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Good Boss, Bad Boss How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst
By Sutton, Robert I.
Business Plus Copyright © 2010 Sutton, Robert I.
All right reserved.
Setting the Stage
The Right Mindset
Bosses matter. Bosses matter because most employees have bosses, are bosses, or play both roles. There are at least 21 million bosses in the United States, with estimates running as high as 38 million. Over 90 percent of U.S. employees have at least one boss, someone who presides over them in the local hierarchy. Bosses work in over fifty occupations, from top executives to military officers, to ship captains, to head cooks, to funeral directors. Bosses matter to everyone they oversee. But they matter most to immediate followers, those just beneath them in the local pecking order, who bosses guide and evaluate at close range, and who tangle with their virtues, foibles, and quirks day after day. The success or failure of every boss hinges on how well or how badly he or she navigates these vexing and all-too-human relationships.
Early in my career, I saw the difference a boss can make when my friend Corey Billington went to work for Hewlett-Packard. Corey joined the SPaM group, which uncovers and invents ways to improve HP’s supply chains. The group leader (I’ll call him Hector) wowed executives with big ideas and flashy presentations. Unfortunately, Hector spent hardly any time talking to his people and showed little interest in their work or careers. Hector ignored his team for long stretches and then—at seemingly random intervals—rushed in and demanded that everyone work on some urgent project. To paraphrase one SPaM member, “Every now and then, he would ride in on his white horse, lead a charge, kill the enemy, declare victory, and gallop away. Then we wouldn’t see him for a while.” People at SPaM got fed up with Hector’s antics and gave him low marks on the employee attitude survey. To management’s credit, they moved Hector to another job and made Corey the boss.
Corey used a different style. He listened to his people, worked with them to uncover their skills and hopes, and labored to land projects they would enjoy and would bolster SPaM’s reputation. The first years were tough. SPaM had trouble getting good work, an early project failed, Corey made a hiring mistake, and some executives questioned whether HP needed SPaM at all. But Corey persisted, helping his people develop new skills, learn from setbacks, and grow a group of loyal clients inside and—eventually—outside HP. Under Hector, SPaM’s consultants were paid much less than people who did similar work elsewhere and he made no effort to raise their pay. Corey fought for them, because “not getting paid based on our value sucked. I had to create a job family for my organization, which was no small amount of work.” Life slowly got better at SPaM. Within five years, they were doing high-profile work and were named “the best strategy group” by INFORMS (a prestigious academic society)—and about 15 percent of their work was done at “remarkably high rates” for clients outside HP.
The punch line of the SPaM story—that the difference between a bad boss and a good boss matters a lot—is bolstered by a pile of studies. For starters, having a good boss decreases your chances of getting a heart attack. A Swedish study that followed 3,122 men for ten years found that those with the best bosses (e.g., who were considerate, specified clear goals, and got changes implemented) suffered fewer heart attacks than those with bad bosses. Coauthor Anna Nyberg reported, “If you have a good boss, you have at least a 20 percent lower risk and if you stay with your boss for four years, you have at least a 39 percent lower risk.” This 2008 study fits a long-standing pattern. Researcher Robert Hogan found that whether a study was done in “1948, 1958, 1968, 1998,” in “London, Baltimore, Seattle, Honolulu,” among “postal workers, milk truck drivers, school teachers,” the results are pretty much identical: about 75 percent of the workforce reports that their immediate supervisor is the most stressful part of their job.
Bosses make the biggest difference when they wield direct and personal influence over followers, such as in teams and small organizations. To illustrate, Robert Keller examined 118 leaders of small (four- or five-person) project teams. Teams with stronger leaders (e.g., charismatic, intellectually stimulating, and set clear expectations) did better work, cranked it out faster, and were more cost-efficient. Keller’s five-year follow-up also showed that better bosses led teams that designed more profitable products and got them to market faster. Keller’s findings ring true to me. In the 1990s, my doctoral students and I observed numerous product development teams in action. The differences between the best- and the worst-led teams were striking. One team (at a now-defunct organization) spent six months talking and talking about what products to develop, and the boss discouraged members from drawing—let alone building—prototypes. She rewarded smart talk, not smart action. This poorly led team never developed a single prototype, even though my student following the team (an experienced product designer) believed he could build a working prototype of the gizmo the team was imagining in just a few hours. In contrast, a well-led team we studied elsewhere built a promising prototype during the first week of a project—which they assembled in about thirty minutes, right after generating the idea.
