The CEO Difference: A book review by Bob Morris

CEO DifferenceThe CEO Difference: How to Climb, Crawl, and Leap Your Way to the Next Level of Your Career
D.A. Benton
McGraw-Hill (2014)

Key insights on personal growth and professional development

Why did Debra Benton write this book? “My purpose is to help you master the what, how, and why of productively distinguishing yourself from other great people – to benefit both your organization and you…For this book I want to explain the secrets I’ve learned from some of the smartest businesspeople in the world. These secrets can help you achieve sustained success and help you either jump-start your career or leapfrog ahead of your competition.”

Just as you don’t have to be or aspire to be a CEO to think like one, you don’t have to be or aspire to be a CEO to develop and sharpen your and your organization’s differentiation from any others. As I began to read this book, I was again reminded of Marshall Goldsmith’s assertion that “what got you here won’t get you there.” One of the major challenges we face each day is to do more and do it better than we did yesterday. That is to say, to differentiate ourselves from what we have done and how well we did it before. Kaizen is a process for an individual’s continuous self-improvement as well as for the continuous improvement of the organization with which we are associated.

I wish I had had the benefit of Benton’s counsel years ago when I encountered several problems in my first full-time job, selling trucks for International Harvester during summer vacations while enrolled in college. I learned two valuable lessons that have since served me well. First, that we cannot control everything that happens to us but we can control how we respond to whatever happens to us, especially setbacks. I also realized that almost all human limits are self-imposed. This is what Henry Ford had in mind when observing, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

Benton provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that can help her readers differentiate themselves in three separate but interdependent ways: how they think, how they conduct themselves, and how they interact with others.

The first involves what Carol Dweck characterizes as a “growth mindset”: being confident in what can be accomplished and also confident that you can do it. Benton: “The most important differentiators in life are being undaunted, unflappable, and broadly adequate, meaning that you have a feeling of self-worth, self-respect, self-regard, self-trust, and self-approval.”

The second involves being worthy of others’ trust and must be earned over time but can be lost in a moment. John Wooden once suggested that character “is who you are when no one’s looking.” I agree with him and with Benton: trust works both ways. “You deserve the same respect you show others. But you’re not always going to get it. So worry more about fulfilling your end of things and less about their not fulfilling theirs.”

As Benton explains, the third way to differentiate yourself is to develop a positive, upbeat, enthusiastic attitude in combination with a likeable personality. People will enjoy being associated with you. They welcome your company. Benton: “Go beyond good-natured and venture into good-humored.” We’ve all known people who seem to darken a room when they enter it. They differentiate themselves in a self-defeating way.

People with the right mindset, who earn and deserve others’ trust as well as their respect, and are always enjoyable to be with stand out no matter where they are and whom they’re with. They seem to be comfortable as well as self-assured. People are attracted to them and welcome, indeed seek their company.

Here’s what I consider to be an especially important point, well-expressed by Petronius in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet: “To thine ownself be true and it shall follow as the night the day; thou canst not then be false to any man.” More recently, Oscar Wilde suggested, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” And even more recently, Bill George has written two books about being authentic, following one’s true north.

Over the years, there is one question that Debra Benton has posed during her interviews of hundreds of CEOs and in conversations with a thousand others: “What are the defining characteristics of a person who is best-liked and most-valuable in your organization?” Their responses are in this book.

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