page title icon The CEO Test: 7 Things to Determine How Well You are Leading Your Company

At the end of the day, it’s about treating everybody around you with respect and being trustworthy.

The CEO Test is a list of 7 questions written by Adam Bryant to help you reflect and evaluate yourself in how well you are performing in your current leadership role. Let’s face it, being a top leader is a tough job. There are lots of pressures, challenges, and responsibilities that you carry alone. From time to time, we need to reevaluate ourselves whether we are staying competent and effective in our current roles.

Adam Bryant shares the many different challenges that top CEOs face and how you can face these challenges and navigate through them. He’s interviewed over 600 CEOs, and you’ll be surprised to know that these challenges are hardly unique to top executives.

If you’re discouraged and disengaged, I want to help you to be hopeful. I’d like to encourage you to learn from the wisdom and experience from these top executives and how you can learn from them and apply them in your current leadership role.

Adam Bryant was born in Montreal, and spent many of his years living in both Canada and the United States.

He had trouble sitting still as a kid and was always busy – he played a ton of sports, and delivered papers and did other jobs so he could buy a car the day he turned 16. He’s always liked to work, whatever the job was – washing dishes in a restaurant, working in factories or digging ditches around a drilling rig in western Canada.

His father was a journalist, and his mother was an occupational therapist, and he learned from them the importance of selflessness and listening. His father, especially, was a world-class listener, and Adam would watch him draw people out to share their stories.

In college, Adam caught the journalism bug himself when he was working for his college paper in Toronto. He also met his future wife in that city – they both worked at the same restaurant as a part-time job when they were in school.

He dreamed of one day possibly working for The New York Times, and after working at some smaller papers, he managed to join the paper as an entry-level reporter before he turned 30. He worked there as a reporter and editor for 18 years, with a six-year break in the middle when he worked at Newsweek magazine.

Adam’s interest in leadership grew as he started interviewing CEOs as a business reporter. For years, he followed the established approach of writing about CEOs as strategists – how they planned to win in their industry. But the more time he spent with them, the more he wanted to set aside those questions and simply ask them how they do their jobs.

That led Adam to create his weekly Corner Office series in the New York Times, which was based on a very simple “what if?” question – what if he sat down with CEOs and never asked them about their companies, and instead asked them about the most important leadership lessons they had learned over their career?

That initial idea led to more than 600 interviews with leaders from all walks of life, and three books, including his latest: “The CEO Test: Master the Critical Challenges that Make or Break All Leaders,” which he wrote with former Amgen CEO Kevin Sharer. In 2017, Adam left the New York Times to join Merryck & Co., an executive mentoring and leadership development firm, as managing director.

He and his wife are currently living in New Orleans, where their two daughters are both ER nurses.

Tweetable Quotes and Mentions

Listen to @AdamBBryant get over the hump on the @FastLeaderShow – Click to Tweet

“One of the key skills of leadership is all about simplifying complexity.” – Click to Tweet

“Simplifying complexity is a leadership superpower.” – Click to Tweet

“Leaders have to listen truly for comprehension.” – Click to Tweet

Advice for others

Be a little more patient. Have confidence that things are going to work out.

Holding him back from being an even better leader


Best Leadership Advice

Edit the person not the words. Don’t focus on the work when you’re working with people, focus on the person.

Secret to Success / Tools

Pattern recognition.

Recommended Reading

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

The CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders

Links and Resources

Adam’s LinkedIn: 

Adam’s website: 

Fast Leader Show on YouTube: 

Fast Leader Show on Apple Podcast: 

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Fast Leader Show on LinkedIn:  

