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The Top 10 HBR Blog Posts of 2010

Jimmy Guterman

Here is an article written by Jimmy Guterman for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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We think more about quality than quantity here on the HBR blog network, but we do pay close attention to what our readers are paying attention to. In that spirit, we offer our 10 most popular posts of 2010, as measured by that most inarguable of website metrics, pageviews:
12 Things Good Bosses Believe
Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss, ponders what makes some bosses great.

Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything
Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project reports on what he’s learned about top performance.

How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking
Peter Bregman learns how to do one thing at a time.

Why I Returned My iPad
Here, Bregman finds a novel way to treat a device that’s “too good.”

The Best Cover Letter I Ever Received
Although David Silverman published this with us in 2009, it remained extremely timely this year.

How to Give Your Boss Feedback
Amy Gallo reports on the best ways to help your boss and improve your working relationship.

You’ve Made a Mistake. Now What?
We all screw up at work. Gallo explains what to do next.

Define Your Personal Leadership Brand
Norm Smallwood of the RBL Group gives tips on how to convey your identity and distinctiveness as a leader.

Why Companies Should Insist that Employees Take Naps
Tony Schwartz makes the case for naps as competitive advantage.


Six Social Media Trends for 2011
David Armano of Edelman Digital ends the year by predicting our social media future.

That’s what you’ve told us. In my next roundup, I’ll share a few of the more-than-1000 posts we published this year that our editors have selected as unmissable — or worth a second read.

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Jimmy Guterman is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review. Previously, he was executive editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, editorial director of the Radar group, editor of Release 2.0 at O’Reilly Media. He is a graduate of the Universoity of Pennsylvania.

Friday, December 24, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Being a Good Boss is Pretty Damn Hard: Reflections on Publication Day

Robert Sutton

Here is a post by Robert Sutton on the day his most recent book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, was published.

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Today, September 7th, is the official publication day of Good Boss, Bad Boss [click here]. I’ve got an hour or so before I need to run to the airport, and find myself looking back on what I’ve learned from writing the book, talking to people since the book was finished some months back, and all the blogging and comments (especially here at Work Matters and over at HBR Online where I have been developing my list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe). [Ckick here.]

The thing I’ve been fretting over most lately is how hard it is to be a good boss — the job is never done, it is amazingly easy to screw-up, and wielding power over others makes it all even harder because you are being watched so closely (and are prone to tuning-out your followers — the other half of the toxic tandem). [Click here.]  Yet, despite all these hurdles, the best evidence shows that many, if not most, people find their bosses to be competent and compassionate [click here].  And most bosses I know work extremely hard and are dedicated to improving their skills.  Indeed, one of my main motivations for writing Good Boss, Bad Boss was that so many of the managers and executives who I spoke with and who wrote me in response to The No Asshole Rule were so concerned about becoming better at practicing their difficult craft.

When I think of the bosses that I admire and want to be around versus those that I despise and want to avoid if at all possible, the main factor is not their skill at the moment.  Rather, it is whether or not they care and are working on core questions like:

1. What does it feel like to work for me?

2. How can get more “in tune” with my followers, peers, bosses, customers, and other people who I deal with?

3. What are my weaknesses and strengths?  What can I do to attenuate my weaknesses — what do I need to learn and who can I work with to best offset my drawbacks and blind spots?

In contrast, people who are arrogant and suffering power poisoning — and never admit their weaknesses, let alone try to overcome or dampen them — are in my view, the worst of the worst, regardless of past accomplishments.Yes, as I emphasize on this blog and in Chapter 2, the best bosses need to act like they are in charge, to instill confidence in others and themselves.  But the bosses I want to be around  (and that I believe will triumph in the long run) have the attitude of wisdom, or as rocker Tom Petty put it, are confident but not really sure [click here].

That’s what I am thinking about; I would be curious to hear your perspective on the kinds of bosses you want to be and be around.