Sports teams are another setting where bosses work elbow to elbow with followers, and so it is not surprising that managing and coaching skills propel performance. Lawrence Kahn’s eighteen-year study of major league baseball teams shows that the best managers (with better win-loss records and more major league experience) consistently inspired both hitters and pitchers to perform above their career averages; in contrast, the worst managers stymied players so they performed below their career averages. Similarly, studies of National Basketball Association teams show that coaches with strong track records have pronounced positive effects on performance—an effect evident during their first year on the job. Basketball coaches can wield direct and timely influence because only five players are on the court at once and they can choreograph plays (and emotions they express to players) as the action unfolds just a few feet from where they sit or stand during games.
Bosses mattered massively in studies conducted by Gallup’s army of researchers over the past thirty years. Gallup’s surveys of over 100,000 employees in more than 2,500 diverse businesses show that “managers trump companies.” Employees’ immediate bosses have far more impact on engagement and performance than whether their companies are rated as great or lousy places to work. Related research shows that good bosses are especially crucial to employee performance in otherwise lousy workplaces. As leadership researcher Robert Hogan concludes from numerous careful studies, including the Gallup surveys, “people do not quit organizations, they quit bad bosses.” A 2007 Gallup survey of U.S. employees revealed that 24 percent would fire their boss if given the chance. Gallup concludes that crummy bosses are a primary reason that 56 percent of employees are “checked-out” and “sleepwalking through their days.” Worse yet, the most bitter employees (the “actively disengaged” 18 percent) undermine their coworkers’ accomplishments. Gallup has also found sweeping differences between organizations that have many great bosses versus many crummy bosses. In businesses where a higher proportion of employees report that their immediate bosses care about them, employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity are higher, and so is profitability.
Yet the leader of an organization still matters more than the other bosses. The top dog sets the tone for how his or her direct reports behave—which reverberates through the system. I worked with a large company where the CEO did almost all the talking in meetings, interrupted anyone who tried to get in a word edgewise, and aggressively silenced any underling who voiced a dissenting view. The executive vice presidents on his senior team complained bitterly (behind his back, of course) about the antics of their bossy boss. But I noticed that as soon as the CEO left the room, the most powerful EVP started acting exactly like his boss. Then, when that EVP departed, the next highest-ranking boss remaining in the room began mimicking the CEO’s overbearing style. It was fascinating to watch this behavior travel down the local pecking order.
The ways that senior leaders treat direct reports create numerous other ripple effects that travel down and across the hierarchy, shaping a company’s culture and performance. A study of sixty-six of the fastest growing new U.S. firms showed that the best CEOs blended a “top-down” directive approach with a more participative “shared leadership” approach in managing their top teams. This research showed that when CEOs used this one-two punch of directive and participative approaches to lead senior teams, their companies enjoyed superior performance—growing both revenue and numbers of personnel faster than similar firms. Other research confirms that how CEOs manage their top teams trigger reactions that affect the entire organization. For example, when CEOs are given (or seize) far more pay and power than their direct reports, such gaps are linked to weaker company performance—perhaps because domineering CEOs are prone to hubris, and their comparatively powerless underlings can’t stop their overbearing bosses from ramming through bad decisions.
Related research shows that when the CEO encourages other top team members to engage in constructive conflict, better decisions are made, which in turn fuels superior organizational performance. The same message emerges from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best seller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had the courage to place three of his toughest opponents and critics in his cabinet after winning the 1860 election: William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. Goodwin documents how Lincoln exercised the skills to soothe their massive egos, encourage constructive conflict, and foment cooperation among these and other strong-willed followers in ways that not only created effective team dynamics but, more crucially, generated decisions that benefitted the nation and helped keep it intact during the U.S. Civil War. Even in the largest organization or institution, how the boss at the top of the pecking order treats direct reports spawns ripple effects that can influence the system’s ultimate success or failure.