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Show Transcript

Click to access unedited transcript

Jim Rembach (00:00):
Okay, fast leader Legion today. I’m excited because we have somebody on the show today. Who’s going to help us really test and get a good understanding of whether or not, you know, we have the opportunity to continue the climb if we want to, to continue that climb, uh, in regards to, to being a CEO. And it doesn’t really matter the size of the organization, if you’re responsible for the wellbeing of an organization and people’s lives, you’re going to want to know about things that we’re going to cover in this particular show. Okay. So I have Adam Bryan with me and Adam Bryant was born in Montreal and spent so many of years, both living in Canada and the United States. He had trouble sitting still as a kid and was always busy. He played tons of sports and delivered papers and did other jobs so that he could buy a car. The day he turned 16, he’s always liked the work, whatever the job was, washing dishes in a restaurant, working in factories or digging ditches around a drilling rig in Western Canada. His father was a journalist and his mother was an occupational therapist. And he learned from them the importance of selflessness and listening.
Jim Rembach (01:17):
His father especially was a world-class listener and Adam would watch him draw people out to share their stories in college. Adam caught the journalism bug himself when he was working for his college paper and Toronto. He also met his future wife in that city. They both worked at the same restaurant as par as a part-time job. When they were in school. He dreamed one day of possibly working for the New York times. And after working at some similar papers, he managed to join the paper as an entry level reporter. Before he turned 30, he worked there as a reporter and editor for 18 years with a six year break in the middle. When he worked at Newsweek magazine Adam’s interest in leadership grew as he started interviewing CEOs as a business reporter for years, he followed the established approach of writing about CEOs as strategists and he, and how he planned, How he planned plan to win in their industry, or it should be there. Yeah. Okay. Oh, that is today. I’m sorry. Okay. For years he followed the established approach of writing about CEOs as strategists and how they plan to win their industry. But the more he spent time with him,
Jim Rembach (03:00):
The more he wanted to set aside those questions and simply ask them how they do their jobs that led Adam to create his weekly corner office series in the New York times, which was based on a very simple, what if question? What if he sat down with the CEOs and never asked them about their companies and instead ask them about the most important leadership lessons they learned over their career. That initial idea led to more than 600 interviews with leaders from all walks of life and three books, including his latest, the CEO test mastered the critical challenges that make or break all leaders, which he wrote with former Amgen CEO, Kevin Cher in 2017, Adam left the New York times to join Merican company and executive mentoring and leadership development firm as managing director. He and his wife currently are living in new Orleans where their two daughters are both ER, nurses, Adam, Brian, are you ready to help us get over the hump?
Adam Bryant (03:55):
I am. Hi Jim. Thanks.
Jim Rembach (03:57):
I’m glad you’re here now. You, you and I have had the opportunity to talk a couple of times, uh, before doing this interview and, um, and I’m really excited for us to get into the different aspects of being a CEO that we’re of course covered in the book. And some of those that were not, uh, because when you start thinking about the, Oh gosh, just the amount of competencies and skills that are related to being successful in that particular role, they’re significant. And we see the failures all the time, and unfortunately don’t hear a lot about the successes. So w when I start thinking about this book, I also start thinking about impacting the customer a customer experience because that’s the differentiator this year. I mean, that’s all organizations are having to contend with quite frankly. So how is what you’re going to share with us today going to impact the customer experience?
Adam Bryant (04:47):
Sure. One of the key skills of leadership to Kevin and me is this idea of simplifying complexity and really boiling down whatever your message is. And maybe internally, in terms of the strategy that you’re sharing with employees, you know, to answer those simple questions, like where are we going and how are we going to get there? But I also think that that habit of mine, that that skill is so important for interfacing with the customers. Um, just being crystal clear on that message. And one of the dynamics and phenomenons we see in working with leadership teams is this, uh, something that I call expert itis, which is very often people inside companies, they become too close to their subject. And if you will, they’re sort of, you know, they, they live and breathe it every day. They may have grown up in the company for 20 years.
Adam Bryant (05:34):
And what may be obvious to them is not obvious to everyone else. We see this trap with a lot of leaders. You know, the strategy may be perfectly clear in their own mind, but it’s not to employees. And I think that, you know, that phenomenon, we see play out a lot in customer experience. I mean, you look a lot of marketing and advertisements. Um, you know, when I watch TV commercials, number of times, I’m saying to myself, whoever made this ad is suffering from expedite because it’s all obvious to you and it’s all an inside joke, but I’m hitting this cold. And honestly, I have no idea what you’re talking.
Jim Rembach (06:10):
I think that’s a very valid point. Um, you know, chip and Dan Heath wrote a book made to stick and I’ve cited it a couple of times and they start talking about that curse of knowledge and that expert itis and all of those things absolutely literally do apply. And even when I start thinking about a CEO role, if you especially talk about them having the technical competency and skill, at some point within that organization or, um, hierarchy or climb, they have to kind of flip it. Um, it’s no longer the technical skill that’ll enable them to lead an organization. It’s something quite different, isn’t it
Adam Bryant (06:45):
