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7 Books Your CEO Is Reading—and You Should Be, Too

A pile of books on a table.

​Managers looking for a boost up the career ladder should take a page out of their CEO's book—literally.

Take a look at what C-level executives are reading in 2020.

After all, the data are increasingly clear that book learning and better career outcomes are linked.

A recent survey from Cengage, a Boston-based education technology company, found that the vast majority of companies want to hire people with an abundance of soft skills like critical thinking (67 percent of employers surveyed), effective communication (69 percent), and active learning (65 percent)—all skills associated with avid readers.

Most C-level managers already know this, having read their fair share of books as they advanced through their careers. To get a better grip on management's literary bent, we canvassed several business leaders and found out what they're reading and why.

Ennie Lim, chief executive officer and co-founder of HoneyBee, a financial wellness company in Los Angeles.

The Infinite Game, by Simon Sinek (Portfolio, 2019). In Sinek's illuminating book, I found that leaders aren't responsible for the results. Leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.

Sinek, who also wrote the best-selling business book Start with Why (Portfolio, October, 2009) and Leaders Eat Last (Portfolio, January, 2014), shows that the best way to drive performance in an organization is to create an environment in which information can flow freely, mistakes can be highlighted, and help can be offered and received.

Best Quote: "Leadership is a daily practice."

Hiroyuki Kiga, co-founder at Wallex, a Singapore-based financial technology startup.

The Hard Things About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, by Ben Horowitz (Harper Business, 2014). The Hard Things is well-suited for tumultuous times as Ben Horowitz goes through how he navigated the roller-coaster ride building (and eventually selling) Opsware, the technology company he founded with Marc Andreesen, who is a household name and a titan in the venture capital world.

Horowitz gives insights into real-life examples and his best and worst decisions, which can directly be applied in the day-to-day of running a business. It definitely helps to avoid simple pitfalls and gives ideas on solutions to try if you or your company goes through a rough patch.

The book shows how Horowitz was persistent in overcoming numerous challenges with grit and tenacity. At the same time, he takes you through his thought process and the reasons for his decisions, which is very insightful.

Best Quote: "A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor." 

Charli Burbidge, co-founder of Petz, a pet care services company in Manchester, U.K.

Notes on a Nervous Planet, by Matt Haig (Penguin, 2019). Being CEO is a high-pressure job, and while it's important to consider inspiring stories and motivation, it is also important to look after mental health.

Notes on a Nervous Planet invites the reader to examine our sleep, news and social media consumption, behavior, work, and play for ways to feel calmer and happier, and to question our personal habits in the digital age.

I'm not sure it's a managerial book in it strictest form, but Notes on a Nervous Plant will get CEOs to look at their business by looking at themselves. At its core, the book's message is powerful: The better a manager feels, the more beneficial he or she will be to the business and to the manager's career.

Best Quote: "As we swim in life's oceans, for we should, we should, they are part of the beauty that heals us. As we swim, we must accept the waves and let them be waves. Out of our control and not meant to be swallowed by osmosis. Coughing them back up stings."

Eric J. Negron, CEO and managing partner, Forefront Wealth Partners in Dripping Springs, Texas.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass, 2002). The Five Dysfunctions is a well-rounded read that provides insights into how to lead an organization, how to manage an organization, and how to foster an environment of passionate and focused communication.

In the book, a fictional character named Kathryn Petersen, Decision Tech's CEO, faces a severe management crisis: How does a leader unite a team that's so dysfunctional it threatens to crater the whole company? The reader takes a John Grisham-like tour to the end. The book examines whether a manager has the goods to confront and conquer the five dysfunctions that determine whether a team succeeds or fails.

Lencioni also shows aspiring executives how to understand the challenges their companies are facing and start addressing them with their own teams. That will help managers be perceived as better leaders and become more respected by their subordinates and peers.

Best Quote: "Always remember, great teamwork begins by building trust."

Mike Morini, CEO at WorkForce Software, in New York City.

Book of Joy—Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Penguin, 2016). The premise of Book of Joy is simple: Seven billion people in the world all strive to be happy, but how do we all get there? The focus, the authors state, is to focus on gratitude.

I really loved the reflections and the candid dialogue captured in the conversations between the authors, but I also loved the science to back it up. The authors use neuroscience to illustrate that our "happy brain" has four circuits:

  • The ability to maintain a positive state.
  • The ability to recover from a negative state.
  • The ability to focus and avoid mind wandering.
  • The ability to be generous.

The authors offer research indicating that we basically come wired for generosity, cooperation and compassion. In my day-to-day life, that's helpful for me as a leader. For example, when I see conflict among our team, I help them realize if you are conflicted, then you very well may be making it about you or your goals. That, as the authors point out, is not for the greater good of the team. The path forward is to find a way to work it out. As Book of Joy states, "You're pre-wired to cooperate."

Best Quote (from Tutu): "It does help quite a lot to see yourself as part of a greater whole."

Trevor Rappleye, CEO at Corporate Filming, a business video services company in Long Beach, Calif.

The Maxwell Daily Reader: 365 Days of Insight to Develop the Leader Within You and Influence Those Around You, by John C. Maxwell (HarperCollins, 2011). This book teaches the reader 365 lessons on how to lead people, inspire and build a company. Maxwell has really humbled me as a leader and has shown me the way to inspire my team. Frankly, it reminds me that to get far, I need a team. To grow fast, I need to have trust. I need to build teams. I need to train, help and not micromanage.

I often recommend this book to others because it’s a great reminder that we should be leaders, and not bosses. Coaches, and not strict parents. Mentors, and not mean.

Maxwell reminds us that, as leaders, we need teams around us—from the receptionist to the C-suite. After all, without them, we wouldn't have jobs.

Best Quote: "The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance. It is the illusion of knowledge."

Adem Selita, co-founder and CEO of The Debt Relief Company, a consumer debt relief services company in New York City.

Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader's Guide to the Real World, by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019). Goodall and Buckingham challenge readers, especially managers, to understand the workplace, and to smartly go against the status quo.

It helped us to understand that an engaged workforce is one that is involved in the culture. This book has helped us recreate a workplace where "culture" is not just a word thrown around, but a feeling employees generally have when they clock in for work, and something they discuss with family and friends.

I recommend this book for leaders who are still building their culture, or feel their organization is lacking it.

Best Quote: A freethinking leader "knows that the only way to make the world better tomorrow is to have the courage and wit to face up to how it really is today."

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Penn. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC's Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide


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