The upshot of these and so many other studies and stories is that bosses pack a wallop, especially on their direct reports. Bosses shape how people spend their days and whether they experience joy or despair, perform well or badly, or are healthy or sick. Unfortunately, there are hoards of mediocre and downright rotten bosses out there, and big gaps between the best and the worst. Watch and talk to people who answer to multiple bosses: you will see how the same employee doing the same work reacts to good and bad leaders. In the spring of 2009, I was waiting in line at my local Safeway to buy groceries. A check-out clerk got on the microphone and announced a five-minute Easter Seals fund-raising drive was starting; she encouraged donations for children with autism and other disabilities. This clerk also announced to the entire store that she was making this plea as a favor to Dave, her manager. When it was my turn to check out, as I handed her my donation, she said, “I hate most managers; I wouldn’t do a thing for them. But I love Dave and I will do whatever he asks.” I ran back to my car and wrote down her words because, for me, they brought the research to life: when she worked for Dave, she was delighted to do extra work, and her enthusiasm infected colleagues and customers. When she worked for a boss she hated, all that extra effort and good cheer evaporated.
The gaps revealed by these studies and stories persist even though most bosses want to be great and most employees want wonderful bosses, which raises the question: If you are a boss who wants to do great work, what can you do about it? Good Boss, Bad Boss is devoted to answering that question. This chapter shows how the best bosses think. If you are a boss, the beliefs and assumptions you hold about yourself, your work, and your people shape what you do every day and how you (and others) judge if things are going well or badly. The best bosses embrace five beliefs that are stepping stones to effective action.
1. Don’t Crush the Bird
Tommy Lasorda has served the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team as a player, a coach, or an executive since 1949, including a twenty-year stint as manager. Lasorda once said, “I believe that managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.” I call this Lasorda’s Law, as it captures the delicate balance that every good boss seeks between managing too much and too little.
Researchers Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn proposed a hypothesis reminiscent of Lasorda’s Law: managers who are too assertive will damage relationships with superiors, peers, and followers; but managers who are not assertive enough won’t press followers to achieve sufficiently tough goals. So Ames and Flynn speculated that the best bosses would be rated roughly average on terms like competitive, aggressive, passive, and submissive by followers. They asked 213 MBA students to rate their most recent boss’s assertiveness. As predicted, moderately assertive bosses were rated as most effective overall, most likely to succeed in the future, and as someone the MBAs would work with again. Ames and Flynn imply that a sign of a “perfectly assertive” boss is that followers may notice that they don’t notice their boss’s aggressiveness, competitiveness, passiveness, and submissiveness:
Like salt in a sauce, too much overwhelms the dish; too little is similarly distracting; but just the right amount allows the other flavors to dominate our experience. Just as food is rarely praised for being perfectly salted, leaders may somewhat infrequently be praised for being perfectly assertive.
Effective bosses know it is sometimes best to leave their people alone. They realize that keeping a close eye on people often either has no effect on performance or undermines it—in contrast to micromanagers, who believe their relentless attention and advice bolsters performance. Experiments at Stanford show that when bosses scrutinized and coached underlings closely, many believed they improved performance, even when it was impossible for those bosses to affect their subordinates’ performance. So you may believe that watching your people closely is helping, but this research suggests you could be living in a fool’s paradise. Nosy bosses also undermine performance by asking annoying and useless questions that interrupt people’s work. And followers who are closely monitored become less creative because—to avoid screwing up in front of the boss—they stick to tried-and-true paths.
The best management is sometimes less management or no management at all. William Coyne, who led 3M’s Research and Development efforts for over a decade, believed a big part of his job was to leave his people alone and protect them from other curious executives. As he put it: “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing.”
