The CEO Test: Book Review

by | Jul 4, 2021 | Review

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They had me at the title. A CEO Test??? I hadn’t heard of any such thing, and I knew I had to find out if I would pass the test. The average CEO only lasts five years in the job, and I wanted to find out why. What was I doing differently, being that I’ve been in the CEO role at StoneAge for over 12 years and still have a long runway ahead of me? Would I pass or fail? Have I just been lucky, or am I doing a few things right? I waited with anticipation for the book to arrive.

Book Review of the CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break Leaders by Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer

Kerry’s Book Review

The CEO Test is part manual, part experiencing sharing. The authors line out seven tests that examine what makes CEOs excel and what traps they can fall into that cause failure. The tests involve developing a simple strategic plan, creating culture, building teams, leading transformation, developing listening skills, handling a crisis, and managing the conflicting demands placed on and within leaders.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. My favorite tests were:

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

Test #2: Can You Make the Culture Real – and Matter

Test #3: Can You Build True Teams


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

I have been working diligently to draw line-of-sight from our strategy to every person in our organization. The advice in this chapter was excellent. I appreciated the direction of simplifying your plan. They outlined how to achieve your vision by streamlining it into accessible, repeatable statements that everyone can wrap their heads around. I went back through my plan and distilled it into four statements that described exactly what we are trying to do in simple terms. I tested it out with my executive team and then a few test groups. The feedback was resounding –”I get it now!” My marketing team is creating posters outlining our purpose for being and these four statements for everyone to keep at their desks.

Test #2: Can You Make the Culture Real – and Matter

This is near and dear to me since I have a laser-focused approach to creating a culture of engagement, high performance, and fun. Yes, I said it, fun! We have a clearly defined set of values in the Own It Mindset. It’s our operating system, and we train people on what it means and looks like to exhibit the Own It Mindset. But there is nothing easy about creating a solid culture. Some people buy into it, and others roll their eyes. Sometimes we take two steps backward for every one step forward. And in today’s era of mass resignation, where people are leaving their jobs at a record pace, never has there been more pressure to make sure leaders build a healthy culture. I appreciated this chapter because it comes right out and says how I feel at times – “Creating culture is messy and maddening. Tempting as it may be for leaders to throw their hands up in frustration, building a strong culture is a leadership imperative, another crucial test that will determine whether they will succeed.” There have been moments where I am incredibly proud of the work we are doing to improve our culture and create a more inclusive and equitable culture. Then there are moments when I have broken down in tears because we screw things up with a silly mistake or an initiative that falls flat. I always tell my employees that each person makes up the culture collectively. We all have the responsibility to add to the culture, making StoneAge a great place to work. But make no mistake, it’s my responsibility as the CEO and my senior leaders to define, model, and build our culture.

Test #3: Can You Build True Teams

This was my favorite test because I put a lot of time into developing my executive team. Kevin’s story of creating leadership operating principles at his company Amgen was inspiring. A few years ago, we defined the StoneAge Leadership Principles, but I wanted to take it one step further and follow Kevin’s process. I worked with my executive team to create our operating principles, and it was incredibly eye-opening and motivating. Having this clarity is helpful for current team cohesiveness, but just as importantly, it clearly defines expectations for future executive team members.

I gained insight and other tidbits from the remaining four tests in the book, but the first three tests were the most impactful, at least for me. Most of the stories the authors shared resonated, some more than others, but overall, they helped bring the tests to life. I am sure that other leaders will find that various tests will resonate with them differently.

Top Takeaways from the Remaining Four Tests

Test #4: Can You Lead Transformation

Transformation is not a one-time event. The best leaders balance optimizing current operations while looking towards the future to understand how they will be disrupted or disrupt their industries. Balance is the key.

Test #5: Can You Really Listen

No news is NOT good news. If you are getting no news, you aren’t asking the right questions and listening close enough.

Test #6: Can You Handle a Crisis

There is a simple playbook for handling a crisis. Simple does not mean easy. The playbook is as follows:

    1. Understand the Facts
    2. Act Fast
    3. Communicate Widely
    4. Fix the Root Cause of the Problem
    5. Stay Calm and Project Confidence

Test #7: Can You Master the Inner Game of Leadership

This chapter was validating. Leadership is a dichotomy where you must balance seeming opposing ways of acting and being. Leadership is hard, and many times you are left wondering if you have what it takes…I know I certainly have. But making a significant impact is worth it in the end, at least for me, and it’s what keeps me going in the face of challenges.

Like this? Consider reading my blog on developing mental toughness.

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