World Book Day 2024: Essential reads for a first-time CEO

April 23, 2024 Share this article:

World Book Day 2024

There’s an old joke in which the outgoing CEO of a struggling company leaves his successor three envelopes and tells him to open them when things are going badly. The new CEO does that, with the first envelope telling him to blame his predecessor for the current troubles and the second telling him to reorganise. When that fails and he is in hot water, the CEO opens the third envelope, to find that it says: “Prepare three envelopes.”

It may be old, says Dr Thomas Heyn, Jack Russell Consulting GmbH / AltoPartners Germany, but it illustrates the dilemma of the new CEO perfectly: treading the fine line between deciding which advice is useful in your particular situation and when to follow your gut.

In honour of World Book Day 2024, AltoPartners experts from across the globe share the books they would recommend for first-time CEOs. Tellingly, humility and courage featured strongly in this year’s recommendations, speaking to the extraordinary challenges facing CEOs today.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins. An enduring favourite in the AltoPartners’ community, for good reason. First published in 2001, Collins’s best seller remains relevant today, offering practical advice and strategies on building a great culture and company, with a strong focus on the importance of humility. Another classic book with Collins as co-author was also recommended: Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras) (Ricardo Bäcker, Bäcker & Partners / AltoPartners Argentina; Oliver Baezer Bluestone Leadership Services / AltoPartners Canada; Victor Arias Diversified Search Group / AltoPartners United States).

CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish the Best Leaders from the Rest by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller and Vikram Malhotra. McKinsey & Company led a research effort to identify CEOs whose companies grew demonstrably healthier during their tenures, looking at more than 20 years’ worth of data on 7,800 CEOs from 3,500 public companies across 70 countries and 24 industries. Three McKinsey senior partners then interviewed a representative sample of 67 high-performing CEOs and synthesised their findings, making this a master class from the world’s best CEOs. Complement this with Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein; and The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, defines eight areas in which cultural differences are most likely to lead to misunderstandings in business communications. She also theorizes about why such differences occur and presents strategies for working with people from different cultures. (Julia Zdrahal-Urbanek, ALTO Executive Search GmbH / AltoPartners Austria).

The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz: “…enables CEOs to recover the awareness and wisdom of their authentic self, and reflect on what it takes to be a true leader”. (J. Veronica Biggins Diversified Search Group / AltoPartners United States).

The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders by Elena Bothelo and Kim Powell. “This book is packed with insights for anyone wishing to develop a CEO mindset. It’s deeply practical and explains why effective leaders need certain traits and how to work on them.” (Sorin Popa, Accord Group Resurse Umane / AltoPartners Romania).

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. “New CEOs learn to enter the arena with the knowledge that there is no perfect in leadership, only those who give it all they have.” (Takalane Khashane, Search Partners International / AltoPartners South Africa).

Outlive: The science and art of longevity by Dr Peter Attia. “A book about life, leadership and how to prevent burnout. This is a great book about balancing all aspects of your life to live better and not just longer. Everyone should read it, if only for the brilliant life lessons.” (Richard North, Search Partners International / AltoPartners South Africa ).

Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. A novel for our times, touching on freedom, loyalty, kindness (and cruelty), friendship, insanity and common sense. “A must-read for anyone with a dream and how to lead with humility and courage to achieve it.” (Raul Lacaze, Bäcker & Partners / AltoPartners Argentina).

A CEO Only Does Three Things - Finding Your Focus in the C-Suite by Trey Taylor. “Focus is arguably a new CEO’s most important asset, and this helps new CEOs to declutter the agenda to conserve energy and brain power for the high-priority decisions.” (Corinne Klajda Accord Group Polska / AltoPartners Poland). Complement it with Salvatore Fazzolari’s practical and insightful guide based on personal experience, CEO Lifelines - Nine Commitments Every Leader Must Make and Think Again by Adam Grant, another timely and celebrated reminder to chose courage over comfort.

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