Wednesday, September 1, 2010

How to Read Your Way into the Executive Suite

Here's an eye-opening and provacative post by Brad Smart, reprinted with his permission from his Topgrading blog:

A Player executives have very common reading habits, and what they read varies dramatically from what C Players and lower level managers read. For anyone aspiring to be a successful CEO, or a C-level executive, emulating the reading habits of the best and the brightest might give you an edge.

Sorting through my hard copy files of 6,500+ senior executives I focused on C-level executives (CEOs and those reporting to CEOs) who are North American, and only those whom I rated "A Player." There are about 500 in the sample.

First I'll report the results, and then explain why those executives believe their reading habits give them a competitive advantage in their career.

The Results of the Study: What Periodicals A Player Executives Read:

1. Wall Street Journal - Almost all read the front page and in the Opinion section, the Review and Outlook column (this column, in my sample, is the single most powerful source of political thought for senior executives).

For all the remaining periodicals, most executives skim them and only read a few articles.

2. Forbes
3. Fortune
4. BusinessWeek
5. The Economist
6. trade publications (all skim their industry "rags")
7. New York Times
8. local newspapers - almost all skim one or two

Over the past 3½ decades the above list has hardly changed, although many executives read online versions these days, supplementing reading these publications with headlines and 1-paragraph "articles" they receive as soon as they turn on their PC. Younger executives (in the 30's or younger) read much less than their older counterparts, and small company (fewer than 500 employees) read much less than Global 1000 executives.

What Books Do They Read?

The bigger company executives read a couple of books per month, typically one fiction (for relaxation) and one good, solid non-fiction book - topics such as how international politics impacts business, best sellers such as Good to Great (Collins), and books on strategy, and finance (understanding the subtle implications of finance/accounting/M & A). Recently Kindle and iPad have captured the imagination of only a small percentage of our sample, but they are enthusiasts! AudioTech Book Summaries is a great way to get written and audio summaries of books.

TV and Radio Sources of Information

Most top executives watch national and international news, particularly business news, programs, daily. And when in a car they sometimes listen to news stations. But they say that what they read gives them the most in-depth understanding.

How to "Skim" Articles

You might wonder how busy executives have time to, as listed above, "skim" so many periodicals. Any business writer knows the answer: as a writer you use the first sentence in each paragraph to say what you're going to say, and then you say it. So, to skim and get most of the "meat," read the first sentence of each paragraph.

How to Read Your Way into the Executive Suite

Forgive my cute title; I'm dramatizing a truth that most mid-managers simply don't get: if you want to BE an executive, THINK like an executive, and in order to do that, READ what the best, brightest, A Player executives read.

We don't assess or coach many mid-managers, but we conduct a lot of 2-day Topgrading workshops, and during meals and breaks we frequently find out what mid-managers read. Those who will not break into the C suite read mostly sports and entertainment magazines, and almost no books.

And most mid-mangers bore the heck out of A Player top executives. I can see it at lunches in which the top team dines with lower-level managers. Top executives in global companies know that international and domestic policies of 30 nations will affect their business, and if they are tuned into the powerful underlying forces in the world, and their competitors aren't, they win. And they want their peers and rising stars to be global in their views as well.

So in hundreds of lunches we've seen a typical scenario play out, in which a top executive is testing, to see which mid-managers have that global perspective:

CEO: "So, are oil prices going to go up or down?"

Mid-manager: "There are 5 factors pushing up and as many down," (whether the answer is up or down is irrelevant; what the CEO wants to see is a globally sophisticated response from a manager who reads, learns, analyzes, connects the dots, and forms an opinion).

Other CEO-instigated discussions in the past couple of years:

"How will an Israeli attack on Iran nuclear facilities affect our business?"

"Will the Chinese float their currency, and if they do, what will the impact be on our company?"

"Is now a good time to buy back our stock?"

"What acquisitions, if any, make sense for us?"

"How will likely tax rates in the next couple of years affect our business?"

Too often such questions are met with an awkward silence, with mid-managers embarrassed and their expressions are daffy. "I dunno," they say, raising their shoulders. And if the CEO asks, "What do you folks read?" the awkward silence tells all.

