Bob Sutton, professor at Stanford University, has published a book that is sure to be of interest to current and aspiring leaders in independent schools. Good Boss, Bad Boss is a sequel to his last book, drawing on the many questions posed in emails, blogs, articles, and ongoing conversations about what constitutes a good boss, a bad boss, and the culture of the workplaces they inhabit/direct. His work is directed by three basic questions:
- If you want to be a Good Boss, what do you need to accomplish day after day?
- If you have a Bad Boss, what can you do about it?
- In short, what are the hallmarks of a Good Boss...and worst flaws of a Bad Boss?
Sutton's popular prose and use of real-life case studies allows the reader an inside look at what the best bosses do. Just as significant, however, he sheds light on institutional culture and how the Boss affects that culture, vertically and horizontally. School leaders (current or aspiring) will find much of interest in this book, as evidenced in the chapter synopsis below.
Chapter 1: The Right Mindset
Being a good boss creates a healthy environment (quite literally). Studies have shown that, when someone has an immediate supervisor who is good at what s/he does, there is a lower percentage risk for getting a heart attack. What is more, a good boss has "more impact on engagement and performance than whether their companies are rated as great or lousy places to work" (17). Independent school educators know, as Sutton points out, that "the leader of an organization [the Head of School, in our case] still matters more than the other bosses", however (18). This person sets the tone for how everyone else behaves. William Coyne, a man who led the r&d efforts at 3M for over one decade, said, "After you plant a seed in the ground, you don't dig it up every week to see how it is doing" (23); truly a great analogy for how independent school educators would like to be treated by their immediate manager(s) as well as by the Head! For Sutton, all can be summed up in two words: performance and humanity.
Chapter 2: Take Control
"Bosses matter, especially to their immediate followers and in small teams and organizations" (47). Schools certainly qualify as small organizations, though a few are rather large. Sutton focuses on "what it takes to magnify the illusion and reality" that the boss is in control of what the follwers "do, how well they perform, and how they feel along the way" (47). He points out that bosses need to act as if they are in control even when they aren't, since confidence (i.e., the confidence of being in control) is contagious and spreads to employees. He also suggests that bosses should say "yes" or "no" rather than be ambiguous (except in those circumstances when ambiguity is called for!). Also important are giving credit to others, blaming yourself when things go wrong, and being aware of powers and limits (good bosses know how to influence the events that surround them rather than try to control every single aspect of them). His list of "Tricks for Taking Charge" are spot-on.
Chapter 3: Strive to Be Wise
Sutton states that "the best bosses dance on the edge of overconfidence, but a healthy dose of self-doubt and humility saves them from turning arrogant and pigheaded" (71). He provides an "attitude of wisdom" list on p. 73 that contrasts smart bosses and wise bosses, showing how the wise boss is a much more magnanimous leader with a large number of followers. Wise bosses, he suggests, provide psychological safety, allowing failure and learning as part of the job. Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer have provided a great diagnostic question for assessing how a boss is handling psychological safety: "What happens when people make mistakes or fail?" The answer tells much about an organization. A wise boss also likes a "good fight," i.e., when people fight--with mutual respect--over ideas, they are more productive and creative (83). He proffers a list of ten things the good boss should observe when leading a good fight. Sutton's biggest beef, perhaps, is the one he terms the "participation trap," meaning that some well-meaning bosses involve too many people in too many decisions (often the wrong decisions), and this involvement tends to anger people. The wise boss also deals with his/her achilles heel(s): personal ignorance, weak skills, and/or character flaws. In short, they do something about it. As a result, they are better able to practice empathy with their employees. He ends the chapter with a list of eleven commandments for wise bosses (97-98).
Chapter 4: Stars and Rotten Apples
Sutton prompts readers to determine who the stars are within an organization, and whether they enhance or hinder the other employees' performance and/or humanity (103).Sadely, many bosses institute a reward system for those "rotten apples," i.e., the stars who are egomaniacs; in the end, companies have less cooperation and collaboration than they did previously, when just the opposite is needed. He even includes an Evaluation Gauge for Obnoxious Superstars at the end of the chapter, if readers would care to see how their workplace fares! In short, Sutton suggests that good bosses "bring on the energizers" (108), since people can affect the kind of energy and enthusiasm a workplace houses. Rotten apples, he says, are incredibly destructive to an organization; there are many kind of rotten apples, and their negative interactions impact relationships by a greater margin because "bad is stronger than good." The real losers (the real rotten apples, in other words) need to be cut loose.