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Sutton’s research focuses on the links (and gaps) between managerial knowledge and organizational action, organizational creativity and innovation, organizational performance, and evidence-based management. He as published over 100 articles and chapters in scholarly and applied publications. He has also published eight books and edited volumes. In particular, Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer co-authored The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge Into Action (2000) and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management (2006). His more recent books include Weird Ideas That Work: 11 1/2 Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation (2007), The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007), and Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst (2010). I also urge you check out the wealth of material at his blog. Please click here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robert I. Sutton suggests, “If you’re the boss, start killing more good ideas.”

Robert I. Sutton

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Robert I. Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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Recently, I posted a list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe [click here]. Now I’m following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the ninth belief: “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.”

An evidence-based mantra is that, to get a few good ideas, you and your colleagues need to generate a lot of bad ideas. I wrote about this notion in my last post on Forgive and Remember [click here] where we saw that, to yield a dozen or so commercially successful ideas for toys, a group at IDEO generated over 4,000 non-starters. It turns out, however, that the best managed enterprises don’t just recognize the flowers among the weeds; they mow down a lot of the flowers, too.

I first started thinking about this five years ago or so after a conversation with a Yahoo! executive participating in the Customer-Focused Innovation program [click here] that Huggy Rao and I run at Stanford. Yahoo! had just had Steve Jobs in to address their top 100 or so bosses. Jobs advised them that killing bad ideas isn’t that hard — lots of companies, even bad companies, are good at that. He insisted that what is really hard — and a hallmark of great companies — is killing good ideas. For any single good idea to succeed, it needs a lot of resources, time, and attention, and so only a few ideas can be developed fully. The challenge is to be tough enough to do the pruning so that the survivors have a chance of being implemented properly and reaching their full potential.

Since then it’s also become clear to me that good product and experience design depends on tossing out most good ideas. If too many of them are thrown in, then the result is a terrible and confusing Frankenstein of an offering. (This seems to be many people’s objection to Microsoft Word: It does everything, so therefore is annoying and confusing to use for many single things.)

The implication, then, is that the “innovation funnel” [click here] where a lot of ideas are whittled down to a precious few — should contain two major filtering stages: one where you get rid of the bad ideas and then another where you toss the good ideas that aren’t quite good enough to justify a thinner spread of resources, a greater diffusion of focus, and possibly a more complex customer experience.

If you take this argument to its logical conclusion, it means that a great boss — and let’s define that for the moment as a boss whose team delivers innovation — might track these two metrics:

• How many good ideas are killed? If this number isn’t high enough, that is a bad sign. It means either that not enough ideas are being generated, or that important hard choices aren’t being made.

• How many people are complaining — even leaving — because of good ideas being killed? This really is what makes the pruning so hard.

It’s tough on the people who came up with ideas and are emotionally invested in them. Being the direct cause of their complaining, and even departure, is awful — and certainly doesn’t make you feel like a great boss. But if no one is complaining, that’s a worse sign. This kind of frustration is an unfortunate byproduct of an effective innovation process, and if your people don’t have enough pride and confidence to get upset when their innovative ideas are killed, then something is wrong with them — or your culture.

These are weird metrics, but they make sense given Jobs’ argument. His argument also resonates with our experience teaching in the Stanford d.school and my experience working with creative teams in industry: The groups that often do the worst work have too many pet ideas and can’t bring themselves to kill enough of them, so they don’t do a decent job on any of them.

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Robert I. Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. His new book is Good Boss, Bad Boss [click here], from Business Plus.

Monday, August 30, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robert I. Sutton on why a great boss is confident, but not really sure

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Robert I. Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here

Robert I. Sutton.

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Recently, I posted a list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe [click here]. Now I’m following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the sixth belief: “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.”

My favorite track on Tom Petty’s 2006 album Highway Companion is a song called “Saving Grace.” About halfway through, he closes off a verse by singing: “You’re confident but not really sure.” That’s a state of mind that sounds paradoxical, but at times it really is true. In fact, it’s the essence of what developmental psychologist John Meacham called the “attitude of wisdom.” And it’s a good description of some bosses I know, who strike a healthy balance between knowing and doubting. 

