Bob Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss
I’d really rather get into bed with Alice Munro or William Trevor, so I’m slowing down a bit on my reading of business books.
A goodly proportion of the ones that I’ve read are just plain stupendously boring.
They take a shred of an idea and magnify it way out of proportion, so what might have made an okay article has been stretched into a yawner of a book. Or they state the obvious - ‘little did I know that being focused would help my business’ – which wouldn’t be all that dreadful if the books were written with more color. Or they shell out high level, strategic advice, based on wild generalizations from a couple of places the author has consulted (which, as often as not, turn out to be not so good examples a couple of years down the road). Some are just way, way, way too academic; some are just way, way, way too jargon-ridden. (Those two categories are grouped together for a reason.) Then there are the cutesy-pie ones that are portrayed as carrying great and profound wisdom: pick a catchy title, write for the fourth grade reading level, add a lot of white space, and sell a lot for use at company off-sites. (“Who Put the Overalls in Mrs.. Murphy’s Chowder: How Companies Can Play the Blame Game and WIN”.)
And please do not, for the love of God, get me started on business puffographies. (Some day I’ll have to figure out what the Irish word for oy is.)
And then, it seems, there is Stanford professor Bob Sutton, who writes with humanity, wit, clarity, and purpose.
The purpose is to actually make the workplace better for the people who work there.
He did this a couple of year’s ago with The No Asshole Rule, which I blogged about a few times, including here.
Did this book change the face of American business?
Unfortunately not. I have it on good authority that there are still plenty of a-holes out there.
But I’ll bet you anything that it changed the face of plenty of individual businesses when people actually started thinking about the impact that having jerks around has. Maybe it even helped a few people recognize themselves and do something about it.
Well, Bob has a new book – Good Boss, Bad Boss – and since we are blogosphere buddies, he sent me a pre-publication copy.
There is so much to commend this book, and I’m not going to commend it all here, as I’m thinking of taking some of the chapters and using them for point-of-departure posts. But I will tell you what the book will do for you:
- If you’re managing people (or have been a manager) and you’re not a complete dope, you’ll have plenty of things to think about in terms of your management style. (Got me thinking, and I (thankfully) haven’t managed anyone in years.)
- It will provide you with very concrete and useful tips on how to become a better manager. (Most of these are little things. E.g., during heated group debate “take special care to invite people who are shy, new, or at the bottom of the pecking order to express opinions – and defend them vigorously against personal attacks.” Obvious, maybe, but how many great, dramatic, ‘let’s really punch things out here’ meetings have you been to that devolve into shouting matches or, worse yet, the senior guys monologue, punctuated on occasion by some toadying remark?)
- It will hold your interest. In fact, I put down Alice Munro, at whose short story altar I worship, to read this book. I am not going to lie and say that, if I were going to be stranded on a desert isle I’d rather have the collected works of Bob Sutton than the collected works of Alice Munro. Yet Bob is a damned good writer, with a highly personal, accessible and engaging style. Here’s Bob on how ticked off he was at the heads of the financial services firms responsible for tanking their companies and the economy: “I despise these assholes for losing my money and everyone else’s, even though, as an organizational theorist, I know that blaming them for this entire mess is irrational.”
- There are loads of really interesting and fun examples throughout the book.
This is NOT a one simple secret, miracle-occurs-here, guide to being a good manager – just a lot of good ideas that managers can put into practice to improved their managerial lives – and the managerialed lives of those who report to them.
Was I a good boss?
In some respects, yes.
I didn’t call fire drills. I didn’t micro-manager. I defended my peeps. I let anyone who wanted to get exposure to the next level or two up from me. I pushed back up when stupid rained down. I gave credit. I passed on information whenever I could. I treated people humanely and decently. I only lost my temper at an underling once. People wanted to work on my team.
And, yet, I know that I could get caught up in analysis paralysis, playing the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand game well after every option had been exhaustively examined and argued. I’m sure that some people under me felt I played favorites – and I’m sure that I did.
I was, in general, an excellent boss to people who were really good at what they did, didn’t need day to day supervision, and who wanted visibility in the organization. I was a good boss for someone who had the innate goods, and wanted a mentor. But I was a not so good boss when it came to people who were really bad. When I had bad performers – and I managed some stunning ones – I wasn’t particularly adept at turning them into good performers. When I first managed, I ended up doing their job for them. Then I got to the point where I could actually sit down with them and try to figure out how they could do their job better. And then when they didn’t improve, I’d generally let them hang on too long. (I was, on more than one occasion, completely played by a sob story.) This generally ended up with my sandbagging them while we waited for the inevitable next layoff. Or, worse, with them spinning so far out of control that they ended up getting fired.
If there’s one thing that I found missing it was direct advice for those working in management in places where dysfunction reigns - I almost typed “rains” there, which would have worked, too. You know, the ones where the company strategy is unknown, or ever shifting, and you’re often as not making decisions based on what you think is best, or, frankly, based on what you’re personally comfortable doing. The ones where it was all politics, all the time. The ones led by really bad bosses.
Anyway, Good Boss, Bad Boss is a very good and useful book. Bob Sutton has, once again, done the working world a favor.