Yet, as Lasorda’s Law and Ames and Flynn’s research suggest, good bosses don’t just ignore their people or shower them with unconditional warm fuzziness. There are times when bosses need to coach people, discipline, communicate direction, and interject in hundreds of other little ways. Renowned theatrical director Frank Hauser offered lovely advice about walking this line. He was talking about directing plays, but his wisdom applies to other bosses: “You are not the parent of this child we call the play. You are present at its birth for clinical reasons, like a doctor or a midwife. Your job most of the time is to simply do no harm. When something goes wrong, however, your awareness that something is awry—and your clinical intervention to correct it—can determine whether the child will live or die.”
Like Frank Hauser, savvy bosses travel through their days in search of the sweet spot between interjecting too little and too much, keeping a close eye on when more or less pressure, nagging, and intimidation is needed to get the best out of their people (and for provoking respect and dignity rather than contempt).
2. Grit Gets You There
The best bosses think and act like they are running a marathon, not a sprint. Hector at HP failed because he saw his job as riding in to lead a dramatic victory now and then, and little else. Corey succeeded by taking the long view, by grinding it out day after day. Researchers use the word grit to describe this mindset, which Professor Angela Duckworth and her colleagues define as “perseverance and passion toward long-term goals.” They add, “Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon, his or her advantage is stamina.” Albert Einstein saw himself as gritty rather than brilliant and allegedly said, “It’s not that I am so smart, it is just that I stay with my problems longer.”
Great bosses instill grit in followers. They are dogged and patient, pressing themselves and others to move ever forward. Gritty bosses create urgency without treating life as one long emergency.
Glenn Osaka has grit. He was hired in 2000 to be the CEO of Reactivity, a high-flying Silicon Valley start-up. Reactivity consulted on technically difficult aspects of building websites and incubated new companies. In early 2001, they were flush with earnings, stock from other start-ups, and millions in venture capital dollars. Then the bubble burst and Reactivity’s income evaporated. Glenn and his team didn’t give up and shut down, like most dot-coms did. They did a “major reset” in 2002, cutting back from seventy to thirteen people and returning 12 million dollars to investors. Glenn pushed and stirred people to brainstorm new business models to save the company. When they decided to become an enterprise software firm focused on security, Glenn pressed his team to build new products, hire the right people, and find customers. Glenn insisted they avoid detours and distractions. I watched Glenn persuade a software designer to stop consulting because, although it brought in money, Reactivity’s survival hinged on building and selling the new product and little else. As John Lilly, chief technology officer and cofounder, told me, “Everyone who stayed through the transition did selling work, including making cold calls and talking with customers. That was a hard thing for a lot of engineers.” Glenn’s perseverance paid off. Reactivity acquired key customers, secured new financing, and was bought by Cisco for 135 million dollars in 2007.
Gritty bosses are driven by the nagging conviction that everything they and their people do could be better if they tried just a little harder or were just a bit more creative. Pixar’s Brad Bird won Oscars for directing The Incredibles and Ratatouille. When my colleagues and I interviewed him in 2008, Bird kept talking about this “relentless restlessness.” Bird had worked at Walt Disney’s animation studio as a young man, and saw that the master animators who created classics like Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Cinderella were never satisfied: “They would get to the end of a film and they would say, ‘I just started to feel like I understood the character, and I want to go back and do the whole thing over, because now I understand it, and the film’s over.’ ” The studio went into decline after Walt Disney died, and the old masters’ hungriness was replaced with complacency. Bird lamented that one new studio boss “had us all sit on the floor while he stood” and announced, “I’m satisfied with what I do.” Bird was not impressed: “He lost me because I had already been with the guys whose worst stuff was 1,000 times better than this guy, and they were never satisfied with what they did.” Bird’s disgust led him to rock the Disney boat enough to get fired. The “relentless restlessness” that Bird picked up from those masters has served as rocket fuel throughout his career as a creator and director of animated films and TV shows, including The Simpsons.
