One of my greatest pleasures in life is reading, so it’s hard for me to relate when someone tells me they “hate” reading or they don’t read because they don’t have the time. Of course, there are a lot of other things I should do but don’t—for example—you’ll NEVER find me at the gym at 5:00 a.m. because slamming the snooze button on my alarm is already more exercise than I want to do at that hour.
Still, it seems to me that every really successful executive I’ve met turns out not just to read, but read a lot. When I was in the corporate world, I was fortunate to travel with CEOs quite a bit. It never failed to surprise me how much they knew about things unrelated to their business. One of them loved to look out the airplane window when we could still see the terrain below us, and he would expound at length about the history of the geography we were flying over. Another was an art buff. He wasn’t a collector for prestige or investment. He just had a lifelong love of art and could talk with passion about even the most obscure painters and sculptors.
You don’t get to be a top executive unless you’re intellectually curious and have something interesting to say. Senior executives who can draw upon their knowledge of everything from politics to popular culture have more opportunities to connect the dots between what’s happening in their business and what’s happening in the world. They have a rich base of information to help them spot early trends, see around corners and confidently converse with diverse groups of people.
Our research on Executive Presence identifies two critical aspects of leadership that earn you a seat at the table: 1) Vision, which we define as “Generates an inspiring, enterprise-wide picture of what could be, reflects insight into emerging trends, and engages all in strategy” and 2) Practical Wisdom, which is a “practical quality of insight and judgment that gets directly to the heart of issues and balances stakeholder interests.” Intellect, experience and keen observation are key obviously, but so is continuous learning.
Scanning news links and social media feeds keeps you in touch with the headlines, but it doesn’t inspire insights, challenge your thinking, or teach you something new. If you don’t make reading a habit, summer is a great time to start. Here are my recommendations:
A national newspaper (e.g., The Wall Street Journal and/or The New York Times) and your local newspaper
A business magazine (e.g., Fortune, Harvard Business Review), trade magazine, and general interest magazine
Nine (fairly) recent non-fiction favorites, all of which are told through captivating human interest stories:
CEOs share their perspective and lessons learned as they rose through the ranks
The three kinds of focus you need to be successful
Fascinating look at the relationship between the U.S. presidents
The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking
The bio of the most iconic business leader of our time
The power of a simple checklist to get things right
How we make decisions in the blink of an eye
The woman whose cells became one of the most important medical tools in history
A look at the roots of the Great Recession
These are some of my favorites. What are yours?