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?