Is. I mean, being an individual contributor and really being good at whatever your particular craft will get you pretty far, but when you get in these leadership positions, I think it’s important to recognize that this is just a whole other beast. And, you know, one of the things that I’ve, I, the reason I find leadership, so endlessly fascinating is I think it’s one of the most difficult things to do effectively. And there is so much at stake. I mean, we’ve seen great leaders, you know, accomplish so much and lift the lives of people within their companies and around them. And we’ve seen far too many cases of, you know, bad leaders that, you know, destroy companies. And, you know, I just think there’s way too many bad bosses and leaders in the world. So part of what gets me out of bed in the morning is that if we can sort of help people become better, um, and recognize, you know, not only the skills that are important, but at the end of the day, it’s, you know, it’s about treating everybody around you with this respect and being trustworthy and some of those core qualities.
Jim Rembach (07:41):
Okay. And so let’s hold on to that because here’s one of the things that I find has occurred that a lot of people do not address, and I’d like to get your perspective. And that is, as we thin out an organization and we don’t have as much metal layer, it seems to me like you must have more of those types of skills at a lower level than you would otherwise. If, if not, what you end up doing is creating a situation where the entire base of your organization has no leadership skills or competencies and therefore your organizational risk goes through the roof. Yeah.
Adam Bryant (08:20):
I completely agree with you. And, and I think it’s important to put that in the context of the 12 months we’ve just lived through, because we started this book project before the pandemic and identified what to us were the key seven tests of leadership. And as we went into the pandemic, Kevin and I were asking ourselves like, is this, you know, is, is this still true? And you can discount for home team bias. Um, but I think if you look at the, the, the leadership tests that we set out, those become even more important in a situation where there’s a lot of remote working. And I think to your point, this is true for all leaders, right? In many ways, this pandemic has shifted more responsibility onto leaders to sort of clearly articulate the strategy, um, and, and help people understand like what they need to be working on, why it’s important and be over-communicating.
Adam Bryant (09:10):
We devoted an entire chapter to listening and in a remote environment, like you can’t read people’s language when you see them at the coffee break room or whatever. And so listening and, and not just sort of in the moment, hearing the words, but, you know, watching all those cues that the body language, that simple question of like, how are you has become much more meaningful. So I think everybody has had to step up who’s in a management or leadership position in this pandemic. And I think all of those things are going to hold true because you know, this past 12 months to me have been an incredible inflection point for, for leadership for how work is going to be done in the future.
Jim Rembach (09:48):
Sure. Most definitely. And so we’re going to get into that a little bit more, but before we too, I have to ask the question, how do Russian nesting dolls help you write this book?
Adam Bryant (09:59):
So I’m, I’m a big fan of metaphors and things like that that sort of help create an antelope mental image. So the reason Kevin and I started using the idea of Russian nesting dolls when we first started the project, um, you know, we spent a lot of time in front of whiteboards. And when you are tackling a subject as big and sprawling as leadership and leadership challenges, it’s pretty easy to get like about 300 things on a, on the whiteboards pretty quickly. Right? So then you start asking yourself, okay, once we identified the frame, the questions we wanted to ask and answer in this book, like, what are the critical challenges that make or break all leaders? Then what we found was good, a good tool for winning that as we, as we started looking for patterns and things like that, then we would ask ourselves, okay, that’s an important idea, but that idea actually NES inside this other idea. So that’s why, that’s why it was such a useful shorthand for us, because again, like master the challenges, I mean, that was part of the discipline. You know, we talked earlier about the importance of simplifying complexity, and we wanted to do that ourselves to take a complicated topic like leadership and simplify it, and really say like, these are the seven things. If you are going to invest time and energy and effort to becoming a better leader, our argument is that you’re going to see the biggest return on that investment by focusing on these seven.
Jim Rembach (11:22):
And again, we’ll get to the seven things in a moment, but before we do that, tell us a little bit about your co-author Kevin Cher.
Adam Bryant (11:28):
Sure. So Kevin was the CEO for dozen years of Amgen. Uh, the big biotechnology giant that was just recently brought into the Dow index. Um, grew it from about a billion to 16 billion, almost entirely through organic growth. Um, he’s got a remarkable background. I mean, McKinsey general electric, when he was in his mid twenties, he was the chief engineer on a fast attack nuclear submarine. Um, and he’s got that kind of brain and it it’s important, you know, to sorta understand Kevin’s brain, like, just think about that being in your mid twenties and having to know, not only like every part of a nuclear sub and how it works, but everything that could go wrong and how to fix it in a hurry. And so he’s got this ability. I mean, what I find so intriguing about him is that he has this laser, like ability to get to the essence of an issue.
Adam Bryant (12:21):
Like you can ask him about anything and he’ll say these are the most important three things you need to know. And it’s like, yeah, that’s pretty good. Um, but he’s also able to take a phenomenon and those sort of exploding diagrams that take things apart and put them back together. That’s kind of the way his brain works. And it was just a great partnership. I mean, when you sign up to write a book with somebody, I, I compare it to, it’s like getting married to somebody before you really start dating, um, because you never know how it’s going to turn out. Right. But the beauty of it was that I brought the depth of, sorry, the breadth of my 600 plus interviews to the table. And he brought the depth of his leadership experience on boards. He’s taught leadership, he’s mentored, um, about 20 executives into new CEO roles. Um, and you know, the other thing too, is that from the very start we checked our egos at the door and we did have sometimes some pretty vigorous debates, but we always focused on what’s. Right.