Chapter 5: Link Talk and Action
Bob is well-known for his work on the "smart-talk trap," a term that describes what happens in organizations when people know what needs to be done, but keep talking about it, posing questions, prolonging any discussion, without moving toward action. The bottom line is: "understand the work you manage--or get out of the way." If you understand it, you can defer--quite successfully--to the expertise of those around you, and they will support your leadership even more. Bob believes in keeping things simple (the KISS principle) and in doing what is right, not what everyone else does! The recipe for success in linking talk and action is, first, to create "hot emotions" around some challenge and, second, to steer "all that passion to 'cool,' or rational, solutions (149). At the end of the chapter, he offers a list of tips and tricks for eradicating impediments to action in any organization.
Chapter 6: Serve as a Human Shield
"The best bosses let the workers do their work. They protect people from red tape, meddlesome executives, nosy visitors, unneccessary meetings, and a host of other insults, intrusions and time wasters" (154). A good boss, as Bob suggests, "takes pride in serving as a human shield, absorbing and deflecting heat from superiors and customers, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling back against every idiot and slight that makes life unfair or harder than necessary on his or her charges" (154). One fun idea that Bob proposes is the stand-up meeting; the discomfort associated with remaining standing for the duration of a meeting is that business tends to be completed more quickly! It becomes highly efficient and more frequent; therefore, more productive and even more transparent. Good bosses "focus their attention, and their people's efforts, on the small number of things that matter most" (172). The irony in this approach, of course, is that the better the boss and the organization, the less bosses need to shield their people, as Bob points out at the end of the chapter. Good schools already know and implement this practice.
Chapter 7: Don't Shirk the Dirty Work
"Every boss must do things that upset and hurt people. [...] If you can't or won't perform such unpleasant chores, perhaps you shouldn't be the boss. Or, if you still want the job, you better recruit someone else to do your dirty work" (181). Many school folks who contemplate moving into school leadership roles hesitate when it comes to the dirty work. We believe in the intrinsic value of each person within the school, and it is a difficult thing to consider that one may have to reprimand a colleague, fire someone, deny budget requests, write an honest and harsh evaluation, give up ground in a program that one holds near and dear, and so forth. As Sutton says ,"the best bosses don't delay or duck difficult deeds" (181). Lousy bosses, he points out, live in a "fantasyland of denail and delusion. They are remarkably adept at inventing excuses for putting off gut-wrenching work. They may talk tough but lack the courage to confront employees with negative feedback, punishments, or other bad news" (182). Having said all that, it is vital that the good boss take care of business by following several maxims: be predictable, be understanding, maintain control, have compassion. Bob finished the chapter with the "12 commandments of bosses' dirty work," a solid list of do's and don't's.
Chapter 8: Squelch Your Inner Bosshole
Common features to the job of being boss--such as power, performance pressure, and exhaustion--lend themselves to turning bosses into what Sutton terms a "bosshole." You can imagine the second word that contributes to the assimilated term. Bosses, he posits, are "notoriously poor at evaluating their own performance. The worst bosses ignore or deny any hint that they suffer from this gap or other blind spots. The best take seriously how others judge them--and accept the uncomfortable fact that followers' perceptions are often more valid than their own" (212). He references a non-scientific survey that he created, called the ARSE Test, which over 200,000 people have completed online, as a means of determining how egregious their actions might be (or whether they are model bosses). Bob links bossholes with bullying in the workplace, as the majority of such bullying originates from people who are "certified a**holes," he says. He suggests that leaders calculate the TCA (Total Cost of A**holes) in their organizations as a means of determining whom to reform or expel. One person identified in a TCA ended up costing a group $160,000 in just one year! He finishes the chapter by providing an 11-point list, all tips for squelching your inner jerk (if you have one!), or your boss's inner jerk, should you be thinking of your superior.
Chapter 9: It's All About You
"If you are a boss, your success depends on staying in tune with how others think, feel, and react to you" (244). The best bosses, he says, "focus on controlling their moods and moves, accurately interpreting their impact on others, and making adjustments on the fly because they want their people to produce work that others will admire--and to feel respect and dignity along the way" (246). An emphasis on people and connections will go a long way, something that resonates with school folks. As Bob says, "If forced to pick the most crucial question in Good Boss, Bad Boss, I would ask: 'are you in tune with what it feels like to work for you?' (248).
Sutton has produced an immensely readable tome that underscores the humanity involved in being a leader within an organization. For those of us in schools, that should go without saying, and it usually does. The last chapter, I would argue, is crucial to leadership: know thyself, following the advice of the Oracle at Delphi. This sense of the "inner boss" is quasi-spiritual, at the very least, and it would behoove leaders to work with someone (i.e, executive coach or similar) as a means of being attentive to keeping an even keel. Schools have become more complex to manage, and it takes a confident, self-aware leader to be a good boss.