Companies & Industries

Tough Guys Finish First


Top performers with great results tend to worry and complain a lot less about tough bosses than those struggling to meet expectations

Do tough bosses really get more out of their people? Of course they get short-term results, but do they really help a company win in the long run? --Alessandro Bolongaro, Milan

Yes and yes. But what a loaded question! Loaded because how you define "tough" matters a lot to the answer. And loaded, too, because how tough a boss seems may well depend on your own performance.

Look, tough is a multilayered term that is open to discussion. But there can be little debate about the fact that top performers with great results tend to worry and complain a lot less about tough bosses than those struggling to meet expectations. That may sound tough itself, but it's reality.

Let's talk about the meaning of tough. Without doubt, there are tough bosses who are nothing more than bullying, power-drunk jerks, and they're brutal to work for. They callously push their people, take credit when things go right, point fingers when they don't, and generally are very stingy with praise and rewards. They can also be moody, political, manipulative, secretive, outright mean, or all of the above. Now, as you say, sometimes these tough bosses get good results. But it's rarely for long. At any decent company, they are removed or they self-destruct, whichever comes first.

But bosses exist along a spectrum, and the destroyer-types we just described are at one far extreme. At the other end, and equally as damaging to the business, are the "Is everybody happy?" variety. Yes, they may be enjoyable to work for-getting paid was never so easy! -- but their spinelessness typically translates into mediocre results. Why? At least three basic sins are at work: These "nice" bosses treat everyone with the same wimpiness, they explain away misses without meting out consequences, and they change direction according to the needs and wishes of the last person in their office. In a word, they have no edge.

Somewhere between the two extremes, and probably closer to the hard end than the soft, are bosses who define the notion of tough the right way, and because of that manage to get strong, long-term performance from their people. It is not going too far to say that such bosses are actually the heroes of business, not the villains. They might not make everyone feel warm and fuzzy, but their good results create a healthy, fair work environment where people and the company prosper, where there is job security for employees who perform well, and value for shareholders. What more could you want?

To these types of bosses, tough means tough-minded. They set clear, challenging goals. They connect those goals with specific expectations. They conduct frequent, rigorous performance reviews. They reward results accordingly, with the most praise and the highest bonuses going to the most effective contributors and commensurate compensation levels distributed down the line, ending with nothing for nonstarters. They are relentlessly candid, letting everyone know where they stand and how the business is doing. Every single day, good tough bosses stretch people. They ask for a lot, and they expect to get it.

DOES THAT MAKE THEM hard to work for? Of course. But here's where individual performance comes into play. If you're up to the challenge, working for a tough boss can be incredibly energizing because you achieve in ways you never thought you could. But if a tough boss raises the bar to a point where you are out of your league, then you're likely to hate the experience. And if human nature is any guide, chances are you won't blame yourself. You'll blame the "tough" boss.

A perfect example is Bob Nardelli, CEO of Home Depot (HD) and a good tough boss if there ever was one -- demanding to be sure, but fair, transparent, and results-focused. In a recent BusinessWeek article assessing Bob's five-year turnaround at Home Depot (BW -- Mar. 6), the usual "other side of the story" came in the form of complaints from former company executives, who claimed that Bob had created an oppressive "culture of fear." Note that these executives, none of whom agreed to be identified, no longer work at the company. You have to wonder why they left. Was it because Bob was too "tough"? Or was it because his tough-mindedness created performance standards they could not meet?

We bet on the latter. The point is: There are good tough bosses and bad ones, and which is which is often in the eye of the beholder. Again, we're not talking about the egregious cases of jerk bosses who berate and belittle their people. Everyone hates them, and they deserve universal loathing.

We're talking about bosses who operate in the middle ground -- bosses who are tough but fair, push hard but reward in equal measure, and who give it to you straight.

Weak performers usually wish these bosses would go away. People who want to win seek them out.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to your questions. You can e-mail them and view their new website at www.welchway.com For their podcast, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm.

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