Jim Rembach (13:13):
Who’s right. Very important distinction, even in your own home.
Adam Bryant (13:18):
Exactly. Well, but,
Jim Rembach (13:22):
Okay. So, but we also have to kind of think about from an individual perspective, right? I mean, this isn’t, you know, an entire group that we’re looking at here. I mean, we really have to be able to take it self, identify, self assess self-adjust and all of those types of things. So how do leaders face their own individual CEO test?
Adam Bryant (13:41):
And one of the things to be clear is that, you know, the book is called the CEO test, but it’s not just for CEOs that we, in many ways, we tried to flip the lens because CEOs are often studied as if they’re a subspecies of the human race. Right. And we said, that’s not true. They’re kind of like everybody else’s job in many ways is similar. Like, yes, there are things that are somewhat unique to the CEO’s role, but we flipped the lens and said, okay, what, what are the leadership challenges that all leaders face from the person running a team of 10 people to being a CEO of a 500,000 employee company. So that was part of the focus of it. And in, you know, in presenting these seven tests, I think what readers will find is that they can reflect on it and ask themselves, how good am I at this?
Adam Bryant (14:27):
You don’t have to be 10 out of 10 on all seven tests, but, um, there’s going to cause people have their strengths and strengths and weaknesses, but there’s gotta be a threshold level of competence that you have to have. Um, and so things like, like strategy, I mean, the first chapter is about this phenomenon of being able to simplify complexity. And the way that is manifested is in strategy, which is kind of a difficult topic for so many leaders and companies that, you know, I’ve certainly found in my consulting work. I mean, that’s simple question of like, what is your strategy would seem to be, you know, pretty easy, but a lot of people have trouble answering that in a very clear way because they either play it too high, an altitude, or they get down in the weeds and they’re too granular. So, you know, and we provide not only identifying the phenomenon, but you know, between Kevin’s stories and the stories and insights and tips and tools and frameworks and approaches, I brought to the table from all my interviews. I think people will get a sense, okay, here’s a playbook on what I need to do as a leader. And hopefully they’ll kind of use it as a mirror for themselves. Like, am I good at this? Should I, can I be better? Um, so that was the goal from the start.
Jim Rembach (15:41):
Okay. So as you’re talking, I start going back and visualizing in my head those 300 items that were sitting on that whiteboard and you’re going through and you’re trying to nest and do all that. And, Oh, there was a part of the book where I started looking at, you know, some of that, um, uh, I guess you’d say, um, cleansing of that list as well. You know, things that we really aren’t going to cover, you know, for, for whatever, whatever reason. And, and I noticed that, you know, um, resources, expenses, capital people, managing board of directors, investors, regulators, customers, product services, those things aren’t in there as far as the CEO test. So I have to start looking at one of the things that I deal with a lot with, um, people that are part of my call center coach Academy and having them sort of develop competencies to be better leaders at the frontline. Um, and you know, those that lead the frontline is, um, business acumen. So, I mean, am I too led to believe that business acumen isn’t as important? Um, and we should just, therefore not necessarily focus as much on that.
Adam Bryant (16:45):
Not at all. And I would invoke are Russian nesting dolls because the first chapter, and there’s a reason we put it as the first chapter, because setting a clear strategy really is the cornerstone of the foundation of any successful organization and to, you know, to set a good strategy. It has to be based on business acumen, understanding not only your business, your competitors, where the future is headed for your industry. So to me, that’s like a classic example. Well, that, that nesting doll that you just mentioned, it’s in there.
Jim Rembach (17:17):
Got it. That’s very helpful because going back to that scenario of looking at the flattening of organizations is that people at the front line need to understand and have that competency of business acumen more than they’ve ever had before, because of even going to talking about the pandemic and people being more remote. And not that we can’t help those people who are, you know, remote, uh, and, and out there on the periphery, understand how they’re connected to the organization and the business impact that they have. We’re going to have a problem.
Adam Bryant (17:47):
Yeah, exactly. And you know what we need to acknowledge. There’s literally thousands of leadership books out there, and many of them have had plenty of Meredith. I think part of it, understanding the phenomenon leadership, which again is so, so big and sprawling as being very clear about kind of different types of leadership books, because there are some that focus on the sort of, you know, the qualities and innate or learned skills of a leader, they sort of take, okay, this is CEO’s brain, let’s break it down and what are they good at? Um, and there’s, you know, that’s certainly one approach, but we sort of set that aside and really just focused on this idea of like, what do leaders do, and how do they do it? And what is the playbook for doing that? Well, I mean, the book, isn’t, isn’t a kind of philosophical treatise about what leadership is.
Adam Bryant (18:39):
Um, and we’re not engaging in kind of cookie cutter formulas because I think that’s a really dangerous approach, uh, in leadership because, you know, there are leadership is also about infinite variables, even as much as people try to simplify it, because, you know, once you start accounting for your personality and all the collective and individual personalities of the human beings, you’re managing and the context in which you’re managing, like that’s an ever shifting six level chess board. So I’m, uh, I always break out in hives when people talk about like leadership theories, um, because that implies they’re static and they work in all cases and, and we all know they don’t