This nagging conviction that nothing is ever quite good enough, that you can never stop learning and can never ever rest on your laurels isn’t just a hallmark of skilled bosses in flashy industries. You see it in effective bosses like Jeanne Hammontree, who operates a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. Jeanne constantly experiments with ways to drive business to her place in the Coolsprings Galleria food court near Nashville, Tennessee: putting advertisements in elevators, dressing employees in a Chick-Fil-A cow suit (the company mascot) and sending them to other stores to take pictures with employees (who make up 50 percent of her customers), and strolling around the mall to introduce herself to store owners and employees. Jeanne’s telltale stamina and relentlessness help explain why sales at her restaurant were up over 10 percent in 2008, a tough year for most Galleria businesses because of the economic downturn.
3. Small Wins Are the Path
Having long-term goals, and doggedly working toward them day after day, is a hallmark of bosses with grit. Great big goals set direction and energize people, but if goals are all you’ve got, you are doomed. The path to success is paved with small wins. Even the grandest and most glorious victories rest on a string of modest but constructive steps forward.
As a boss, framing what you and your people do as a series of manageable steps leads to better decisions, sustains motivation, and helps people experience less distress. Karl Weick, author of the classic article “Small Wins,” shows that when a challenge is construed as too big, too complex, or too difficult, people freak out and freeze up. Weick shows that people think and act more effectively when they face and can conquer more modest and controllable challenges. Every gritty boss I discussed so far used a small-wins strategy. Corey Billington and Glenn Osaka each started with the goal of getting one paying customer. Brad Bird leads rollicking arguments about one tiny detail of a film after another. Jeanne Hammontree’s success rests on tiny victories like digging a discount coupon out of the trash for a mom or meeting a new Sears employee as she strolls through the mall.
The best bosses realize that when they focus on the little things, the big things take care of themselves. Consider Andy Papathanassiou of Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick fields four competitive racing teams for thirty-six events during each ten-month NASCAR season. Their drivers include four-time season champion Jimmie Johnson and past champions Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Andy oversees the recruiting and training of Hendrick’s pit crews. Cars stop for gas and new tires six to twelve times during a typical 400-or 500-mile race. Winning is impossible without fast and consistent pit stops. If, say, a car must return to the pits because the lug nuts weren’t tightened enough, the extra stop destroys a car’s chances of winning that day. Skilled crews consistently complete pit stops in about thirteen seconds. Each tenth of a second matters because the gap between winners and losers is so tiny. The margin of victory was less than one second in over half the races during the 2007 season. At the Daytona Raceway, winner Jamie McMurray edged out Kyle Busch by less than 1/100th of a second.
Andy had no racing experience when he started working on pit crews. As a former Stanford football player, he was surprised that most crews didn’t practice and even the best made numerous errors. Andy viewed a pit stop as much like executing a football play, so he organized crews to practice and worked with them to perfect tiny details. The teams that Andy led and coached—and his competitors, too—started discovering many little ways to speed up stops, like coiling the air hose in a figure-eight rather than a circle because it uncoiled more reliably. Andy also focused on finding athletically minded crewmen and giving them rigorous training. These small wins, along with thousands more in car design and driving technique, have enabled Hendrick to become the most consistent winner in the business.
The best bosses break down problems into bite-sized pieces and talk and act like each little task is something that people can complete without great difficulty. Doing so instills calmness and confidence, and spurs constructive action. One CEO I know used this strategy at a kick-off meeting for a big sales campaign. He led a discussion of the actions required to make the campaign a big success. The result was a to-do list with over one hundred tasks, which led people to worry aloud that accomplishing it all in a few months felt impossible. This boss reduced the group’s angst by asking them to sort the list into “hard” and “easy” tasks. For each easy task, he asked who could do it and when they could get it done. Within fifteen minutes, the group realized that they could accomplish over half the tasks in just a few days. This lowered their anxiety, set the stage for a bunch of quick wins, and gave them confidence about the entire campaign.
4. Beware the Toxic Tandem
A few years ago, I did a workshop with a management team that was suffering from group dynamics problems. In particular, team members felt their boss, a senior vice president, was overbearing, listened poorly, and routinely ran over others. The VP denied all this and called his people “thin-skinned wimps.”
