Suppose someone asked you to name the most successful chief executive officer of the last 50 years. There’s a good chance you’d answer Jack Welch, who served as CEO of General Electric for 20 years (1981 to 2001). Welch became famous for his brash, no-nonsense style of management, his tough attitude and his relentless focus on the bottom line. He did well by GE shareholders, producing a compound annual return for them of 20.9 percent. One dollar invested in GE’s stock when Welch took over turned into $48 when he stepped down two decades later. That’s nothing short of extraordinary.
But would you believe that there are a handful of CEOs who’ve performed even better and over a longer period of time than Welch? While you may have heard of some of them (like Warren Buffett), the stories behind the others are likely unknown to you. William Thorndike’s book, The Outsiders, uncovers these stories and breaks down the traits common to the eight exceptional CEOs he profiles. Whether you’re curious about these traits as they relate to you and your own business or you’re looking to evaluate the leaders of companies you’re invested in, The Outsiders provides nugget after nugget of insight and inspiration.
Several of the factors Thorndike identifies with leadership success may surprise you. For instance, he writes, “All were first-time CEOs, most with very little prior management experience. Not one came to the job from a high-profile position, and all but one were new to their industries and companies. Only two had MBAs.” Furthermore, these “outsider” CEOs typically shunned the spotlight, choosing instead to focus on the incredibly important task of capital allocation versus worrying about public relations. The “outsider” CEOs also tended to focus on building wealth for their shareholders over the long term, rather than fretting about their reputation among Wall Street’s research analysts and brokers. They led companies in industries as diverse as newspapers, cable television, defense and agricultural feed.
Quoting Thorndike again, “These eight CEOs were not charismatic visionaries, nor were they drawn to grandiose strategic pronouncements. They were practical and agnostic in temperament…” Through good economies and bad, bear markets and bull markets, these CEOs excelled. Thanks to The Outsiders, which really serves as a kind of playbook for success, we can learn a lot of useful and actionable lessons from them.
— LouAnn Lofton, firstname.lastname@example.org
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