What Reading Habits Drive CEOs Nuts

Many CEOs have complained, "Young managers these days live in their own little narcissistic world, and find current events boring and depressing. Too many mid-managers these days think like technical professionals, specialists who will never understand the big picture. Stated bluntly, they are not well-read and they are not well-informed."

Why Reading Your Way into the Executive Suite Works

About a zillion years ago I entered grad school, and mentor, Dr. Bob Perloff, who became President of the American Psychological Association, said, "Brad, to get out of here (Purdue) with a doctorate, all you have to do is make the professors think of you as their peer." Good advice - translated it meant sure, get the grades and do the papers, but more than that find out what the professors read, what conferences they attend, what issues they exuded passion over, how they think.

That's what A Player CEOs want - direct reports and high potential lower level managers they consider peers, who share their concerns for not just how tactical issues should be addressed, but how world and national issues and policies will affect the business.

SUMMARY: To be an A Player top executive, learn what the CEO and other top executives think about, what global/national/business issues they are passionate about, and to get inside their brain - read what they read, so they consider you well-read, and well-informed.

Note from Dan: So what do you think of Brad's advice? Is it more about "looking good" than "being good", or is it about developing a genuine CEO mindset? How about the reading list - any surprises?


Benjamin McCall said...

Very unique post about a unique topic. I am an avid reader, skimmer and consumer of information based on business, executive subjects, arts, sports and theory!
Great post once again

seanwhitlock said...

Thanks for your post. While I was reading, however, I was wondering if you thought if there was any correlation between intelligence and position, as far as reading is concerned. Do you think that intelligent/ powerful people read more because they are intelligent or do you think that they read things to become more intelligent? Or both?
For instance, someone who is a bona fide MENSA member reads for pleasure and work- I would consider them a well-rounded reader. However, a “normal” person who reads just as much-or even the same material, will never become a MENSA member. Do you think there’s a pre-disposition to be “great,” and reading is just a small, innate part of that?
I think what your post mentioned is very important and very informative; this thought just kept coming to me. Thanks again for the post.

James Castellano said...

I am curious of how Brad rated the executives and the industry make-up.

Reading is one of the key indicators of who someone really is. One of my interview questions is, "What was the last book you read? Or when did you finish it?"

The answer tells me how serious an applicant is being successful.

Dan McCarthy said...

Ben -
Thanks. with so much information readily available on so many topics, the ability to "skim" becomes a must.

Sean -
Well, I think there's a difference between intelligence and being well read. Actually, most CEOs were not the "smartest" in their classes - more like above average.

James -
Brad assesses execs by using an extensive interviewing process called "Topgrading". He's done this at big companies like GE and for VC firms looking for new CEOs.
I like your interview question - I've used it too, it's important in my profession to ne well read.

michael cardus said...

couldn't agree more reading is the fastest and most effective way to gain writing, learning and intellectual skills.
It always amazes me how few people read books, and within that section how few read non-fiction books. The stigma of the "smart kid, reading" still is strong in our school and universities.
This is a great post...Plus reading books that are antipodal to your epistemic beliefs serves in crafting new intellectual capital and argumentative styles.
So in closing READ A BOOK!

Mary Jo Asmus said...

Dan, this is very timely, thanks. I almost always ask my high potential clients if they read. Most do not, and they explain their busy lives don't permit them to do so (most have families). This has concerned me; I believe reading is essential to keeping up with what is happening in the world and in business. Learning to skim may be the answer.

Anna Smith said...

My hopes of becoming CEO at Waffle House were never that high. Now I see that I really wouldn't belong there at all. This post was very insightful (wish I would have came across it in college). I admire people who love reading non-fictional books and have the talent to connect certain dots.
I wish I had known about great tools such as google reader (and the reeder app for the iphone/pad) back in high school - maybe I would have made a better impression on my political science teacher... ?

Rod Johnson said...

Competitive Advantage - in business and in careers, this is a theme that runs across all sectors. And reading is and can be a competitive advantage. However I was surprised by one thing that was left out - this being the reading of business blogs from thought leaders. This can be an excellent means of scanning the global idea network efficiently and effectively. And definitely fits into that busy business execs time constraints.