Jim Rembach (19:17):
Well that you say that because it brings back this one story of that. A colleague of mine who was, uh, an academic professor shared, um, with one of her colleagues who was literally a rocket scientist, because in society, we all talk about things being difficult, meaning that it’s rocket science. Right. Um, and we discount it by saying, Hey, it’s easy. It’s not rocket science thinking that rocket science is just really difficult stuff. And she’s an organizational behavior professor. And she says, okay, rocket science. Now she goes, let me ask you a few questions. She goes, well, if I know the thrust of my rocket, the gravitational pole where, you know, all this other stuff, she goes, can I, you know, figure out with, with, uh, with very, with a lot of precision exactly where that thing’s going to land, he goes, yeah, yeah. He goes, we can tell you exactly where it’s going to hit. She goes, try to do that with people,
Adam Bryant (20:12):
Nothing more complicated than human beings. Right.
Jim Rembach (20:15):
I love that story. And it’s something that was told to me 20 years ago. That’s so great. And I’ll just, I’ll just never forget it. Okay. So now let’s figure out what these six or the seven CEO tests are. Okay. So they are, can you develop a simple plan for your strategy? Can you make the culture real and matter? Can you build teams that are true teams? Can you lead transformation? Can you really listen? Can you handle a crisis? And can you master the inner game of leadership? Okay. So one of the things that we like to do here on the show is we can’t get into depth in all seven of these. And so it’s like, okay, no, that’s people need to get the book. Right. You know, and get it a little bit deeper into each, each one of these. So for us, if we could highlight and really look at two, that seemed to have the most significant impact or that people struggle with the most, what to do you think they would be
Adam Bryant (21:09):
Sure, we’ve talked a lot about strategy. So I won’t mention that, but the other two, we devoted an entire chapter to listening, um, which is not the kind of course that you typically find in business school and the like, but you know, to us, it’s, it is a key test for leadership because as you move up in an organization, honestly, if you’re in any leadership position, the information you’re getting from people below you is not always trustworthy. Right. Cause everybody’s putting a positive top, spin two thumbs up. Everything’s great boss. Nobody wants to bring bad news to the boss. And everybody who comes to you has some kind of agenda. Right? And, and so the first step for all leaders is understanding that they are in a bubble, right. And that the information they’re getting is it should be suspect. And they should also tell them, tell themselves like there’s stuff happening in my, on my team and my organization that I don’t know about.
Adam Bryant (22:05):
So the first step is recognition and the second step is then taking steps in and actually building kind of a system and ecosystem and infrastructure to get honest feedback from people. And, you know, if you have to CEO level, I mean, example from Kevin in the annual survey, he would leave an open field question for everybody where they, and the question was, what do you think of the job Kevin is doing? You know, with an open field answer and people could send it in anonymously or not. And, and just sort of taking those steps because there is this phenomenon in leadership that is captured in that great expression, you know, be careful how funny your jokes become, right. As you move up in leadership, we’ve all, anybody who’s been in the meetings meetings over their career has seen that phenomenon. Like the boss tells a joke.
Adam Bryant (22:53):
It’s not that funny. And yet everybody’s sort of laughing at them like they’re Dave Chappelle. Right. Um, and, and sort of just understanding that phenomenon, all the steps that you have to take. And, and it’s not just from a sort of ecosystem wide point of view, but also just, I think there’s an art of listening just in sort of one-on-one, you know, in the, the way you listen to your body language, um, you know, people can tell you if you’re judging them or if you have an agenda, but it’s this idea of leaders have to listen truly for comprehension first and foremost. Um, so that was one of the chapters I really want to highlight. And also the last chapter where we called master the inner game of leadership, which is, is different from the other six. Because if you look at the first six chapters, it’s really about what you do as a leader.
Adam Bryant (23:40):
Again, simple question, like, what do you do as a leader and how do you do well? That’s what we tried to answer in those first six. The last chapter shifts the focus to how you need to be as a leader, because anybody who’s been in a leadership position just knows how hard they are, right? The higher up you go, the more you’re being criticized and second guessed. And you’re getting hit from all angles all day long with tough calls and it can be relentless. It can be draining. And you know, part of the challenge of the leadership space is that if you listened to enough leadership advice, you start realizing it’s all contradictory, right. Lead from the front lead from the back. Never let them see us, sweat. You gotta be vulnerable, you know, humble, but you gotta be confident, you know, and you gotta create a sense of urgency, but you’d need to be patient.
Adam Bryant (24:27):
And it’s just like, at some point it’s like, you know, the poor golf are suffering from paralysis by analysis, right? You get a, it’s hard to, as, you know, swing the golf club when you’re trying to remember 50 things. And so one of the key insights of this chapter is all of those contradictions, you shouldn’t approach them as an or proposition is that this or that you need to approach it as an and a proposition and understand that those are the paradoxes of leadership. They exist for a reason. And once you sort of recognize that, okay, this idea, should I do this or that? Well, the answer depends on the context and it might be both given a different times of the day, but just in our work with leadership with leaders, we find, once you explain that framework to them, they’re sort of shoulders drop. It’s like, okay, I get it. Because at the end of the day, you know, a leader wants to show up with, you know, I kind of referred to it as the three CS, right? Like calm, confident, and credible. And how can you do that in a truly stamina driven, relentless job? And part of is just being able to sit back and, and, and kind of find that center point, that balance point, and then flex, as you need to, depending on the circumstance,