I asked the team—the boss and five direct reports—to do a variation of an exercise I’ve used in the classroom for years. They spent about twenty minutes brainstorming ideas about products their business might bring to market; they then spent ten minutes narrowing their choices to just three: the most feasible, wildest, and most likely to fail. But as the group brainstormed and made these decisions, I didn’t pay attention to the content of their ideas. Instead, I worked with a couple others from the company to make rough counts of the number of comments made by each member, the number of times each interrupted other members, and the number of times each was interrupted. During this short exercise, the VP made about 65 percent of the comments, interrupted others at least twenty times, and was never interrupted once. I then had the VP leave the room after the exercise and asked his five underlings to estimate the results; their recollections were quite accurate, especially about their boss’s stifling actions. When we brought the VP back in, he recalled making about 25 percent of the comments, interrupting others two or three times, and being interrupted three or four times. When we gave the boss the results and told him that his direct reports made far more accurate estimates, he was flabbergasted and a bit pissed off at everyone in the room.
As this VP discovered, being a boss is much like being a high-status primate in any group: the creatures beneath you in the pecking order watch every move you make—and so they know a lot more about you than you know about them. Anthropologists who study chimpanzees, gorillas, and baboons report “followers look at the leader; the opposite does not happen as regularly or intensely.” Studies of baboon troops show that a typical member glances at the alpha male every twenty or thirty seconds. Psychologist Susan Fiske observes, “Attention is directed up the hierarchy. Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice versa.” Fiske explains this happens because, like our fellow primates, “people pay attention to those who control their outcomes. In an effort to predict and possibly influence what is going to happen to them, people gather information about those with power.”
Kelley Eskridge, managing partner of the training firm Humans at Work, wrote a wonderful description of how such scrutiny happens. She titled it “They watch everything you do.”
If you get up from your desk, people watch to see where you’re going. Someone always knows when you’re in the bathroom. They watch your face when the VP of Production leaves your office, and make guesses about what your expression means. They watch to see if you smile more at Sally than you do at Tom, and make guesses about what that means too. They learn to read your tells—the way you drum your fingers when you’re impatient, or the eyebrow you raise just before you cut off someone’s explanation. They talk about your behavior when you’re not around, and they assign meaning to everything.
You are constantly on your team’s radar. They hear and see everything you do.
Eskridge adds: “Does that make you nervous? How about letting it make you aware instead?”
Linda Hudson, now a president at BAE Systems, learned this lesson when she became the first female president of General Dynamics. After landing the job, Hudson bought some fancy new suits, and a “lady at Nordstrom’s had showed me how to tie a scarf in a very unusual kind of way for my new suit.” She wore this outfit on her first day on the job, and to her amazement, “I come back to work the next day, and I run into no fewer than a dozen women in the organization who have on scarves tied exactly like mine.” This incident helped Hudson gain the awareness that Eskridge suggests: “I realized that life was never going to be the way it had been before, that people were watching everything I did. And it wasn’t just going to be about how I dressed. It was about my behavior, the example I set, the tone I set, the way I carried myself, how confident I was—all those kinds of things.”
Unfortunately, unlike Linda Hudson, too many bosses become accustomed to such scrutiny and start talking and acting as if they are oblivious to it. This was certainly part of the problem with the VP who was unaware of his own behavior and of how closely his direct reports were watching it. And recall the legal secretary I mentioned in the preface, who suffered as the attorneys she served engaged in loud conversations right in front of her desk and acted as if she were invisible. People in power tend to become self-centered and oblivious to what their followers need, do, and say. That alone is bad enough. But the problem is compounded because a boss’s self-absorbed words and deeds are usually scrutinized so closely by subordinates. I call this the toxic tandem.
To appreciate how such power poisoning plays out for bosses, consider the “cookie experiment” reported by psychologist Dacher Keltner and his colleagues. Three-person student teams were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members were randomly assigned to write it; the third member evaluated it and determined how much to pay the two “workers.” After about thirty minutes, the experimenter brought in a plate of five cookies. It turned out that a little taste of power turned people into pigs: not only did the “bosses” tend to take a second cookie, they also displayed other symptoms of “disinhibited eating,” chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs.
