Skip to main content

E135 | The CEO Test With Adam Bryant & Kevin Sharer

Do we really need another book on leadership? Well, when it’s been written by two global heavy hitters – Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer, yes, we do.

Adam was a 30-year journalist and editor at the New York Times, where he did a weekly column called From The Corner Office, where he chatted to CEOs about the transferable skills that they’ve learned, not so much about their industry or their business, but about what lessons life had taught them that were transferable and that they could share. 

Kevin is the former CEO of Amgen, the world’s largest biotech company. He was an extremely successful CEO who went on to teach strategy at Harvard Business School. 

What these guys have done isn’t write just another book on leadership, no, what, what they’ve done is put together a book – The CEO Test, which is, if you want to be the best as a leader, top of your game, not the table stakes, then these are the seven hardest things that the best leaders in the world managed to get good at. 

Can you develop a simple strategy? Easy to say, hard to do. Can you build a culture? Can you build teams that are true teams, not just a collection of individuals? Can you lead the transformation? Can you learn to listen? Can you handle a crisis? And can you master the inner game of leadership? 

This is a really great conversation about what Kevin and Adam think is the hardest of these tests. We also discuss which are their own personal kryptonite, and then we get some fantastic book recommendations. We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did.

On today’s podcast:

  • Why another book on leadership?
  • From 150 – 7 tests
  • Building a diverse team
  • Creating the culture you want 
  • The simplification of strategy
  • The hardest test


Would You Pass The CEO Test? With Adam Bryant & Kevin Sharer

Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer haven’t written just another book on leadership. They wrote a book about the 7 hardest challenges successful CEOs have overcome. Despite all the effort, all the books, all the podcasts and TED talks through the years to understand what it takes to be an effective leader, the challenges of leadership remain enormously difficult and elusive.

“We couldn’t find a book that addressed – how do you do the job in a practical, insightful, and fairly comprehensive way that’s accessible to CEOs all the way down to people who got their first leadership job?”

They didn’t want to write another book about the characteristics of a leader; they wanted to write about how to be a leader. Because at every level of CEO, that’s what leaders are struggling with. 

“We put a very specific aperture on the lens of leadership, which is a big sprawling topic, right? But the way we framed it up was this idea of, well, what are the tests that make or break all leaders? Why do people succeed or fail in these roles? And it’s not just about CEOs, it’s about all leaders.”

Then, once you can identify these breaking points, the questions remain – how do you do those? 

They’ve distilled down the complexity of leadership into 7 core tests, not just identifying them but following up with – how do you do this? Because every leader (and aspiring leaders) wants to get better. 

“Ultimately, what we want to do is answer the question about ROI. Like, if I’m going to focus some time and energy on getting better as a leader, what should I work on? That’s gonna have the biggest return on investment of that time and energy? And the book represents the answer to that question.”

And the book isn’t just for CEOs of global corporations. People in small companies face the same challenges, just at a different scale. 

The 7 hardest questions

“What we generally find is that the simplest questions in business and leadership are the hardest ones, like, what is your strategy? Why are you a team? I mean, all these things, they sound simple, but these are the hardest questions.”

So how did they whittle down from 150 to 7 tests?

“Well, one of the things we did, we said, ‘Look, let’s not talk about the table stakes stuff, the introduction of the book talks about that. Table stakes are really, really important. For example, energy, honesty, intelligence, resilience, etc. We’re not trying to minimise those, we’re just assuming you’ve got that stuff. We said, what are the biggest topics under which we can nest the really important lessons and it turned out, it was seven.”

One of the core skills of being a leader, they say, is being able to simplify complexity. Being able to stand up in a room full of employees and answer the questions the little kids ask – where are we going? How are we going to get there? These questions sound obvious, but the challenge of being a leader is to whittle the answers down, to simplify them. 

So what are the 7 tests?:

  1. Can you develop a simple plan around strategy? 
  2. Can you create a high-performing culture? 
  3. Can you make and build teams that actually operate like a team?
  4. Can you drive transformation? 
  5. Can you listen effectively?
  6. Can you manage a crisis?
  7. Can you shift from what you do as a leader, to how you need to be as a leader?

The book starts with strategy because, they say, if you don’t get strategy right, in a way that’s clear to everyone so they can understand how their work is connected to the bigger picture, so they know what the key challenges are, what their priorities are, how you measure progress, well, then nothing is going to work. 

There’s no substitute for the best team

You can’t overcome a bad team, they say. The quality of your enterprise is always going to be defined by the quality of the top team. 

So how do you ensure you have a team that’s the best?

Firstly, you have to have the desire to have the best team, not settle for what you can get. You have to have the mental attitude of intentionally curating the best team. And secondly, you’ve got to know what good looks like. 

“You’ve got to know what good looks like, you got to be very specific, in your own mind. What does good look like? And why do I think that? And it’s not just about can you implement the plan? It’s, can you build a team? Do you have a vision for the future? Are you a role model for the values and what the enterprise stands for?”

You have to be able to evaluate the team, coach the team in a way they can hear, and be honest enough to make them better. 

“And then finally, you’ve got to have the courage to make a change when you have to. And to be able to do that, well, you’ve always got to be looking for talent.”

And leaders have to always be looking to build the best team. Don’t wait until you’re at the top before you begin, they say. But one of the hardest things is building a diverse team, not just in terms of gender and ethnicity, but in the way people think.

“Teams tend to be created in the image of the person leading the team, that’s just a natural kind of human reaction and the great leaders can see through that and really build diverse effective teams. That is hard. But that’s the challenge.”

How do you get a team to play well together? That has to come from the CEO, they say. 

“The CEO has to define what are acceptable team dynamics and team behaviours. The CEO themselves have to model those behaviours, and they’ve got to enforce them. And if somebody is just going to be a backstabber, you got to fire them. And that takes guts when somebody is delivering the numbers, but the CEO has got to define the standards, model them and enforce them, there is no other way.”

Setting the culture

The CEO and the leadership team set the culture in the organisation. How they behave, how they approach timekeeping, do you keep promises? 

What proportion of businesses do they see are able to behave in this hard but fair way, as opposed to stab each other in the back and then smile?

“This stuff is really hard. So many leaders are overwhelmed by everything when they’re building the company, they’re trying to ship the product and get money in the door. And culture is often the last thing they think about.”

It all comes back to this word – intentional, they say. 

“Do you recognise that this is important, and that you need to spend time and energy on it and be thoughtful about how you do it. Because if you don’t, the culture is just going to emerge as a collection of everybody’s backgrounds.”

The simplification of strategy

Strategy means different things to different people. For Fortune 500 companies, it’s very high level stuff, empty platitudes. 

“There’s this missing layer, and for lack of a better term, we call it a simple plan. But it just answers this question of, what are you trying to achieve? What is the goal?”

Your strategy has to be so simple that Betty in reception knows and understands it. 

“This idea of a simple plan, as we say in the first chapter, is really part of a bigger skill that all leaders need, which is to simplify complexity and be right. What happens so often is in a complex situation, people try to demonstrate how intelligent they are by making it even more complex.”

The hardest test

So which one of these tests is the hardest?

“The kryptonite generally is crisis management. Crisis Management, by definition, is something you probably have very little skill at. Crisis Management takes a focus and a presence that is rare. And I think if I were going to say what’s most people’s kryptonite, it’s crisis management because it is so hard.”

Book recommendations

    Fantastic! Give us your details and we'll call you back

      Enquiry | Scaling Up Master Business Course