Below is a review of the book CEO Material: How to Be a Leader in Any Organization by D. A Benton (New York: McGraw Hill)
There’s an old Yiddish saying that says, “The Bride is too Pretty.” The idea is that it is very hard to have too much of a good thing; though I suppose one can – such as eating too much really good food. However, this saying is usually applied when one has several good alternatives, and will have to pass up one good alternative for another. One does not have to eat all the good food available, but one should not complain about having to pass up something good for something else good. A situation where one is necessarily going to make the right choice beats the even more proverbial lesser of two evils, where one is bound to make the wrong choice.
This is not a review of old Yiddish sayings. This is a review essay on a new book (May 2009) by executive coach and author D. A. Benson, How to be a Leader in Any Organization. The bride is too pretty in this book; there is almost too much material to choose from and decide on as a focus. Preparing an executive summary of this book, the process by which the core essence of a book is extracted from illustrative examples, and useless fluff, and presented in a time saving fashion to those who might not have the time, despite their desire, to read the full book would to be difficult.
Author Debra Benton writes, “When competence is there, the difference between a good career and a great career is 20 percent science and 80 percent art. That is, 20 percent increased competence and 80 percent the art of leadership.”
There are a handful of principles that leaders from all walks of life follow – and stick to. That’s what I teach. My expertise helps you work differently and be distinct at work. Different and better. And that’s what takes you from promise to prominence in your career. The primary obstacle for executives is that they are not consistently effective in their organizational impact. But they can be. It is a learned skill. In most business dealings, five minutes of the right action is worth five years of hard work.
Key Points of the Book
The basic themes and lessons of this book, a distillation of Benton’s experience, for the aspiring CEO are:
- Know what you are. Know your capabilities, your strengths and your weaknesses, what particularly interests you, what bores you, and the mass of “neutral” activities and material in between.
- Recognize the difference between what you are fundamentally, and what you seem to be that can change.
- Accept what you are.
- Decide what you want or need to change. A potential CEO who does not drink probably should not try to develop a taste for social drinking. A potential CEO who cannot stick with decisions, however carefully they are considered and researched, has a problem which needs fixing.
- Plan how to make, and start making the changes you feel you need to make.
- Improve and broaden your perspective, on people, on places, on functions within your company – even outside of your particular job functions. Benton points out that being a CEO requires being a generalist, able to deal with a wide variety of subjects.
- Be yourself, but don’t focus solely on your self.
The last point is particularly significant. It may be virtually a cliché – remember that clichés at least started out true — but one often ignored, that a manager, at any level, can not do the job by himself or herself. People who work at any level must work with other people. Even self-declared misanthropic loan wolves like free lance writer reviewer, who work alone, deal with people, from whom they can learn – starting with editors.
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Benton would appreciate the significance of this. Editors have power. Editors have to be listened to, because they, symbolically or literally, sign the checks writers want. Editors also have knowledge and different views. Editors should be listened to, because they bring an outside perspective to what a writer has written. They have an equal interest with the writer in producing good published writing.
Benton preaches the needs for the aspiring CEO to work with other people. She practices what she preaches. The third to last thing she says in the book, one the last page where it will be freshest to the reader, is to call her editor “talented,” presumably a person with skill and an objective view point.
The Leadership Foursome
Benton then provides a web site for the reader to go to get more up to date information. She then invites the readers to contact her, “I also welcome hearing from you” – so she will get up to date information, and widen her own perspective.
This is the final note of the communication aspect of what she calls the “Leadership Foursome – Confidence, Craftsmanship, Constant Communication, and Coworker Collaboration.” Communication must be up and down, and continuous. Even the CEO has to communicate “up,” in a manner of speaking, to customers, to clients, and in public companies to stockholders and boards of directors.
The potential CEO has to stand out from the competition, in a good way. These are ways in which the aspiring CEO can make himself or herself stand out, in a positive manner, from competitors. As Benton puts it,
If you are looking to bust through from supervisor to manager, manager to division head, division head to vice president, vice president to senior vice president, and senior vice president to CEO or from a small company to a big one – every stage is about differentiation.
This involves Benton’s four phases. Communication is a major part of the four phases. The manager at any level has to continually “sell” what he or she is doing to “stakeholders,” interested parties. They have to constantly evaluate work –to varying degrees of formality — and make mid course corrections when inevitable problems are still correctable. This requires keeping in touch with people, and convey a, hopefully accurate, attitude of being open to honesty and bad news.
Coworker collaboration is recognizing that no one really works alone. At a high enough level it may appear, as the old joke goes, that managers are managing, not doing. But they had better be doing. Managers are judged by results. They had better be doing what they can to make sure their subordinates are able to do the job.
This starts with planning. Plans fall apart, but they provide a template against which to measure progress. It is a lot easier to correct problems from a plan that has changed than when there is no plan. Easing the path for subordinates includes running political interference, which exists outside of government as well as inside government. Properly running a project, a program, or even an entire organization, includes motivating people to do their best.