The cookie experiment illustrates a finding repeated in many studies. When people (regardless of personality) wield power, their ability to lord it over others causes them to (1) become more focused on their own needs and wants; (2) become less focused on others’ needs, wants, and actions; and (3) act as if written and unwritten rules others are expected to follow don’t apply to them. Good bosses constantly guard against falling prey to the toxic tandem. As Kelley Eskridge advises, they never forget how closely their followers watch them, and they resist the urge to grab all the goodies for themselves and ignore their followers’ feelings and needs. The advice that David Packard of HP fame gave to managers in 1958 applies just as well today: “Watch your smile, your tone of voice, the way you look at people, the way you greet them, the use of nicknames, a memory for faces, names and dates. These small things will refine your ability to get on with others.” As Packard realized, your charges scrutinize even your most trivial and innocent actions, and their reactions shape how much of themselves they will dedicate to you and to their work.
5. Got Their Backs
Donovan Campbell led the “Joker One” Marine platoon in Ramadi during some of the bloodiest street battles of the Iraq war. Lieutenant Campbell devoted enormous effort to protecting his men, through little things like ordering them to rehearse over and over so they could get in and out of a Humvee quickly, and nagging them to eat and “push” water. And through big things, like when he believed his men were unnecessarily put in harm’s way by a superior’s decision, he argued back vehemently—although he couldn’t always change their minds. One of the worst days of Campbell’s life came after his platoon was ordered to take his executive officer (the “XO”) to inspect construction work the U.S. government was paying for at a local school. Campbell resisted because it was in a dangerous area, and he had learned the hard way that waiting in the open with a bunch of marines and vehicles was an invitation for an insurgent attack. Campbell was overruled, but he insisted that the XO spend no more than ten minutes in the school-house—preferably five—because the longer they waited, the more time insurgents had to notice them and mount an attack.
The XO agreed. But even though Campbell repeatedly called and pleaded with him to come out after five minutes, it took the XO nearly another ten minutes to emerge—despite repeated promises that he was on his way. When the XO finally walked out, he was followed by twenty or so schoolkids. Just then, grenades started landing and, in Campbell’s words, “the crowd of small children disintegrated into flame and smoke.” In the ensuing firefight and efforts to get the kids to a hospital, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding had his legs blown off and later died. The men of Joker One were shaken by Bolding’s loss, and Campbell became withdrawn and depressed for weeks. But his men remained loyal to him throughout and continued to step between him and enemy gunfire because they knew that although he couldn’t protect them from everything, Campbell always had their backs.
The steps most bosses take to protect their people are less dramatic and risky. Yet a hallmark of effective bosses everywhere is that they doggedly protect their people. As we see in chapter 6, great bosses battle on their people’s behalf—even when they suffer personally as a result.
THE MINDSET OF A GREAT BOSS
How Would Your People Answer These Questions About You?
Following Lasorda’s Law? Are you constantly thinking about and trying to walk the most constructive line between being too assertive and not assertive enough? Or are you neglecting to give people the guidance, wisdom, and feedback they need to succeed? Worse yet, are you obsessively monitoring and micromanaging every move they make?
Got Grit? Do you treat the work you lead as a marathon or a sprint—are you dogged and patient, pressing yourself and your people ever forward? Or do you look for instant cures, treat life as one emergency after another, and give up (or disappear) when the going gets tough?
Small Wins? Do you frame what your people need to accomplish as a series of small, realistic, and not overly difficult steps? Or do you usually propose grand goals and strategies without helping people break them into bite-sized pieces?
Beware the Toxic Tandem? Do you remind yourself that your people are watching you very closely—and do you act accordingly to avoid doing little things that undermine their performance and dignity? Or are you oblivious to this intense scrutiny and rarely (if ever) think about how the little things you do and say will be magnified in your followers’ minds?
