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Books in Review: What Should CEOs Know About the Job and How Much Can They Really Know in Advance?

Preparing CEOs for Success “What I wish I knew” By William R. Johnson strives to provide “candid counsel from experts,” but ultimately fails to deliver.

Preparing CEOs for Success “What I wish I knew”

By William R. Johnson & Research Authors:
Leslie W. Bradsick, Ph.D. James S. Hillgren, Ph.D.

H.J. Heinz Company $19.95

There are many newly minted CEOs who, despite their best efforts at due diligence, discover things about their company or organization that they wished they knew before they took the job. Even executives who come up through the ranks and are given the top job discover truths about their organization that they didn’t fully appreciate before.

This is the premise of this book, which grew from a personal research project of William R. Johnson, chairman & CEO of the H.J. Heinz Company.

After reviewing many books and articles on CEO succession, Johnson found that the unvarnished perspective from current CEOs on what they wished they knew before assuming the job was missing.

Johnson collaborated with Drs. Leslie Bradsick and James Hillgren of the Continuous Learning Group (CLG) in interviewing 27 CEOs of companies with 10,000 or more employees and revenues of at least $4 billion–the Fortune 500 more or less. There were 24 men and three women CEOs, including William Johnson. The research was conducted by Drs. Bradsick and Hillgren during 2008-2009.

The results of the study contain a wide variety of good comments from the CEOs who participated, but to get to any nuggets of wisdom out of all the comments, the reader has to wade through the entire 190 pages of anonymous individual comments and summations by Drs. Bradsick and Hillgren, much of which is repetitive.

Many comments are hardly original. Can it surprise anyone that CEOs feel lonely at the top, or how much time and stamina is required, or the level of scrutiny and lack of privacy one encounters? Nor can it be a revelation that “you never know as much as you think you know.” The strangest comment of all was: “I spend a lot of time out there telling the story of this company.”

Isn’t that the primary task of the chief spokesperson for any company?

There are several comments that any CEO can relate to, such as, “Never forget that in this job, you are only as good as you did last quarter” and “The CEO’s job is to create constructive tension.” OK, but what does this mean in a CEO’s daily life? The authors do not say.

The best advice lies in the section on working with your board of directors. Here one finds several observations that capture the essence of what is required for the success and longevity of any CEO. While one of the shorter sections in the book, it contained concrete advice on the critical dynamics of the CEO’s interaction with the board, individually with each board member, and collectively as the board.

Some of the more constructive findings were that the CEOs who had more experience working with their boards reported it to be helpful in getting to know the individual board members and in learning to work with the board. In addition to having exposure and the opportunity to work with the board, the study participants found it necessary to invest in developing personal relationships with board members.

Some specific comments were:

  • “I spend at least 25 percent of my time managing board relationships”
  • “On my board, I have great friendships, great advisorship; it’s a great board”
  • “Rather than reporting to the board, I now report to the board plus each individual member of the board”
  • “I communicate much more to the board than my predecessor did, and the board loves it.”

While William Johnson’s intent was admirable, and the cooperation he was able to garner from well known CEOs, past and present, quite an accomplishment, the best of two years of unique research gets lost in the academic summations and presentation of the voluminous anonymous comments from him and all of his colleagues. It’s an example of what happens when Ph.Ds get involved with anything to do with business.

The book cover indicates that a CEO Handbook is included, but it does not explain exactly what that is, nor whether it will be packaged with the book.

Purchasers of the book also apparently have access to a copy of CLG’s Leadership Self-Assessment Tool, which appears to be a helpful guide for future CEOs. However, there is no explanation given as to what the exact value is of the self-assessment tool, nor how to most effectively use it.

In conclusion, the title “What I wish I knew” is an eyeball grabber, but the book fails to deliver the “candid counsel from the ultimate experts” that is promoted as the deliverable. There certainly is a lot of honest commentary from all the CEOs who were part of the research project, which reads more like “woulda, coulda, shoulda” than concrete prescriptions for success.

About Robert M. Donnelly

Robert M. Donnelly
Robert M. Donnelly is CMO of Flo-Tite Valves & Controls, a U.S. based supplier of valves and components to the process control industry in North America. A coach, educator, and advisor to founders/CEOs of growing firms, he is a serial entrepreneur, having started, grown and sold several technology based businesses. Previously he held executive positions at IBM, Pfizer and Exxon.