Bob Sutton’s new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, is a wonderful book for both managers and their people. It is fact-and research-based, filled with fascinating stories and interactions with managers from all over the planet, and loaded with very, very useful advice. On top of all that, it’s exceptionally readable.
Sutton makes it clear that his basic purpose is to describe what a good boss looks like. His research and anecdotes intentionally compare “better versus worse” behaviors in order to make the nuances of good managing crystal clear. Bob writes so that you can turn knowledge into practice and develop the needed skills that will make becoming a good boss second nature.
Chapter one sets up the book, emphasizing why bosses matter, providing numerous examples and the research to support the boss’s importance. Summarizing Gallup research, for example, Sutton reveals that in a survey of over 100,000 employees in more than 2,500 diverse businesses, “managers trump companies.” Not only is your boss more important than the quality of your company in impacting performance, but a Swedish study even shows that people with the best bosses “suffered fewer heart attacks than those with bad bosses.” Throughout the chapter, Bob Sutton presents the necessary ideas to get you to think seriously about your taken-for-granted assumptions about the differences between good and bad bosses. He also provides some simple notions you can use to guide your reading—and digesting--of the book.
The major portion of the book, Section II, is given over to what the best bosses do, and includes taking control, striving to be wise, recruiting people with “connective talents,” tying the “knowing-doing gap” together, protecting people, implementing tough decisions, demonstrating needed humility and “squelching your inner jerk.”
Bob Sutton, a Stanford Business School prof, is almost unique in that he has a foot in two camps: academia and the business world and exceptional in both. Unusual? Very. I’ve got nearly 3,000 business books in my library and when I go through them, they either smell of the ivory tower too much, or are filled with advice from an exec’s own successes. I don’t trust either. I’ve learned that the bulk of business advice doesn’t travel. You can’t apply what one great leader says about his company to your company and your organization and your life. And you can start on that with Jack Welch. (I must confess that I snickered when a few years ago Jack Welch, rather defensively, wrote that he never told anyone his advice would travel.) On the other side of the matter, a great deal of academic writers, including many of those in business schools around the world, are too conceptual for their advice to be useful. Often, it’s just not practical--and it won’t travel either. Peter Senge, the really brilliant MIT academic, admitted the same—openly--in a workshop. Sutton, in contrast, is both highly practical and fact-based. As a result, I’ve plagiarized the hell out of some of his advice and my clients love it. They use it. They tell me it works. And they always want more of his stuff. And he’s a writer, I’ve learned, that a lot of non-reading business types will read. His stuff really travels. And that’s the best test for a business writer.
I’ve also got a very important warning. As you work through Good Boss, Bad Boss, you’re going to find yourself tempted to think that what Sutton says is obvious and just common sense. Be very careful when that conclusion crosses your gray matter. My experience tells me that it’s wrong most of the time. And it’s not just that common sense is not so common, it’s more than that. Take, for example, Sutton’s fact-based insight that “people quit bad bosses, not organizations.” That’s obvious, you might think. But the fact of the matter is that it’s neither obvious, nor common sense, nor even useful information until Sutton calls your attention to it. Why do I say that? I’ve found again and again that that the notion that people quit bad bosses, not organizations is just not on an exec’s radar screen. As a result, most execs put up with bad bosses that are doing serious damage to their organization for a long, long time. They can lose five to ten good people before they finally realize that their subordinate, that boss, is doing serious damage, and finally, they dump that bad boss. So throughout the book when you’re tempted to think Sutton’s conclusions are merely obvious--and skip over them--be very careful.
Last, each chapter has at least one list of tips, tricks, commandments, or recommendations that are loaded with straightforward, practical steps to becoming a better boss and employee. Throughout the entire book is the idea that you’re creating your own path to becoming a better boss. As Bob entitles that last chapter, It’s All About You. And although he’s given illustration after illustration of people who become better bosses, in his last chapter he pulls together the most important themes from his book, even prioritizes them for you. He closes with two acid tests for great bosses. I’ll let you buy Bob’s book and read up on them for yourself.