Notes for CEOs: Suggested Reading List 2023
These pages are my efforts to open source everything that I have gathered about being a CEO.@AneeshVarma
Why have I curated this reading list? I have now done the Founder-CEO role for over 16 years across 3 startups, including the venture-backed route. I was just 23 when I became a CEO, and therefore learnt stuff the hard way: mistakes, wrong-turns, failures, frustrations and all of that.
Along the way, I have had a chance to meet 280+ CEOs (of all types, including the very large publicly-listed companies) — had coaches, read the many of the books & blogs, and learnt through experience. Each theme below has my top 3 picks & few other recommendations. In doing so, I have had to drop out many other good books to keep the list tidy (apologies to their authors)
Theme 1: CEO & the leadership team
Probably one of the most consistent themes that most of the CEOs have shared with me (and I also agree from my experiences) is getting your “first-team” sorted. This executive/leadership needs to be really be aligned to the stage of the company and the problems it’s facing. Trust amongst each other. And it is ok to rotate and evolve this executive team as the company grows and goes through different phases.
Top 3 books
5 dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni
High Output Management by Andy Grove (1995)
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Other useful reading:
- Annual shareholders letters that Jeff Bezos has published (which are a great read in management skills) and can be downloaded as one PDF for free. Alternatively, you can buy it as a nice hardcover book with an intro by Walter Isaacson which has a few more bits.
- Book: Startup CEO by Matt Blumberg: Very helpful especially for those who are transitioning from a Founder-to-a-CEO particularly on a venture-backed route.
- Book: Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead & Win by Jocko Willink
- Post: How I run my 1-1 meetings by Mathilde Collin (CEO at Front). In general a lot of her posts and thoughts are very useful reading.
- Post: Giving away your Legos & other commandments by Molly Graham
Theme 2: CEO & the company culture
The CEO looks after the long-term health of the company, and a big part of that is to cultivate a culture that understands the journey ahead amongst the full employee base. While the executive team is a key point of first-contact for a CEO, its this wider role that really establishes the cadence of execution.
Top 3 books:
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
Creativity Inc. (Pixar Story) by Ed Catmull
What you do is who you are by Ben Horowitz
- Book: Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella (Microsoft’s CEO): Useful insight about how to change culture at a large organisation as you are undergoing a turnaround.
- Book: Principles by Ray Dalio (lot of recommendations from other CEOs)
- Book: No Rules Rules (Netflix and the culture of reinvention) by Reed Hastings: I agree that this is a bit of a hiring advertisement for Netflix and also skewed a bit to the norms of the tech sector, but useful to read nonetheless
- Post: Motivating others starts with the right language via Adobe
- Post: YCombinator on the role of a startup CEO: This is aimed at typically first time Founders-transitioning-to-CEO
Theme 3: Personal growth as a CEO
Are you as a CEO growing as the company is evolving? It doesn’t just happen automatically, so think about actively investing and focussing on this through conscious effort. Most CEOs I spoke with end up having a coach for a period and also spend a lot of time with mentors & often even those with contrarian views to themselves.
Top 3 Books:
Trillion Dollar Coach about Bill Campbell
CEO Excellence: 6 Mindsets compiled by McKinsey
The Great CEO within by Matt Mochary
Other useful reading:
- Book: Transitions by William Bridges: Useful in other contexts of life’s changes
- Book: Leaders: Myth & Reality by S. McChrystal et al
- Post: CEO Succession via Harvard Business Review
- Post: McKinsey article on the book mentioned above provide a concise summary into leadership lessons from the CEOs they spoke with
Theme 4: CEO & the product
This theme isn’t about Product discovery & management, but rather how a CEO ought to engage properly with the respective Product team(s)
- Book: Zero to One by Blake Masters: Interesting concept to understand
- Post: What does a CEO Do, Anyway? by Matt Blumburg
- Post: Who really makes the big decisions in your company? via HBR
- Post: Field guide for navigating crisis via FirstRound
- Post: Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBnb on dealing with their crisis via McKinsey
- Post: Better leader during distress
Other topics: Communicating out to the ecosystem (or government):
- Post: Larry Fink’s annual CEO letter 2022 (CEO of BlackRock)
These are the ones that consistently come up in recommendations and suggestions by CEOs. As I hear more suggestions, I will keep adding. Feel free to ping me with other suggestions:
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Useful list of reading for any CEO to hone their craft via @AneeshVarmaTweet