Craftsmanship consists of knowing the technical aspects of the job, though early in her book Benton points out that a good manager cannot depend on technical skills alone. This might apply more to managers who “rise through the ranks” in the field in which they are working. Managers brought in from the outside, or whose background and training is specifically in management, will be expected to have some understanding of the technical aspects of the work, if only to be able to talk with experts. The manager of a record company in Nashville or New York does not need to be able to sing. But the manager should have some knowledge of the technical aspects of recording, as well as the history and current trends in of country, rock, hip hop, and other relevant music fields.
The need for confidence in rising through the ranks to CEO has several interesting aspects. Some of these might be stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious is overlooked. Some of the lessons might be simple, but often the simple is both the most effective and the most realistic. As the old saying goes, something managers should remember is when you hear hoof beats don’t think zebras – unless, of course, you happen to be on the Serengeti plains of Africa. A manager should be able to change if the environment calls for change.
Confidence has the obvious elements. It starts with the desire to rise through the ranks to CEO. Many people find niches in which they are happy, and in which they do well. They do not want to go higher. They do not want to be promoted to their level of incompetence. There is nothing wrong with this, and in many ways these people are the core of any organization – if they want to stay where they are, not if they are staying because they feel they cannot or will not be given the opportunity to accomplish more.
The aspiring CEO has to truly believe they can reach the top, as well as truly want to reach the top. This belief has to have a basis in fact, which is why Benton calls for a self-evaluation in one of her chapters. This should provide the evidence to bolster the CEO wannabe’s confidence, or convince the person to settled for a lower level.
The future CEO can use this evidence to take control of their career, to plan future steps, and to believe that they have the ability to back up their plan.
The future CEO needs to recognize another element of his or her reality, that may have an impact on confidence, and that also needs confidence to deal with. They are always being watched and observed, by bosses, coworkers, and by subordinates. Rising through the ranks is going to make someone enemies, so this is not a course advisable for anyone who hates being watched, and worries about non-existent enemies. This also runs into another old saying, that paranoia is self-curing. If you feel people are out to get you, and keeping acting on the feeling, people will really be out to get you.
Constant observation is something the potential CEO has to deal with. Live with it is the best advice one can give, and the advice Benton gives. Live with it, and try to avoid making unnecessary enemies. People may be watching, but most are going to be neutral or supportive unless they are given evidence to be otherwise.
Formal evaluation procedures, every year or so, a part of most, if not all, large companies are only a small part of the evaluation procedure. If an employee, whatever their future goals, is lucky, a series of less formal evaluations will occur in the interim. If a problem arises, they will hear about it from their boss and be given time to correct. More importantly, they will be warned and given the opportunity to avoid repeating the mistake.
If something goes well, they will be complimented. This supplies the future CEO an ego boost everyone needs. It also tells the employee what has been done well and should be replicated – avoiding potential over correction.
The potential CEO needs the confidence to both live with the constant observation, and to use it to advantage. The potential CEO will be aware that people at the office will observe virtually everything, even when CEO level is reached — Everything within reason, of course. This reviewer doubts people care what brand of diet soda the aspiring CEO might drink. But they may well notice if the person is always drinking soda. They will notice if the rising executive is a good listener, and shows a desire to learn while listening. They will notice if the rising executive can take bad news, and even disagreement.
Can the rising executive listen to advice, and perhaps take advice? Will he or she, if rejecting the advice, take the effort to thank the advisor and provide a reason for not taking the advice? Can the rising executive be trusted? Can their honesty be trusted? Can their judgment be trusted? Being honest and wrong is more morally admirable than being dishonest, but not more effective. Does the rising executive admit mistakes, and move to correct mistakes? This book is easy to read, though be prepared to take a lot of notes. There is much useful material here – the bride can never be too pretty.
No guide to how to become a CEO can give someone capability which is not somewhere in the person. But this book will help bring it out. And one way it does it is not just in stressing particular aspects of CEO-ship (to create a new word.) Benton stresses that CEOs need to be generalist, which provides them a necessary wide perspective. This book also stresses, in its general approach and in its specifics, that the aspiring CEO will encounter an interrelated environment. The potential CEO has to remember that all work is done in context. The higher the level, the broader the range of context.
This book gives the reader a lot of useful details. But the main lesson, at least to this reviewer, for the aspiring CEO to take away from its reading is the lesson of interrelationships. Everything relates to and has an impact on everything else. You will learn from this book, which makes this book worth reading.
Bruce L. Brager is a writer/researcher expert at creating and developing effective print and multimedia materials. He was worked successfully in different formats and in different subject areas for different audiences.
His background lies in writing, researching, and producing materials, commercially circulated or targeted distribution, formats and levels for different audiences; adapting and revising technical and scholarly materials for general audiences. Purposes and results of his projects include: preparing issue background papers for decision making project and program management and budgeting; evaluation and replication; increased public involvement; general information dispersal. 200 publication credits (15 books) in different subjects and formats.
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