Jim Rembach (25:38):
You know, as you’re talking about that, I started thinking about really all levels of an organization. And even outside of an organization, I’m sitting here thinking that if I’m, you know, even an individual, you know, running my, my own business and I’m the only one and, you know, and I’m working with partners and vendors and things like that, a lot of those things still apply. I see it. Right. I see people talking about mindset. I’ve saw, I hear people talking about, you know, all of those things that you’re referring to. So I start thinking about paths and pathway and an acceleration because there’s a lot of diversions, you know, along the way. So are you saying that this book is really something that will help with all that acceleration piece and, you know, clearing all the clutter? Yeah.
Adam Bryant (26:24):
In the first chapter, we talk a lot about setting strategy and we, we, um, share this framework that I first heard from Dinesh Paula while as a former CEO of international Harman international. Sorry. And it really makes the most sense to us because he’s got this four part, one page exercise of like, come up with a summary statement of what you’re trying to achieve. What are the three most important levers you’ve got to pull to achieve that? What are the three or four biggest challenges you face in overcoming that? And finally how you’re going to measure success. And to me, you know, it really resonates with all our clients and it has this clarifying, um, uh, you know, uh, impact that you just described. And a lot of this has manifested, um, you know, inside leadership teams and organizations, and the simple question, like what is, what are your priorities, right?
Adam Bryant (27:14):
Because when we ask leadership teams in our work, sometimes they’ll come, it’s like, they’ll show us a list of like a dozen things, right. And we all know that’s too many, you know, as Jim Collins said of say, if you have more than three priorities, you don’t have priorities. Um, and if I had a magic wand, I would probably get rid of the word priorities from the business lexicon. And the reason is because the way people priorities are a little squishy, right? And to me, the poker tell if I’m looking at a team’s priority list, one of the patterns that I’ve noticed is that how many bullet points start with the same two words, which has continued to, because if you’re saying you need to continue doing this, is that a priority? And that’s how those lists get really long. And so to me get rid of the word priorities and substitute the word outcomes, because that clarifies the question, whether it’s 12 months from now two years from now, what do we need to achieve for at that point, us to be able to look back and said, and say to ourselves, we had a good year.
Adam Bryant (28:16):
And so that whole idea of like, what is the outcome we are driving towards? Has this kind of clarifying, you know, clearing out the clutter that you just described and you do see this sort of light bulb moments in teams. It’s like, okay, that’s totally shifted the conversation. Let’s get rid of all these, continue to priorities and figure out what we need to really drive.
Jim Rembach (28:38):
Yeah. Okay. So I start thinking about what has all gone into this. Um, and I have to go back to the holes, you know, 600 plus interviews with CEOs, you know, being such a tremendous base for you. And of course, you know, working with Kevin, you know, in order to pull in his, in his direct experience. And I start thinking about, you know, some common ground and commonalities. And is it that this book, when you start thinking about those CEOs that have had the most success, is it really just taking out and identifying those common things that have led to success? And that’s kind of what has culminated into this?
Adam Bryant (29:18):
Yes. And also the challenges. I mean, what’s been interesting is my third sort of data set, if you will. There’s, there’s kind of my own experience with all the interviews that I’ve done Kevin’s experience, but there’s a third source of insights. So, um, in, in my consulting firm, we have this bench of 35 mentors here in the U S they’re executive coaches, they’re all former CEOs or global business leaders. I have interviewed one of them. And I always ask them the same first question, which is like, in all your engagements with the clients that you mentor, and these are like, C-suite executives, what are the biggest challenges that they face that you talk to them? And, you know, through that the patterns emerge. And usually it’s like, what is your strategy? And tell me about your team. And that’s, you know, so again, that’s sort of reinforced this idea, like these are the things that make or break all leaders. There’s plenty of books out there that say why leaders fail and there’s plenty of books about why leaders succeed, but this idea of like, what are the break points? Um, to me, it’s sort of, it has, it has provided this kind of forcing function. And then we tried to take the next step, but not only identifying them, but say, and here’s how to, well, based on everything that we’ve learned,
Jim Rembach (30:30):
Well, then I to have to thinking about the, you know, the big shift that occurred for just about every single organization, you know, going through, you know, March of 2020. Right? Right. Um, so if I start thinking about all this data, all this information, these different data sets, all these interviews and connections, you know, w did anything change, I mean, or did it galvanize some of the things that you’ve already identified?
Adam Bryant (30:52):
Yeah. To me, it just magnified the test and these seven tests. I mean, we devote a chapter on managing through a crisis and we identify the kind of two categories of crises, the pandemic being one of one kind of those, but this whole idea, you know, in the pandemic clarifying the strategy and people’s priorities so that when they’re working at home, they know what they should be doing, being able to listen, how do you create a culture or reinforce the culture you have when nobody’s in the office anymore? I mean, some companies like, yes, it’s hit a lot of companies, hard this pandemic, but some of these like cloud companies they’ve been in hyper-growth since last March. Right. So how do you onboard new employees when they never meet their colleagues in person? And so just this idea of like, having to be so intentional about all these things.
