BOOK REVIEW: Tips from top CEOs | Fin24
In partnership with
  • Data Market Inquiry

    MTN says it is prepared to defend itself before Competition Tribunal over report.

  • Claims of sabotage

    What we know so far about allegations of sabotage at an Eskom power station.

  • Dudu Myeni

    Court dismisses former SAA chiar's bid to have Outa withdraw from delinquency case.


BOOK REVIEW: Tips from top CEOs

Jun 07 2016 07:47
Ian Mann

Work Smarts: What CEOs Say You Need To Know to Get Ahead, by Betty Liu

BETTY Liu of Bloomberg TV interviews people who are at the top of their careers: CEOs, economists, policy thinkers, and entrepreneurs. In this book she touches on how to network, negotiate, ask for a raise and more, through the eyes of these highest-level leaders.

I will focus on another area she covers - how they got to the top, how they stay there, and what they believe holds people back.

One CEO she interviewed (now a multi-millionaire) told her that one of his biggest regrets is not managing his career better when he was younger.

Whether you are - or aspire to be - an executive, you will need to make sure that you are doing everything you can to put the odds in your favour. The book doesn’t focus on the big strategic decisions that made the interviewee so successful, but rather “the small things that add up to a successful career”, Liu explains.

There was general agreement among many of the CEOs that the ability to make fast decisions is a critical success skill. “I think one of the areas that people falter on, is they just can’t make a decision,” said Teresa Taylor, former CEO of Qwest telecoms. It was the ability to make fast decisions that got her to the top. (Taylor even used to take recruitment candidates to lunch to see if they could make simple decisions about ordering. Many can’t!)

In business, people are frightened of making decisions, either because they don’t know or are scared of the answer.
Making fast decision is always easier when you have grasped the basic principles of your work. Billionaire Sam Zell made his money by buying property on a simple principle – buy on below-replacement cost.

Tips from Elon Musk and Warren Buffett

Elon Musk, the billionaire who heads up electric-car maker Tesla and rocket-ship maker SpaceX, uses ‘first principles’. Instead of working out how much it cost NASA to make a rocket and then trying to do better than them, using first principles is working out how much you can make rockets for, and reducing that.

Billionaire Warren Buffett is known for keeping things simple. He holds that the simplest way to get rich in stocks is buying what you like, and sticking to it. The billionaire founder of Rackspace gives similar advice: the micro-script you keep in your head every time you confront a challenge should be “Keep it simple”. (Billionaires “pop up like weeds” in Liu’s world of business!)

The ability to make fast decisions may be critical, but it comes with the requirement that you reverse them if you get new information. Jeff Bezos always loved building and dismantling things, and that’s what led him to eventually start Amazon, where he built and dismantled, and continues to do so. Make a decision and then you can adjust as you go along.

The more common belief is that great leaders don’t change their minds - but they do, because their egos are not wrapped up in the decision, so reversing it doesn’t feel like weakness. In Buffett’s annual letters to investors he regularly admits his bad investment decisions, and why he sold the asset.

Tim Armstrong, the CEO of AOL, used to believe that CEOs “sat by themselves and made big powerful decisions”. Nothing could be further from the truth. At a small or big company the CEO’s job, at the end of the day, is team work.

James Lee, the vice chairperson of JP Morgan, explains: “I think you can run an enterprise for a while and not be liked, but I don’t think you can run an enterprise over the long-term and not be liked.”

“You don’t work for me, I work for you. My job is to give you the resources that you need to do your job,” is the way Jay Samit explains the role. He has been a music executive for Universal, Sony and EMI. He also tells his staff that if they work for him for a year and do not make a mistake, he will fire them.

“Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding, lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless,” says Buffett. When a huge sum was lost as a result of a genuine mistake, he showed understanding.

When Betty Liu asked ex-CEO of Sears Holdings Lou D’Ambrosio for his best career advice, he retorted that the most selfish thing anyone can do is holding back their views. But views need to be presented persuasively to count.

Sallie Krawchech, former head of Bank of America’s wealth management, focused - as do many at her level - on facts. “My management style was ‘I embrace your opinion… but make sure you give me your facts’. The facts are stubborn things, and you can manage through facts, not through opinions.”

This leads on to another critical success factor: lifelong learning. There is no field today that doesn’t require ongoing intellectual and professional growth. Rising to top management is competitive, and as in any sport there is only one winner. CEOs have to be on top of their game, every game.

No substitute for hard work

Being a voracious consumer of information is critical. The more you have, the greater your intellectual bandwidth. You cannot arrive at huge success with a narrow view of the world.

Martin Sorrell, the advertising executive who founded WPP, has as his creed ‘Persistence and Speed’. Thomas Edison famously said that success is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. What Liu found most common among her interviewees was that “you have to work hard… It sounds obvious but it may surprise you how many people believe others rise to the top for so many reasons other than putting in the time.”

Getting to the top of any business is always more difficult than you think it’s going to be, which is why there is just no substitute for hard work. Real estate tycoon Bruce Ratner explained the primary reason people are fired (excluding cheating, stealing, and harassment): “The thing that is absolutely fatal is being lazy.”

As Betty Liu’s television coach told her: “Nobody is ever lucky, trust me. No honey, they’re not lucky. They were prepared. Your job is to prepare your whole life for that opportunity. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

There is much to help you prepare, in this easy-to-read book.

Readability:    Light +---- Serious
Insights:        High --+-- Low
Practical:        High --+-- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews


Company Snapshot

Voting Booth

How concerned are you about ransomware attacks?

Previous results · Suggest a vote