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10 Best Books for CEOs in 2023 (Plus 1 Bonus)

best books for CEOs

As a CEO, you have to learn faster than the world is changing or you’re falling behind. Attending conferences, business roundtables, CEO-to-CEO calls, and regular meetings with your CEO coach should be on your schedule for this year. But don’t stop there. Schedule time to read these 10 best books for CEOs to stay ahead of the curve and Make BIG Happen in the years ahead.

1. CEO Excellence by Scott Keller, Vik Malhotra, and Carolyn Dewar.

From three senior partners at McKinsey & Company, this is an insight-packed, revelatory look at how the best CEOs do their jobs based on extensive interviews with today’s most successful corporate leaders–including chiefs at Netflix, JPMorgan Chase, General Motors, and Sony.

Key Ideas:

  1. The CEO role can be reduced to six critical responsibilities and 18 associated practices.
  2. What separates excellent CEOs from average CEOs is mindset.
  3. The CEO role is about leverage–your ability to orchestrate results through a high-functioning team that cascades throughout the organization and to outside stakeholders.

“By all counts the role is also getting harder. Today’s CEOs have to navigate far more than the traditional running of the business. They must deal with the exponentially accelerating pace of digital transformation and the workforce retraining and cybersecurity challenges that come with it. Leaders need to pay more attention to their employees’ health and well-being, racial diversity, and feelings of inclusion. Concerns around sustainability, the public desire for more purpose-driven organizations, and calls for CEOs to be spokespeople on broad societal issues are all on the rise. As a result, the probability that a CEO will crash and burn is now higher than ever.”

2. When Women Lead by Julia Boorstin.

A groundbreaking deeply reported work from CNBC’s Julia Boorstin that reveals the key commonalities and characteristics that help top female leaders thrive as they innovate, grow businesses, and navigate crises.

Key Ideas:

  1. Institutions move slowly, but CEOs have the power to make swift, decisive actions that can improve culture and productivity.
  2. Diversity isn’t a “nice thing to do,” it’s essential to creating an innovative culture that attracts and retains top talent.
  3. Women and minorities rarely get the same opportunities to work in shiny leadership positions at major companies. Appreciate the soft skills and potential in overlooked candidates and you’ll have a wealth spring of talent at your disposal.

“One thing that has consistently impressed me most over my past twenty-odd years of business reporting is the way female leaders have been able to turn genuine grievance into entrepreneurial grit. I have been struck by how women have had to be far more scrappy, flexible, thick-skinned, and innovative – and how the companies they have built have also taken on those characteris­tics.”

3. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.

Colonel Chris Hadfield has spent decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly 4,000 hours in space. The secret to Col. Hadfield’s success — and survival — is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst and enjoy every moment of it.

Key Ideas:

  1. Crisis requires calm so that you can filter out distractions and focus on solutions.
  2. The higher the stakes, the more important your preparation becomes.
  3. Learning to accept and even welcome criticism can shore up your blind spots and increase your chances of success.

“A funny thing happened on the way to space: l learned how to live better and more happily here on Earth. Over time, I learned how to anticipate problems in order to prevent them, and how to respond effectively in critical situations. I learned how to neutralize fear, how to stay focused, and how to succeed.”

4. Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr.

Two long-serving Amazon executives reveal and codify the principles and practices that drive the success of one of the most extraordinary companies the world has ever known.

Key Ideas:

  1. Get clear on your values and leadership principles.
  2. See the results you want and then “work backwards” to identify the steps that will get you there.
  3. Set BIG goals and have the courage to pursue them.

“What distinguishes Amazon is that its Leadership Principles are deeply ingrained in every significant process and function at the company. In many cases, the principles dictate a way of thinking or doing work that is different from the way that most companies operate. As a result, newly hired Amazonians go through a challenging multimonth period of learning and adapt­ing to these new methods. Because these processes and practices are embedded in every meeting, document, decision, interview, and performance discussion, following them becomes second na­ture over time. While this practice may not be unique to Amazon, it is a defining ele­ment of its success.”

5. The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.

INSEAD professor Erin Meyer provides a field-tested model for decoding how cultural differences impact international business, and combines a smart analytical framework with practical, actionable advice.

Key Ideas:

  1. In order to harness the power of a globalized workforce, CEOs have to appreciate the differences in social norms and modes of motivation that will bring out the best in each person.
  2. Building broad consensus among key team members can be more effective than issuing edicts from on high.
  3. Clear communication is key to keeping diverse and decentralized teams aligned to the same targets.

“It is quite possible, even common, to work across cultures for decades and travel frequently for business while remaining un­aware and uninformed about how culture impacts you. Millions of people work in global settings while viewing everything from their own cultural perspectives and assuming that all differences, controversy, and misunderstanding are rooted in person­ality. This is not due to laziness. Many well-intentioned people don’t educate themselves about cultural differences because they believe that if they focus on individual differences, that will be enough.”

6. No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings.

Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings reveals the unorthodox culture behind one of the world’s most innovative, imaginative, and successful companies.

Key Ideas:

  1. Innovate or die. Blockbuster could have bought Netflix in its infancy for a song. Instead, it became a cautionary tale like Kodak and MySpace.
  2. Re-examine legacy policies and best practices to find things you should stop doing.
  3. Hire the absolute best people and then give them the freedom to excel.