Adam Bryant (31:42):
And to me, like, that’s a word that is so key in leader in, in the, in the leadership field, this idea of being intentional. And I think that the idea of leadership teams is, is a good example of that because there’s just too many leadership teams that are not intentional about what they do. You know, we often ask leadership teams, why are you a team? And they look at us like, it’s a silly question. Like, well, we’re a team because no, no. Why are you a team? And there’s only one right. Answer to that question, which is to accomplish things that you can only accomplish together as a team, because without that sort of intentionality, it defaults to what we’ve seen too often, which is like most leadership team meetings, like the CEO’s at the head of the table. People go around the horn, do a report out on how they’re doing, everybody’s waiting their turn and stealing glances at their phone under the table. Right. You know, that’s the default. So unless you’re intentional about, as a leader saying, okay, we’re a team. This is why, why we’re a team. This is how everybody has to behave with each other. Um, and this is my role within the team. Having those explicit conversations is going to make the difference.
Jim Rembach (32:51):
So as you, as you started talking about that and threw that out there, I started thinking of what I remember being called as the black Berry, Bob, Bob, when blackberries were popular, it’d be like seeing what was going on, right. Can text without looking at the screen. Yeah, exactly. Uh, so, all right. Um, so when I start, you know, looking at this from all these different angles and start looking at the shifts and start looking at what it was galvanized, you know, and one, I need to focus in one of the biggest, I think, opportunities that exists for all organizations and it’s been written about, and we covered a lot on the fast leader show because of its importance. It has creative thinking and innovation. So here’s the reality what I’m stuck in today. I have a difficulty thinking about tomorrow and there are, you know, I heard stories about some organizations, the pre pandemic, um, actually took and had insurance associated with, you know, having something like that occur. Well, there were very few, you know, the massive minority. Um, and so when I started looking at that, how does creative thinking innovation and, you know, being able to be a disruptor instead of being disrupted play within the CEO test. Yeah.
Adam Bryant (34:07):
And I think this became even more true during the pandemic, because, and again, this is kind of, one of the paradoxes to me is like, there’s so much urgency of, of the moment of just saving the business yet. This is also the perfect time for companies to sort of step back, you know, and, and do the whiteboard exercise of if we were building our company from scratch today, what would we do differently? Right. Like what have been the momentum killers that we can now maybe try and deal with in some context. And so, you know, again, it’s this, I mean, you, you framed it up with a different time horizons. I love this metaphor from one CEO. It’s sort of like you talked about, you know, if you’re a surfer and the waves and like there’s the weather report on which wave is coming in and then there’s the wave you’re on now. And then there’s the wave that you’re kind of looking at, um, you know, as for your next, your next wave and, and just sorta keeping that in mind. Um, but it, it, it can be so hard because let’s face it. I mean, everybody’s just so busy, right. And if you’re a leader, it’s, everybody’s filling up your schedule stuff. There’s no time to reflect, uh, at all. And just
Jim Rembach (35:17):
Sort of building
Adam Bryant (35:19):
In that time to step back, reflect on what’s happened, but also entertain these big picture questions and to think about the future and, and be very explicit about working those muscles. So, um, yeah, it’s, it’s a huge challenge, but a lot of it goes back to sort of time management. Well,
Jim Rembach (35:38):
Well, needless to say, in order for us to be successful in the role that we’re in, um, we do have to, you know, take these things into consideration. We have to, you know, use them as part of our, our journey of moving forward, but that’s not easy. And one of the things that we looked at, look at on the show in order to keep us focused and moving in the right direction, is there a quote or two that you like that you can share?
Adam Bryant (36:03):
Sure. I, you know, I think the simplifying complexity is a leadership superpower. Um, it is a leadership, a leader’s job, you know, to simplify complexity and be right. I mean, no pressure, but, um, that, that in many ways is, uh, is a key superpower. And, and, and I do want to come back to this idea of listening. Um, you know, there are just too many conversations in life today, or serial monologues, uh, where people are just, you know, one person’s talking and the other one’s saying, I’m just waiting for you to stop talking so I can tell you what I think. Um, and I think listening assist just underrated as a leadership ability and skill, um, and people, I mean, Kevin is the first to tell you that he, um, he learned a very painful lesson because he’s the first to admit he was a horrible listener when he was a younger leader and he had a crisis at Amgen and sort of reflected, it’s like, I have to own part of this. And from that moment on, um, he really came to understand the importance of listening.
Jim Rembach (37:01):
And I think for all of us, we have those moments and we talk about getting over the hump, um, because it teaches us some important lessons and hopefully sends us in a better direction. Is there a time where you’ve gotten over the hump and you can share?
Adam Bryant (37:12):
Yeah, I gotta say, I mean, I’ve, I’ve written three books and writing a book to me is like the hardest thing, right. Because you’re just, you’re starting with a blank page. You have to kind of conceive this big idea, and it’s almost like a house blueprint you have to build. And, um, especially in the leadership space. So, you know, just with this book, I mean, all in all, it was kind of a three-year project. Um, but there’s a lot of time just getting the framework right on the front end. And T to me, the, the lesson that, um, that I learned myself in this is that you can be so convinced that you’re absolutely right on something, because I had this moment sort of, it was literally months of trying to get the framework. Right. And I had this moment and I remember it so vividly.
