Twelve Things Good Bosses Believe

I found this post by Stanford evidence-based management professor Robert Sutton and tweeted about it earlier today.  But since it’s so good, I decided to do a post about it along with some commentary.  First, here are the twelve things:

  1. I have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it feels like to work for me.
  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.
  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.
  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.
  5. My job is to serve as a human shield, to protect my people from external intrusions, distractions, and idiocy of every stripe — and to avoid imposing my own idiocy on them as well.
  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.
  7. I aim to fight as if I am right, and listen as if I am wrong — and to teach my people to do the same thing.
  8. One of the best tests of my leadership — and my organization — is “what happens after people make a mistake?”
  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 them kill off all the bad ideas we generate, and most of the good ideas, too.
  10. Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
  11. How I do things is as important as what I do.
  12. Because I wield power over others, I am at great risk of acting like an insensitive jerk — and not realizing it.

And here are some thoughts on them:

  1. While 360 degree feedback studies can help managers understand themselves better, I agree that, by definition, managers will always have a flawed and incomplete understanding of what it’s like to work for them.  By the way, in general, I think managers always need to assume they are missing information, regardless of the topic.
  2. I agree strongly with this one; I think the media puts too much emphasis on the big, breakthrough idea and virtually none on the mundane business of clarifying operational goals, getting people to agree them, and then holding people accountable for delivering them.
  3. I semi-agree with this one.  I think quarterly operational goals are critical, annual goals are important, and some general sense of “where we’re headed” is important as well.  But I do agree that a big part of a manager’s job is getting those small, everyday wins that my colleague Martin Cooke refers to as “1% changes.”
  4. I totally agree with this one and struggle with it every day.  On one hand you have experience and opinions and want to show leadership.  On the other you don’t want to run over your people.
  5. I’ve seen myself in this way only when it came to certain constituencies (e.g., the board, bankers, analysts) and not in general.  Perhaps I should.  I’ll mull on this one.
  6. Yes.  See 4.
  7. I am a big believer in understanding both sides of an argument before deciding.
  8. I think this is a very important point and every manager, including me, surely believes:  “it’s OK to make a mistake, just don’t make the same one twice.”  The question is does our behavior actually reinforce that view?  People listen to words, they watch behavior, and they weigh the behavior about 10x relative to the words.
  9. I agree that innovation is important, and not only in large things.  I think the business media tends to equate innovation with “the next big thing.”  To me, innovation matters in all things, both large and small.  And if you agree with Sutton’s point 3, it matters perhaps more in small matters than in large ones.
  10. While I’d never consciously thought about this issue that way, I do have an innate tendency to worry more about driving out the negative than collecting the positive.  Some of my philosophies (e.g., mediocrity intolerance) reflect that.
  11. Yes, and it’s easy to miss this one.  As a CEO you can get so results oriented that you can forget the how whilst focusing on the what.
  12. Indeed.

7 responses to “Twelve Things Good Bosses Believe

  1. Excellent list Dave! If only more CEOs knew of its existence and attempted to adhere . . .

    I wonder how cultural differences influence number 10? I’ve been working in France 12 years now and continue to be surprised about the mediocrity, or worse, that decorates corporations. This is only partially influenced by French labor laws; after all, a company has six months to can a person without penalty. Contrary to the list’s standpoint, here it’s the “good is stronger than bad” belief that seems to prevail. I disagree. Good gets tired of fighting bad and changes companies, leaving only the mediocre to man ship. What’s your take?

    Best, Kate

  2. Kate,

    Thanks for reading the blog and nice to hear from you. I agree that labor laws are definitely part of the problem but agree it goes beyond that — e.g., it always seemed to me that the norm was not to extend trial periods from 3 months to 6 which is frankly the logical thing to do when the cost of separation after the end of the trial period is so high.

    As for more cultural items, I’d say that arguing that good is stronger than bad really relieves management of the burden to do its job, which is dealing with mis-fits and / or mis-hires that inevitably occur. That is, while some amount of social Darwinism will happen in any company (and I encourage it in mine) companies are not un-managed ecosystems. They have management and management has a job.

    I agree with your good/bad/mediocre argument, and it’s well put to boot. The solution, in my opinion, is for management to foster a culture of mediocrity intolerance — we are all in this boat together and out joint outcome will be greatly reduce if some people aren’t pulling their oars.

  3. Hi Dave,

    With regards to #9, I always always always find myself going back to an interview of Dan Saffer (AdaptivePath) in Business Week. He describes the need to add judgment and discrimination to insight and invention when we discuss innovation. It’s hard enough to kill a bad thing, let alone a good thing, once it has taken root.

    I suppose “judgment” in this context means you build a modicum of poison pill and shark repellant into anything you undertake, just in case, and check any personal bias you have at the door (at least this has been my experience). And you build this into the process of innovation, rather than casting it as the antithesis of innovation.

    The relative importance of innovation in small matters? Makes sense; I’d never really considered this before.

  4. Thanks for your reply, Dave.

  5. Great post indeed! Thank you, Dave.

    I celebrate the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives in my team. They really help us all see problems from different angles. #4 is really difficult but so important. I also especially agree on #9 because ideas seem transient and abundant. Dreams, character, ideals, commitment, hard work, and above all integrity and honesty are more important. As someone once crudely put it to me “Ideas are a dime a dozen, but great people are not and they too have ideas.”

  6. Piers,

    Thanks for the comment. I believe this is a direct link to the article you’re talking about:

  7. Pingback: 12 + 12 | DCSpring21

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.