My favorite business authors are Guy Kawasaki and Bob Sutton, so I was really excited when I saw Bob Sutton quoted in Guy Kawasaki's newly published The Art of the Start 2.0. When two people as smart as those two agree on something important, it's worth taking notice.
The quote consisted of a set of insights about the job of being a boss. Sutton originally published them as a blog post for the Harvard Business Review but they're based on his New York Times bestseller Good Boss, Bad Boss.
Here they are, along with my personal observations.
1. "I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me."
Commentary: A common human fallacy is the belief that your own perception of reality constitutes objective reality. In fact, nobody can truly perceive objective reality because everything we perceive goes through our own mental filters. That's nowhere more true than in our perception of ourselves. You can't know what it's like to work for yourself any more than you can chew your own teeth.
2. "My success--and that of my people--depends largely on being the master of obvious and mundane things, not on magical, obscure, or breakthrough ideas or methods."
Commentary: Being a boss is a straightforward job, so don't confuse your team or yourself with management fads that promise miracles. The world is full of consultants who have a vested interest in making business as complex as possible in the hope that you'll become so befuddled you'll hire them to straighten things out for you. That's like hiring a vampire to help you deal with a case of anemia. Useful management advice is always down-to-earth; it simplifies what's already simple.
3. "Having ambitious and well-defined goals is important, but it is useless to think about them much. My job is to focus on the small wins that enable my people to make a little progress every day."
Commentary: This reminds me of how Steve Jobs practiced mindfulness, a meditation technique that pulls you into the here and now. Jobs was a visionary, but he also insisting upon understanding and reviewing every element of what went into a Apple product. This attitude is the opposite of the all-too-common, grandiose, fuzzy-brained boss who thinks leadership consists of seeing everything from the proverbial 50,000-foot view.
4. "One of the most important, and most difficult, parts of my job is to strike the delicate balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough."
Commentary: The only thing more frustrating than a "my way or the highway" boss is the "we need to get all the facts and reach full consensus" boss. The former makes hasty uninformed decisions but the latter never makes a decision at all, which is far worse. Lousy bosses are always at each end of that continuum; great bosses are always somewhere in the middle. They listen and they gather information until the point of diminishing returns. Then they decide.
5. "My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusion, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe--and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well."
Commentary: In one of his last interviews on NPR, management guru Peter Drucker pointed out that in most companies there are too many leaders and not enough managers. All leaders do is to get people to follow; being a manager is a LOT more work. When I had a corporate job, the lousy bosses made sure that the sh*t rolled downhill as quickly as possible. The truly great bosses--the ones everybody wanted to work for--spent much of their time running interference so we could actually get something done.
6. "I strive to be confident enough to convince people that I am in charge, but humble enough to realize that I am often going to be wrong."
Commentary: This insight is similar to number 4, but it's about attitude rather than behavior. Entrepreneurs tend to be overconfident (or they wouldn't start companies). However, that confidence must be leavened by the constant desire to learn from others, especially in areas where you're convinced that you're right.
7. "I am to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong--and to teach my people to do the same thing."
Commentary: This insight emerges out of numbers 4 and 6 and describes how to handle arguments and differences of opinion. People should be able to vigorously defend their own positions and still remain open minded enough to consider different approaches. Being able to admit you're wrong is crucial especially inside innovative industries. In The Art of the Start 2.0, Kawasaki points out that Apple completely changed direction and decided to allow third-party apps after originally announcing that the only app would be Safari. Admitting you're wrong is a sign of strength, not weakness.
8. "One of the best tests of my leadership--and my organization--is 'What happens after people make a mistake?'"
Commentary: Everybody knows it's idiotic to "shoot the messenger" when somebody exposes a mistake, but there's a bigger danger. Some bosses never get around to shooting the messenger because they simply can't hear the message. For example, I once ran across a CRM vendor whose strategy was to compete head-to-head with Salesforce.com. They were absolutely convinced this was a great idea even though it was the equivalent of a gerbil intending to wrestle a gorilla to the ground. They got stuck on that strategy because everybody was afraid of what it would mean if they admitted they were wrong.
9. "Innovation is crucial to every team and organization. So my job is to encourage my people to generate and test all kinds of new ideas. But it is also my job to help kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too."
Commentary: The last six words of this insight--"most of the good ideas, too"--are what's really important here. Killing off bad ideas is easy; anybody can do that. Killing off good ideas is much harder, but if you don't kill most of them, your company and team will dilute its time and energy going in too many directions at once. Remember: good ideas are dime a dozen; it's execution that really matters.
10. "Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive."
Commentary: Many entrepreneurs suffer from being overly positive and optimistic. Those are fine qualities to have, but not when they direct your attention away from real problems. Remember: Problems can become opportunities only after they're addressed, and you can't learn from failure by convincing yourself that you haven't really failed.
11. "How I do things is as important as what I do."
Commentary: When it comes to management, the medium truly is the message. A criticism presented via email creates distance and resentment, even if it's constructive. That same criticism is far more likely to create a change in behavior if it's presented face to face and with empathy, an aspect of communication which email tends to strip away.
12. "Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk--and not realizing it."
Commentary: Power changes perception on both sides of the equation. A thoughtless act or word that your friends or family might shrug off ("Oh, that's just Geoff being Geoff") can be devastating when it comes from your boss. Wielding power requires constant monitoring of your actions and demeanor to see how they'll be perceived by people who, by the nature of the boss-employee relationship, can't really know or see who you really are. That's a huge responsibility and it's hard to do well. Bosses who "get" this essential fact, though, are not just obeyed. They're appreciated and even loved, which shows itself in long-lasting loyalty.