Adam Bryant (37:55):
Like what I was doing with the weather was like, it was like in my head, all the colors lined up on the Rubik’s cube and it’s like, that’s it. I finally figured this out. And I felt I was energized. Like I finally solved this problem. And literally a month later I realized I was completely wrong about that. Um, and so just this idea of, I think that to me, the lesson, the memo to self is, you know, immerse yourself, be patient, be willing to, you know, pounce on an idea and be convinced you’re absolutely right on something, but also be willing to admit that you may be wrong. Um, and you know, to me, a lot of it it’s time and I’m a big believer. It’s just sort of staring at a white piece of paper without any distractions. Um, and, and in many ways, to me, that’s like a discipline, right. Because, you know, just knowing that if you invest time, you’re eventually going to solve Rubik’s cube, whatever it is.
Jim Rembach (38:55):
No, I think that’s a good point and an exercise that you’re right. We all have to explore more often. Okay. So you’ve written three books. So you have journalists background, you’re working with, you know, Marat, and he was doing all this development and have all of these mentors as part of your team. Uh, and I have to start thinking and asking is, you know, what’s point of your goals and all of those personal goals are, I don’t want to frame you
Adam Bryant (39:20):
Well, I’ll tell you, this is the way I think about leadership and kind of what gets me out of bed in the morning is that, you know, I imagine a leader of a first-time manager is 35, right? Who’s going to spend the rest of their career in leadership roles, you know, as they move up. So you figure from 35 to 65, that’s 30 years of experience managing and leading people. The one thing we know for sure is that person is going to learn some lessons, right? They’re going to get some insights about leadership and it may take them a while. And there may be some painful experiences along the way. So what gets me out of bed, what this book is about, what my firm’s work is about is how do you shorten that learning curve? If you’re, if there we can all agree. There’s some core insights about leading people. Like, how can we tell you that today? Even if you haven’t lived it yourself, but can we explain it to you in a compelling enough way that you feel like you’ve learned that lesson and can apply it now? So ultimately it’s this idea of how can we shorten the learning curve for leaders so that they can be better leaders, because as we all know, leaders have this kind of exponential impact on other people’s lives. So if we can get that sort of effect going, that’s what motivates my firm. And that’s what matters.
Jim Rembach (40:40):
It’s me. And the fast leader, Legion wishes you the very best. Alright, here we go. Fast leader Legion. It’s time for the hump day hoedown. Okay. Adam, the hump day, hold on as a part of our show where you give us good insights fast. So I’m going to ask you several questions and your job is to give us a robust, yet rapid responses that are going to help us move onward and upward faster. Adam Bryant, are you ready to go down? I’m ready. So what is holding you back from being an even better leader today?
Adam Bryant (41:07):
I’m working on compartmentalization, just this idea of focusing on what I’m focusing on at the moment and not worrying about other stuff. It’s something that, um, you know, I’ve, I’ve always wanted to get better at. And I think the best leaders can, can do it just sort of helps with focus. And yes, there may be some other issues they’re dealing with, but they’ve been able to compartmentalize it. So that’s what I want to be better.
Jim Rembach (41:29):
And what is the best leadership advice you’ve ever received? When I first started working
Adam Bryant (41:34):
As an editor in journalism, my father, who was an editor himself shared this expression that he heard, which is edit the person, not the words. And in that shorthand to me, the lesson from that is whatever. Like don’t focus on the work when you’re, when you’re working with people, focus on the person and how you can adjust to them and get the best work out of them as a human being, not so much just at focusing on the work product.
Jim Rembach (41:58):
And what is one tool that you believe helps you in business or life?
Adam Bryant (42:03):
I’m pretty good at pattern recognition. Um, you know, if you’re showing me enough sort of pieces of a puzzle, I’m going to start seeing the patterns in it pretty quickly. I mean, I’ve done 600 interviews with leaders and while it’s not quantitative data, it’s qualitative. At some point you have enough of it. It becomes quantitative.
Jim Rembach (42:20):
And what would be one book you’d recommend to our Legion? It could be from any genre, of course, we’re going to put the CEO test and links to your other books on your show notes page as well.
Adam Bryant (42:29):
I love the book in the heart of the sea. It’s probably my famous of my favorite to sort of whaling adventures and lessons about resilience and, and, uh, I just, I couldn’t put it
Jim Rembach (42:40):
Okay. Fast leader Legion. You can find links to that. And other bonus information from today’s show by going to fast and just doing a search for Adam Bryant. Okay, Adam, this is my last hope they hold on question. Imagine you were given the opportunity to go back to the age of 25 and you can take the knowledge and skills that you have now back with you, but you can’t take it all and you can only choose one. So what skill or piece of knowledge would you take with you and why?
Adam Bryant (43:07):
I’d probably tell my younger self to be a little more patient, um, and just, you know, have some sort of confidence that like, things are gonna work out. It’s going to be fine. Uh, you know, when you’re younger, you’re, you’re scrambling a lot and that helps you get where you are, but I probably would’ve, I would’ve advised myself to downshift.
Jim Rembach (43:26):
Dear Adam, I had fun with you today. How can the fast leader Legion connect with you
Adam Bryant (43:31):
On LinkedIn? Just, uh, find me there and also in my personal books website, which is Adam Bryant, books dot
Jim Rembach (43:39):
Adam Bryan. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and the wisdom and the past leader, Legion honors you, and thanks to you for helping us get over the hump.