Ann McKenzie said...

The reading list wasn't quite as surprising as the quantity and strategies of reading. I always thought they read a significant portion of the Wall Street Journal daily and numerous business periodicals thoroughly. Their skimming technique is a true gem for covering more material.

Dan McCarthy said...

Michael -
Let's hear it for the smart kids! Thanks.

Mary Jo -
It should help motivate your clients, given these are the top "A player" CEOs brad profiled.

Anna -
I love your Waffle House wisdom, lol! Thanks.

right, no blogs, but I wonder if Brad was counting those? I'll have to ask him. Could be age too, yet I think that's a stereotype - a large % of boomers use social media these days.

Ann -
Makes sense, given the rapid-fire pace of their day.

Maggie@ Outplacement Solutions said...

Great article for mid-level management looking to get into the corner office and for job-seekers looking to impress hiring managers!! Many in today's workforce--especially in the younger generations--don't realize how important it is to be well-read and up-to-date on the latest news. While your list of top publications can seem daunting at first glance, the skimming method makes it more feasible and I hope people take a stab at it.

Dan McCarthy said...

Maggie -

Anonymous said...

This is a great piece of advice. I liked the part that stereotyped young managers of today, in that, it labeled them narcissistic and unable to understand the big picture because they are too technical. I do agree that the world is turning into a more narcissistic place. The main point I got from this passage is to get inside the head of CEO's you need to think like them. So by reading similar articles that they are interested in you can really impress them. For example CEO's or top management can't watch over your every move so for the few minutes a day that they do check up on you if you can impress them then the CEO's and top management will have a picture that you’re a solid worker and are always doing a really good job.

Dan McCarthy said...

danz13 -
hmm..., I don't think Brad was calling young managers "narcissistic"... - just not well read enough to carry a conversation with a CEO. Iy's not about just looking good - it's about developing a broad business perspective.
Thanks for commenting.

Mike Lipkowitz said...


I think Brad Smart's post was dead on. I do not know any CEOs personally, however, people in my family who are very successful are always tapped in to what is happening in the world. One area that Brad touched on, but didn't stress enough in my opinion, is to be up-to-date politically. I think this is one of the hardest things for the younger generation to focus on because political parties are usually in deadlock with one another and the younger crowd loses interest. Being current on political events is a baseline in my book. Thanks for the post, it was a good read.


Oren Hovemann said...

Thanks for the post! There are some excellent points made. The way you appear will effect how you are perceived by your peers. Reading the right magazines and watching the right shows will build confidence and trust in you from your superiors. It will do more than just make you look good. It will also keep you current with the news and knowledgeable about issues and opportunities when they arise in your industry. I think that there are a lot of overlaps in looking good and being good. To become and maintain a position as a CEO, though, I think you need both of these traits.

LongStory said...

Going through an MD/MPH program we are asked to read a vast amount of information to learn the material we are supposed to digest. It is also impressed upon us that as physicians we will have to read constantly to stay up with current trends in our field of choice. However, to actually stay current - read all the articles, decide if they are viable studies, etc. - would not be feasible given the hectic schedule most physicians hold. To be able to actually stay up to date conferences and CMEs are helpful but one of the biggest keys is learning to skim. This is a great article that I hope will be helpful to other people hoping to stay current and relevant in their fields.

Dan McCarthy said...

Mike –

Oren –
Makes sense to me – thanks.

LongStory -
Thanks, I can’t imagine the amount of reading required to keep up in a field like yours.

Anonymous said...

Another shortcut for finding time: and books on CDs. Audible offers a daily digest of WSJ and NY times, as well as Executive Book Summaries. Suddenly communite, running and even cooking time serve double-duty as reading time.

Recommend world history and science as regular non-fiction topics to hone your instinct for "what's next".

Chris R H said...

This is a great article. An overlooked fact is that reading what an "A Player" reads will help you to network better. You will be more prepared to converse with those in the positions you seek and will seem more intelligent if you are versed in topics they find interesting. I would of course, argue that passion is important, and that if you just really do not find Forbes interesting try something else. People will likely see through a masquerade quite easily!