Meacham’s insight, which was developed much further by one of my intellectual heroes, organizational psychologist Karl Weick, was that the people we consider wise have the courage to act on their beliefs and convictions at the same time that they have the humility to realize that they might be wrong, and must be prepared to change their beliefs and actions when better information comes along.
When I first became enamored with wisdom after reading Weick’s writings (perhaps eight years ago) I heard a great conversation about it at a conference put on by Harvard Business School Publishing in Silicon Valley. There, I heard innovation guru Clay Christensen and HBSP editor Walter Kiechel interview long-time Intel CEO Andy Grove [click here.], who had recently relinquished that title and become Chairman. I took careful notes and then a few weeks later went back to the organizers to request a transcript, which they were kind enough to send me. Grove gave his own testimony to this notion of “Confident but not really sure.” I’ve edited this for length (see the whole thing and more of my thoughts on it here), but here’s what he advised:

None of us have a real understanding of where we are heading. I don’t. I have senses about it. But decisions don’t wait, investment decisions or personal decisions and prioritization don’t wait, for that picture to be clarified. You have to make them when you have to make them. So you take your shots and clean up the bad ones later. I think it is very important for you to do two things: act on your temporary conviction as if it was a real conviction; and when you realize that you are wrong, correct course very quickly.

This balancing act between confidence and doubt is a hallmark of great bosses. The confidence inspires people to follow them and believe in them, but the doubt helps ensure they get things right. They are always listening and watching for evidence that they might be wrong, and inviting others to challenge their conclusions (albeit usually in private and in “backstage” conversations).

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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

Robert Sutton
is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. His new book is Good Boss, Bad Boss, forthcoming from Business Plus.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Robert I. Sutton on the delicate art of being perfectly assertive

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Robert I. Sutton for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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Recently, I posted a list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe [Click here.]. Now I’m following up by delving into each one of them. This post is about the fourth belief: “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.”
The upshot of my earlier post called Some Bosses Live in a Fool’s Paradise [click here] is that the best bosses stay in tune with how their words and deeds are construed by their followers, but there is a lot about being a human being and wielding power over others that makes such perspective-taking difficult.

One area where self-awareness is particularly hard to gain has to do with one’s level of assertiveness. Bosses often can’t tell when they’re pushing people too hard versus not challenging them sufficiently. But as research conducted at Columbia University by Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn suggests, striking the right balance between being too assertive and not assertive enough is immensely important to being (and being perceived as) a great boss.

Ames and Flynn began with the observation that managers who are too assertive are seen as overbearing and that damages their relationships with others; but managers who are not assertive enough don’t end up achieving much with their teams that they — and their peers and superiors — can take real satisfaction in. With this in mind, they hypothesized that the best bosses would be rated roughly average on terms like “competitive,” “aggressive,” “passive,” and “submissive” by their direct reports. Indeed, this is what they found when they asked 213 MBA students to assess their most recent bosses on various dimensions. There was tremendous overlap between the bosses rated as moderately assertive and the bosses rated most effective overall. The MBAs also deemed those moderately assertive bosses to be most likely to succeed in the future, and to be people they would be happy to work with again.

And what of the bosses judged to be ineffective overall? Ames and Flynn found that lapses in assertiveness (whether by being too assertive or not assertive enough) were mentioned as hallmarks of these weak leaders far more often than deficits in “other commonly studied attributes, including intelligence, conscientiousness, and charisma.”

When I heard about this research, I couldn’t help but think of a quote from Tommy Lasorda, who has worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers for almost 50 years, including a 20-year stint as the team’s manager. The first day he took charge of the team, Tommy said to the press: “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it.”

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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

Robert I. Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life. He is the coauthor with Jeffrey Pfeffer of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. His last book was The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. His next book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst by Robert I. Sutton will be published by Business Plus/Hatchette Book Group in September (2010).

Friday, July 9, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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