“If you give em­ployees more freedom instead of developing processes to prevent them from exercising their own judgment, they will make better decisions and it’s easier to hold them accountable. This also makes for a happier, more motivated workforce as well as a more nimble company. But to develop a foundation that enables this level of freedom you need to first increase two other elements: Build up talent density, and Increase candor.”

7. The Memo by Minda Harts.

A much-needed career guide tailored specifically for women of color.

Key Ideas:

  1. Build and diversify your network to give yourself more support and more potential opportunities.
  2. Don’t leave your career in someone else’s hands — be seen and take control.
  3. Know your options. With so many companies still battling for top talent, you don’t have to stay at a company whose culture is holding you down.

“I spent much of my career in corporate America and the nonprofit sector as the only black woman or one of a few women of color in the companies and organizations I worked for. And I had no mentors or sponsors that looked like me. For years, I started to question if women of color even wanted more out of their careers because I never saw any in my in­dustry. And my experiences of being the “only one” were hap­pening in even more isolation because I had no one to talk to about them … This is just one of the many forms of mental gymnastics that women of color go through at work because no one ever bothers to address our experiences.”

8. Mastery by George Leonard.

Drawing on Zen philosophy and his expertise in the martial art of aikido, George Leonard shows how the process of mastery can help us attain a higher level of excellence and a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in our daily lives.

Key Ideas:

  1. Mastery never ends — it is a process of continual self-discovery and improvement.
  2. There is always something new to learn, if you’re humble enough to keep learning.
  3. The end is not the goal, finding yourself along the way is.

“It resists definition yet can be instantly recognized. It comes in many varieties, yet follows certain unchanging laws. It brings rich rewards, yet is not really a goal or a destination but rather a process, a journey. We call this journey mastery, and tend to as­sume that it requires a special ticket available only to those born with exceptional abilities. But mastery isn’t reserved for the su­pertalented or even for those who are fortunate enough to have gotten an early start. It’s available to anyone who is willing to get on the path and stay on it, regardless of age, sex, or previous experience.”

9. Difficult Decisions by Eric Pliner.

Leadership expert and CEO of YSC Consulting Eric Pliner delivers a set of practical tools for readers to make sense of complex, subjective decisions quickly and with integrity.

Key Ideas:

  1. Staying neutral on hot-button issues that matter to your key stakeholders is not a strategy. Just ask Bob Chapek, formerly of Disney.
  2. Your values and your responsibilities as a leader should guide your decision-making.
  3. Game out all possible consequences on others before you make a decision, and solicit input from trusted team leaders and outside advisors who will tell you what you’re not seeing.

“If morals are internally referenced, ethics are externally referenced, and role responsibilities are stakeholder informed, then the decision-making triangle can prompt the leader to look inward, look outward, and look around. Looking inward enables us to understand what each of us brings to a dilemma, how our early influences, our psychology, our inner voices, or our identities affect the way that we see and experience the inputs to a decision. Looking outward tells us what the world or at least our broader operating context has to say about them, and looking around tells us what our key stakeholders might think. Those three directions cover much of our decision-making ecosystem.”

10. Dare to Lead by Brené Brown.

Based on research conducted with leaders, change makers, and culture shifters, Brené Brown shows us how to step up and lead.

Key Ideas:

  1. Vulnerability is not weakness, it’s high-EQ leadership that your team will respond to.
  2. The best leaders make time for self-care and help those around them work through challenges.
  3. Bad organizations “shame and blame,” great organizations practice accountability and learning.

“Many people walk into work every day with one clear task: Engineer the vulnerability and uncertainty out of sys­tems and/or mitigate risk. This is true of everyone from lawyers, who often equate vulnerability with loopholes and liabilities, to engineers and other people who work in operations, security, and technology, who think of vulnerabilities as potential systems fail­ures, to combat soldiers and surgeons, who may literally equate vulnerabilities with death. When I start talking about engaging with vulnerability and even embracing it, there can be real resistance until I clarify that I’m talking about relational vulnerability, not systemic vul­nerability.”

Bonus Book: Making BIG Happen by Mark Moses, Craig Coleman, Chris Larkins, Don Schiavone

From the experts at CEO Coaching International, Making BIG Happen walks you through the proven methodology to drive extraordinary growth in your business.

Key Ideas:

  1. The Rhythms: Establish and maintain the Make BIG Happen Rhythms to implement structure.
  2. The Questions: Apply the Make BIG Happen Questions to take action.
  3. The Tools: Leverage the proven Make BIG Happen Tools to accelerate your success.

“Most books that teach you how to build and grow a business are organized around the functional areas of business, such as people, finance, operations, and marketing. Or they talk about how you need to create a vision, have values, develop a strategy, and follow through on tactics. Those things are important and necessary—no question—and we will discuss them. But what is missing from that list is an overarching process that systematically reels in every aspect of building and running a successful company and creates a repeatable process to discuss, review, decide, and execute on the activities that will lead to BIG growth in your company.”

Best Books for CEOs

We’ve shared an eclectic mix of 10 books. We could have added some of the more common best books for CEOs that you may find on other lists like Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger, or How I Built This by Guy Raz. Those are great books but we assume you’re already familiar with them.

We wanted to share a few best books for CEOs that you may not have heard of. Why? Because if you read the same things as everybody else does, you’ll end up doing what everybody else does. And that’s not a roadmap for success in the years ahead.

About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 67.8% during their time as a client, nearly four times the U.S. average and a revenue CAGR of 25.5%, more than twice the U.S. average.

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