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A Reader's Guide to What the Best CEOs Know

While this resource will provide some historical context for each of the companies and CEOs discussed within it, the primary intent was to create an easy-to-follow road map that will not only help managers and aspiring managers understand the traits and strategies of these successful leaders, but also show them how to apply these traits and strategies to their own organizations.

The first part, "What Made Them Great," consists of a single section that is intended to accomplish two goals: (1) to explain the criteria used to choose the CEOs for inclusion in this resource, and (2) to identify and discuss the defining traits and/or accomplishments that these leaders had in common. While not every CEO excelled in every one of the areas identified, each of the traits identified in this section can be found in the majority of the seven CEOs.

For example, one of the hallmarks of exceptional CEOs is their willingness to implement within their own organizations the very best ideas out there, regardless of where those ideas originated. The late Sam Walton, for example, created Wal-Mart by studying competitors and doing what they did—only better. Later, that behavior would be the key to developing a learning culture. In the 1990s, Jack Welch took the concept of a learning culture to a new and previously unexplored level by creating one of the world's largest learning organizations, involving a myriad of diverse global businesses.

Part 2, "Defining Strategies of Exceptional Leaders," includes seven sections devoted to the CEOs and their signature strategies. The focus of each of these sections is on introducing the leader's key strategy, explaining it and its origin in depth, and showing how it can be applied in other organizations or situations. To achieve this, and also to help the reader "think like a leader," each chapter includes the following:

  • WHAT WOULD [THE CEO] DO? Each section begins with a brief scenario that puts the reader in the seat of the CEO. A business situation set within a particular industry is briefly described, usually in two pages. In these cases, the readers get the chance to test their business acumen against that of each of the seven subject CEOs.

    At the conclusion of the case, the reader is encouraged to decide on a particular course of action. The case ends with the question "What would Michael Dell have done?" (or Jack Welch, Herb Kelleher, and so on). The business scenario is placed at the beginning of the section to challenge readers, stimulate their thinking, and put them in the proper mind-set. Each is in a sense a quiz, but not a disqualifying quiz. Since the clues to "passing" each quiz are included in each section, we hope that they will be intriguing and even entertaining. And we hope that by the end of each section, the appropriate course of action—or at least an appropriate course of action—will be more apparent.

    Furthermore, while no one (probably even including the leaders themselves) knows exactly how these leaders would respond to the particular hypothetical challenge presented to them, we suggest one solution at the end of each section. These proposed solutions are possible and plausible, and reflect our understanding of how each of the subject CEOs has tackled similar problems in the past. You are entirely free to come up with better answers.

  • EVERY CHAPTER HAS LESSONS THROUGHOUT. In addition to the lessons inherent in these cases and their solutions, each section also includes other kinds of lessons at regular intervals. These are usually placed at the end of a section to emphasize a particular insight or leadership action. The point of these editorial asides, as you might expect, is to help translate ideas from a specific industry context to a larger context and to suggest how the knowledge presented in that section can be applied by managers in other organizations.

  • EACH CHAPTER HAS "ASSESS YOUR CEO QUOTIENT" QUESTIONS. The "solution" to the case or scenario ("What Would Michael Dell Have Done") at the end of the section is followed by a brief (and unscientific) assessment exercise. It is intended not only to help readers gauge their own leadership abilities vis--vis each of the business leaders profiled, but also to put the reader's organization to the test—to ascertain whether or not the organization employs the practices of each of the CEOs.

  • MORE LESSONS FOLLOW THE ASSESSMENT. The chapter concludes with several additional ideas for implementing the strategies discussed in the chapter.

  • SELECTED CHAPTERS INCLUDE THOUGHTS FROM BUSINESS THEORISTS such as Peter Drucker and Philip Kotler. The point of this is to study the CEOs' strategies or tactics from another viewpoint, and to add insight into a particular strategy or concept.

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