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Want to be a CEO some day? These 10 books will help you get there

June 27, 2018

Let me say right out of the gate: I love millennials. I’m the father of one, and I meet young people every day who inspire me in many ways. That said, I’m also surprised to see how many young people graduate from college these days, think they’ve learned what they need to learn, and stop reading. They don’t crack a book. Some don’t read a newspaper – online or elsewhere – or publications that would serve them very well as they start to navigate a career.

That’s why I recommend that all new hires at Devo read as many books as they can, and also why I recommend a program called “Verbal Advantage,” a series of audio lessons designed to enhance communication skills.

Here’s my list of must-read books for aspiring CEOs.

1. “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice,” by Matthew Syed. We often assign words like “genius” and “prodigy” to people who achieve success. Yet Syed – a leading expert on the science of high performance and, along the way, an international table tennis champion and Olympian – asserts that excellence really results from “purposeful practice.” Of course, there are people who are exceptionally talented and still work hard to achieve success, but there are also many who believe their gifted status gives them a pass so they don’t need to work hard – and they ultimately squander their gifts. Then there are those who believe they are not talented, so they don’t bother to make any effort. Bottom line, Syed believes we should praise effort, not talent. This book is “How We Decide,” “Outliers,” “Talent is Overrated,” AND “Willpower,” all rolled into one. Syed writes about how deliberate practice, focus and goal-setting are critical skills to nurture throughout one’s career. I believe since people are promoted most frequently between the ages of 24 and 37, these are the sorts of skills we, as leaders, need to nurture from the start of a young person’s career. In my observation, if you’re not a CEO by age 40, it’s probably not going to happen; the sooner you start to cultivate these essential skills, the better.

2. “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century,” by George Friedman. Friedman is founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, an organization that specializes in geopolitical forecasting. In this outstanding book, he shares ideas about what our collective future will look like, taking into account geography, culture, population, and infrastructure. Many young people early in their careers don’t understand the importance of history and of international markets. This book is fantastic fodder for dinner conversations, and for expanding thinking. When you consider the United States is just 30 percent of the world’s GDP, it’s essential that we understand the other forces at work, making up the majority of economic forces. This is simply the best book about macroeconomics. It asks us to consider, for example, what is happening in the Middle East, and then suggests the momentum for peace will begin in Turkey. Closer to home, Friedman observes the next big fight for us will be Mexico, simply because of its proximity. There is discussion about the fact that the United States, because it is basically surrounded by water, has not been as vulnerable to attack as many other regions in the world. I could go on, but suffice to say there are least 50 ideas worthy of discussion with a C-level executive, all within this book’s pages.

3. “Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?”, by Seth Godin. I can distill this book into one sentence! “If you are told what to do, or if your job tasks can be written in a handbook, you have a job, not a career.” Okay, that’s really simplifying the concept, but the reality is, anyone can make a significant impact within their organization. Godin writes about how historically there were two teams in any organization: management and labor. But now there is a third team, the “linchpins.” These are the folks who know how to figure stuff out. They have the emotional intelligence to know what to do, even if it’s not written down. They love their work and turn every day into something meaningful. It is a mindset I absolutely love. Godin sprinkles real-world examples of people from a range of organizations who have “drawn their own maps.” From Keith Johnson, who scours flea markets around the world to find unique products for Anthropologie stores, to a barista at Dean and Deluca in New York, who treats every customer interaction as a gift, each example he provides is inspirational. Bottom line: Godin shows how anyone has the potential to make a huge difference in the workplace, and beyond, by being a connector.

4. “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose,” by Tony Hsieh. Until I read his book, I thought a lot of the actions Hsieh took when he started building Zappos were a bit too funky for my taste. But after reading his book, I was able to understand more about his mission and it inspired me to be more willing to invest in culture. Hsieh has certainly had a variety of work experiences – including starting a worm farm and running a pizza business – but in each place he was able to fine-tune the culture so by the time he had the idea for Zappos, he had a vision for a kind of corporate culture that was unlike anywhere else. His philosophy can be distilled down to, “by concentrating on the happiness of those around you, you can dramatically increase your own.” It’s another examination of the importance of emotional intelligence, and how to enhance it, in the workplace and beyond.

5. “The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World,” by Alan Greenspan. It wasn’t until reading this book – which came out in 2008 – that I truly understood how connected the world is, and how closely connected the supply chains of seemingly unrelated industries are. Greenspan has decades’ worth of experience – probably more than any other living person – studying and working in the global economy, so his insights are remarkable. It’s part history – Greenspan offers some observations about the Great Depression – part rumination on corporate governance, inequality, globalization, market forces, deregulation….and much more. The book is also entertaining, which is, arguably, hard to be when you’re writing about global economics!

6. “Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions,” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. Hands down, this is the best book I’ve read in the last year. Christian is a journalist and Griffiths is a professor of psychology and cognitive science. Together they look at how computing algorithms could be a surprisingly useful way to embrace the messy compromises of real life. The authors tackle everything — how to use time, space, and effort more efficiently — whether you want to optimize your to-do list, organize your closet, or understand human memory. I especially like how they explain some EQ-related issues, such as how to have “better” hunches and when to leave things up to chance, and how to best connect with others. It’s fascinating and very readable.

7. “John Adams,” by David McCullough. This is one of the best books about American history, and it gives great insights as to what our founding fathers were all about. It looks at politics and war, social issues – such as human nature, love, religious faith, women’s rights, slavery, freedom, virtue, friendship, betrayal…and so much more. Even though it’s a biography, there’s quite a bit of philosophy here, too. And it’s not a stretch to say that without John Adams, the United States wouldn’t be what it is today. Especially in these “turbulent” times, this book is also a reminder that the passionate extremes we see so much of today are not really anything new.

8. “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers,” by Geoffrey Moore. This book is an oldie but a goodie – actually it’s essential reading for anyone who is working in technology today. Even though the book is an examination of the art and science of high-tech marketing, it outlines effective management processes along the way.

9. “The MBA Handbook: Academic and Professional Skills for Mastering Management,” by Sheila Cameron. First published in 1991, this book has been updated many times, and I still recommend it. It’s somewhat academic, with “learning outcomes” for each chapter, and it’s an excellent resource. Cameron covers issues relating to both professional and personal growth, with sections such as “Managing yourself and other stakeholders” and “Teamwork, leadership and learning,” and “Writing to impress.” Whether you have an MBA or not, it’s a terrific guide.

10. “The Economist Magazine.” You got me, it’s not a book. And it’s expensive, but it’s required reading for anyone in business today. It’s always insightful and offers a global view of what’s going on economically, culturally, politically…. it’s a must read, every week.

11. Extra credit: I wanted to stop at 10, but for the most avid readers out there, here are two bonus books I highly recommend: “Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today’s Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves,” by Adam L. Penenberg, and “Purple Cow: Grow Your Business by Being Remarkable,” by Seth Godin.

Which books have helped you most in your career? I’d love to know – always looking for a good read.

More Data. More Clarity. More Confidence.