiency” in each one. Here are the seven:

Can you develop a simple plan for your strategy?

Can you make the culture real – and matter?

Can you build teams that are true teams?

Can you lead transformation?

Can you really listen?

Can you handle a crisis?

Can you master the inner game of leadership?

Why I Like the Book 

The authors give you lots of examples, stories, and situations. The only downside to that is you might not see so many highlights in my review on GoodReads. That’s because I’d have to highlight almost the entire book. Trust me; there are lots of great examples and quotes in this book.

I’ve been involved in leading and in writing about leadership for more than 50 years. Most of the books I read are simplistic and over-hyped. They promise a paint-by-number approach to one of the most complex challenges a human can face. The CEO Test is on par with Peter Drucker’s duo, The Effective Executive and Managing for Results, and with Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge.

This is a book you will want to reread. You will not get all the value one time through. It’s also a book that you can dip into when you face one or another of the specific challenges. You don’t need to read Test Number 1 on “Developing a Simple Plan,” to get value from Test Number 5, “Can You Really Listen?”

In A Nutshell

I think this is a book that will help any leader do better. It’s a book that you will want to reread and dip into several times, for years. I believe The CEO Test will become a classic on par with Peter Drucker’s Effective Executive and Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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