Got Their Backs? Do you see your job as caring for and protecting your people, and fighting for them when necessary? Or do you consider it too much trouble to advocate for resources they need or too personally risky to battle idiocy from on high? When your people screw up, do you take the heat or hang them out to dry? When you screw up, do you admit it or point the finger of blame at your innocent underlings?
Performance and Humanity
Even though the journey is never easy, great bosses know what goals to strive for and how the ride ought to feel along the way—and lousy bosses never seem to quite get it. A nasty law firm I once worked with demonstrates why a boss’s goals matter so much. The average partner in this firm made close to a million dollars a year, but the firm lost its soul in the process of bringing in all that wealth. Nearly every partner I spoke with was hostile and rude; I soon noticed they treated each other with similar disrespect. Many complained that it had become an oppressive and mean-spirited place. Several partners were especially upset because the firm’s chair (let’s call him Henry) had demeaned, exhausted, and driven out many skilled and admired attorneys in his quest to pump up billed hours and profits per partner. As one weary older partner told me, “We used to pride ourselves for having the best balance of humanity and economics in the business. Under Henry’s leadership, it is all economics all the time, humanity be damned.”
This leads to my first lesson about goals: Bosses ought to be judged by what they and their people get done and by how their followers feel along the way. This is why Henry does not qualify as a great boss in my book. The best bosses balance performance and humanity, getting things done in ways that enhance rather than destroy dignity and pride. I am singing a tune much like psychologists Mark Van Vugt, Robert Hogan, and Robert Kaiser, who after examining research on tribes of hunter-gatherers and modern groups concluded that effective leaders are “both competent and benevolent.” In my opinion, bosses who drive their people to make piles of money and crank out lots of work—but crush the human spirit along the way—are bad bosses.
The second lesson is that if someone claims they have a precise one-size-fits-all measure of “boss effectiveness” that can be applied anywhere, they are wrong. The metrics used by law firms, such as profits per partner and billable hours, may make sense for them but not for basketball coaches, Methodist ministers, 7-Eleven store managers, SWAT team captains, or the CEO of Wal-Mart. The best anyone can do is to identify general goals that great bosses aim for—like “performance” and “humanity.” Then the specific metrics that reflect these broad aims must be developed for each setting.
The third lesson is that bosses, like other humans, are notoriously poor judges of their own actions and accomplishments. My conversations with Henry suggested that he was oblivious to the lack of humanity in his firm and in his abrasive style—even though his nastiness was widely known by firm insiders and industry outsiders. If you are boss, what do you think your people (and others) would say about you? It turns out that followers, peers, superiors, and customers consistently provide better information about a boss’s strengths, weaknesses, and quirks than the boss him- or herself. Most people suffer from “self-enhancement bias” and believe they are better than the rest—and they have a hard time accepting or remembering contrary facts. One study showed, for example, that 90 percent of drivers believe they have above-average driving skills.
More to the point, the College Board’s survey of nearly 1 million U.S. high school seniors found that 70 percent reported they had above-average leadership skills; only 2 percent reported having below-average skills.
This self-deception plagues experienced bosses, too: A study of naval officers showed that peer ratings predicted which officers would receive early promotions—self-evaluations did not. This pervasive self-enhancement bias helps explain why you probably know a few—or perhaps many—bosses who suffer from false and inflated views of themselves. I have met perhaps a dozen bosses over the years who claimed to be “level 5 leaders,” selfless and relentless leaders who (as Jim Collins asserts in Good to Great) head the greatest companies. Yet, in every case where I had solid inside information, followers viewed these same bosses as selfish and incapable of putting their organization’s needs ahead of their own. Beware if you fancy yourself as the rare boss who sees yourself as others do: Chances are you’re deluding yourself. Most people believe that they make more accurate self-assessments than peers. Unfortunately, such confidence is often just another form of self-aggrandizement. Despite our beliefs to the contrary, most of us suffer the same distorted self-assessments as our colleagues. Worse yet, the most deeply incompetent people suffer from the most inflated assessments of their own abilities and performance.
Excerpted from Good Boss, Bad Boss by Sutton, Robert I. Copyright © 2010 by Sutton, Robert I.. Excerpted by permission.
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