Monday, December 10, 2007

Book Review: Your Inner CEO -- Unleash the Executive Within


When I first began reading Your Inner CEO: Unleash the Executive Within, the eighth book from best-selling author and executive consultant Allan Cox, I honestly didn't think I would get much value from it. "Too squishy," I thought. "Not going to be much here I can use." The book begins with such lines as "Successful CEOs, I have discovered, share power with others...and treat all stakeholders in their enterprise with kindness, generosity and humility" and "By looking at boundaries (those ubiquitous dividers you seldom see) in a new way, you'll master the art of redefining your life on a daily basis, consistently connecting to a spiritual dimension that adds richness to all aspects of your work and life." See? Squishy.

However, as if anticipating just such an objection, Cox writes on page 34: "Does all this strike you as too touchy-feely, too abstract and philosophical, too ephemeral and ungraspable? Trust me. It's not. I'm as straightforward, level-headed, and down-to-earth as any of the CEOs I've consulted, and believe me, they and I always gain a lot by spending time reflecting on the intangibles in life." That, plus the fact that Allan's consulting clients have included organizations such as Avery Dennison, Bacardi, Cummins Engine, Kodak, Board of Owners of the Minnesota Vikings (my team!), and Travelers Insurance, convinced me to give the book a chance.

Wow, what a ride. This isn't a book about tweaking marketing tactics or even setting grand strategy—it's about changing your life in ways that make you a better leader, whether as a CEO, department manager, community leader or the head of a company of one. Best of all, unlike some other books of this type, Cox doesn't try to turn the reader into someone he or she is not, but rather guides the reader to discover and become the leader that he or she truly is by finding the authentic self.

Again, in Cox's own words, "I've found, almost without exception, that by the time executives get married, take on a mortgage, raise kids, cope with the crabgrass, climb the corporate ladder, do their best to manage career pressures, and build their net worth and get into their forties, they've lost touch with what they believe in and care about most deeply." How close to home does that hit?

Throughout the book, Cox provides exercises (yes, this is a book designed to read actively, not passively) that help the reader to define his or her style of life by completing the statements, "I am...," Life is...," and "My central goal is to...," decide whether these statements indicate a Guardian Presence or Looming Threat, and take action to recognize and navigate boundaries, ultimately becoming more grounded—a better person and a better leader. Each chapter ends with an "Inner CEO Punch List," which is a helpful device to take advantage of the chapter's advice.

Some of Cox's points border on folk wisdom, but even well-known truisms sometimes bear repeating. While everyone knows these things, we don't all internalize them. For example, "Instead of listening to your words (the least reliable indicator of what you're going to do), watch your feet!" Or as it's commonly stated: "Actions speak louder than words." Another example is that none of us are ultimately in control of the external forces that affect us, but we can control how we react and respond to such forces.

A few more of my favorite lines from the book:

  • We often hear people boast proudly, "We have forged a values-based corporate culture." Duh. All corporate cultures are values-based. But are they bright ones (a guardian presence) or dark ones (a looming threat)?

  • In describing art, he (symphony conductor Robert Shaw) emphasized four qualities: (1) purity of purpose, (2) historical perspective, (3) craftsmanship, and (4) revelation. As he spoke, I realized that his ideas applied not just to music or poetry, but to the art of management...More than ever, people who work yearn to bring their unique gifts to bear on their own, and their company's enterprise. Shaw called that purity of purpose. Business people call it ethics, integrity or character.

  • Boundaries...define every situation, even though you often have to peer behind the facade to get to it...If you can't identify the purpose behind whatever situation you're examining, you'll never know its true nature, and...it will continue to baffle you...the purpose of even a simple, everyday object may lie far beneath your initial understanding of it. Take a humble meeting room chair, for example. You know its purpose: to provide you with a seat at the conference. But that's only its apparent purpose. Look more closely at it...That chair wasn't built for you, it was built for hotel management that needs to stack hundreds of chairs in a compact space. It's lightweight, sturdy and stackable; it can be transported easily, stored with others in a closet, and it can work as well in a dining room as in a conference room. That's reality.

Cox ties back that last point to chart of "apparent" and "real" purposes guaranteed to hit home with anyone who's spent any significant amount of time in the corporate world. Among the examples Cox cites:

A progress report. Apparent purpose: a report on how much we've accomplished. Real purpose: a tracking mechanism for our bosses to highlight what hasn't been done yet.

A management conference. Apparent purpose: it's designed to keep the team abreast of developments in the industry and add to their skills. Real purpose: corporate recreation and reward masked as eduction—attendance at trade shows builds contacts for executives who may need to change jobs in the future.

And—ouch!—consensus. Apparent purpose: "We seek consensus to create full participation by all." Real purpose: "We seek consensus to avoid conflict and straight talk." A bit later on the same topic: "The leader, eager for agreement, pushes for something on which everyone can agree, and ends up with something in which no one fully agrees. In the end, consensus makes a poor umbrella: whenever it rains, consensus dissolves into a puddle of nothing."

There is much, much more (I wore out a highlighter on this book!) but here are a few final observations and quotes:

  • It costs far less to reorient a talented-but-slightly-off-track employee (at almost any level) than it does to replace that person.

  • Three critical words of advice for any leader: Collaborate, don't control.

  • "When thinking about the future of their businesses, CEOs and their teams often start with these three questions. (1) What drives our company? (2) Who do we want to be? (3) How do we get there? There's nothing wrong with them, but they don't strike at the heart of `the vision thing.' Real vision depends on asking two deeper questions first: `Who are we?' and `Where are we headed right now?'...Looking deep inside, not across valleys, you begin to discern an excruciating level of detail, focused on the here-and-now, the way it is, for better or worse...Our actions (not our words!), and the accurate articulation of values that we glean from those actions, tell us who we are and where we're headed."

  • "I wanted them to think about the company's `keel-of-the-boat' values. `Think of a sailboat...You don't see its keel because it is underwater, but it gives the boat direction.'"

"All corporations that succeed have to be capable and resourceful in four areas..." Wait, that's enough—read the book! If you seek balance in your life and want to be a more effective leader, Your Inner CEO: Unleash the Executive Within is the guidebook for your journey.

A final note: Allan and some colleagues are also working on a wiki to accompany the book, which should go live within the next couple of weeks, providing those who benefit from the book with a place to share their experiences.


*****


Contact Tom Pick: tomATwebmarketcentralDOTcom

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