book: “CEO Material”

No doubt D. A. Barton’s newest business book will come into its own again, any year now. But anyone in America’s workplace the past 2-3 years will wince when reading “how to become…absolutely indispensable to your organization.” Oh please. How 2006. I guess she hadn’t heard that the only business lesson since 2007 is that no one is indispensable. The book even has a chapter: “You Develop Others to Take Your Job” which comes across ominously–plenty of companies want you to do just that.

You should probably not read this quotation-sprinkled and occasionally breathless book the way I did, straight through. That only dazes you, as well as distracting from its best material by magnifying by repetition its weirdnesses. I will limit myself to two of many:

  1. numerous CEO quotes that border on the bizarre: “Like water pipes, you’ve got to have people moving through.”  reaction 1: “Ick.” reaction 2: “Broken simile alert!” Exactly what is “Like water pipes”? You‘re like water pipes? Your people are? Um, well yes, you can find CEOs who say such things, but that doesn’t mean a leading author should select it as exemplary.
  2. on getting selected as a leader: “For every 5 formal qualifiers, there are 30 disqualifiers, and they can be almost anything and everything.” Now this scary and disheartening opinion is in the book’s very Introduction, and pardon if I don’t come running. I read this line to two coworkers. Both made faces. One sighed and admitted: retirement suddenly looked a little better.

If you’re working outside the US, this is not probably the book for you. I can well imagine a European comedy film playing off certain CEO Material chapters. Twice the author urges learning another language–a promising if unAmerican admonition–but then she has to pant “…like Scandinavian.” Look, it’s fine to write about cultural needs like combing hair carefully, getting in others’ space, and grabbing others in aggressive handshakes, but not quite so fine to relay by omission that American ways are universal business ways. I guess Ms. Benton missed the “BTW USA not d world LOLZ” tweet.

So, taking Barton’s advice, I’ll close on an upnote. For every 5 formal complaints, there are 30 good things in this book. Many of the quotes are superb reminders, especially ” It is better to read too much than to talk too much” which comes across as useful and sincere (rather than self-serving from a writer who, after all, gets paid only if you read). Other quotes you’ve heard before, or close, but they still bear occasional pep-talk rehearing:

  • If the other person doesn’t understand you, it’s your fault.  [ed: Writers of the world, unite!]
  • Don’t work for stupid people because they’ll bring you down with them.  [ed: or try to]
  • Almost all mistakes are forgivable.
  • The same mistake twice is a different conversation.

I do recommend this book. But again, I don’t recommend it as a straight read-through. Perhaps a chapter at a time, and 1-2 per month, as a sort of recurring pep-talk for yourself, whether you have any interest whatever in being a CEO or not.

Three stars +. Or four stars as consolation if you consider life worthless unless you make CEO.

“CEO Material: How to Be a Leader in Any Organization”, D. A. Benton, 2009, McGraw Hill.

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