Harvard blogger Robert I. Sutton explains why effective leaders must shield the people who report to them
Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 7, 2010 12:40 PM
One of the bosses I single out for praise in my new book is Intel's Patricia (Pat) McDonald, manager of a fabrication facility that the company, responding to a sharp decrease in sales, decided to shutter in 2009. Faced with the unenviable task of putting 1,000 people out of work, she made it her mission to place as many of them as possible in new jobs, either in other Intel facilities on the same, vast Hillsboro, Oregon campus or in other local firms. I'll always remember the praise I heard from one of her engineers, Sumit Guha. He said that every employee who worked with Pat during that tough time wouldn't hesitate to do so again, because "they know she's got their backs."
That's an old gunslinger's expression, of course, and evokes the image of some brave soul venturing out to get a job done even though it will make him an easy mark for anyone trying to take him out. Anyone who chooses to cover his back will dramatically increase his chance of survival, but usually not without bringing fire onto herself.
Some bosses have to do this quite literally. Donovan Campbell, who led the "Joker One" platoon in Ramadi during some of the bloodiest street battles of the Iraq war (and wrote a magnificent book about it), covered his Marines and they covered him. Lieutenant Campbell also interpreted the mission to protect his people more broadly, by constantly looking for ways to make the work safer, and emphasizing the little things that could make a difference between life and death. He drilled them over and over on how to get out of a Humvee fast (either to rush into battle or because it was on fire) and nagged them to eat well and keep drinking water.
In the corporate world, the stakes are not quite so high for covering people's backs, but still the analogy holds. One of the defining, and most crucial, features of effective bosses is that they shield their followers — whether from political maneuvering or resource grabbing or just the innumerable distractions, indignities, time suckers, lame rules, and local idiots that go with organizational life — and create the space for them to succeed. (The best bosses even have the self-awareness to know when they themselves are the source of any of that, and need to shelter people from their own worst tendencies.)
I've been thinking a lot about this topic lately, since it's the focus of an article I'm publishing in September's issue of Harvard Business Review called "The Boss as Human Shield," and of one chapter in Good Boss, Bad Boss. There are many nuances to how bosses protect their followers, but it's a useful simplification to say that the protection must be both tangible and emotional.
Robert Townsend might be the poster child for the kind of boss that provides tangible cover to his team. He tends to be known at this point for having written the most outrageous management book ever published, Up the Organization. It's a collection of 150 or so ruminations on business life that are delightful, irreverent, and sometimes politically incorrect — all penned in an era before blogs were invented and such things were called short essays. But Townsend gleaned his insights from his succession of management jobs, notably as CEO of Avis Rent-a-car, where he was a widely loved wildman. In contrast to the usual hollow rhetoric, he never left any doubt that the people of his organizations came first, and that his job as a boss was to serve as defender and warrior on their behalf. Once, for example, he fought off a request from a powerful Avis board member, National Broadcasting Company founder David Sarnoff (aka "The General"), that would have been a time sink for his staff. Sarnoff couldn't believe there was no accurate tally of all the cars that Avis owned, and demanded that one be produced — a task that would have taken weeks. In that kind of situation, any of us can imagine rolling our eyes, but in a choose-your-battles world, how many of us would have refused? Townsend did, because he knew his people had more important work to do. "If I don't need it to run the company," he told Sarnoff, "you sure as hell don't need that information as an outside director."
Even more telling, for me, was the time Townsend was stopped in the hall by his own boss. This was earlier in his career, at American Express, and the firm's Chairman wanted to express his pleasure with a "good bond swap" by Townsend's group. Again, how would most people use that face time? In Townsend's case, it wasn't to take credit and jockey for his next promotion. He replied that he didn't even know about the swap, and complained colorfully about how hard it was to get resources and better pay for the undervalued people doing such magnificent work. He chose to cover their backs, in other words, rather than climb over them.
When someone has their boss's backing, it's an emotional relief as well as a material one. In tough times, or facing new risks, people feel highly vulnerable and their feelings of safety and esteem can evaporate. Last year, I interviewed Nick Gottuso who serves as a Captain in the police department in Hillsborough, California and commands a local SWAT team of about 50 officers. Nick described an ugly hostage situation in San Mateo, California on November 25th, 2008. An armed intruder, 22 year-old Raymond Gee, entered a family's home and threatened 24-year-old Loan Kim Nguyen and her two children. Nguyen managed to barricade herself and the children in a second-story bedroom, and then, when a SWAT truck arrived, to lower them from the window. But just as the second child reached the roof of the truck, the intruder fired 10 rounds through a wall from the next room, and she was fatally struck. The SWAT team responded by firing dozens of rounds at Gee, then entered to find him dead by his own hand.
Obviously it was a traumatic experience, and Nick knew that, on top of feeling the failure to save a mother's life, his officers now faced the possibility of being faulted for the actions they took. They had opened fire — an act that often landed officers in legal and political trouble, even when it was clearly the right move. Nick told me, "I walked up to each of the officers on my team who had fired their weapons, looked each one the eye, patted them on the back or gave them a hug, and said 'you did a great job, I am damn proud of you.'" Nick explained that it was important to give them that reassurance right away that he was in their corner and would fight for them, because it allowed them to deal with the other emotions of the moment.
That's a dramatic example, but it isn't only in moments of high drama that people notice whether you've got their backs. It often amazes me how powerful seemingly trivial acts can be. Years ago, I was doing research with Corey Billington at Hewlett-Packard, whose group improving supply chain planning and management was amusingly called SPaM. Corey gently, but persistently, battled to win tangible support for the team in the form of a larger budget to get more space, hire more professionals, and pay competitive salaries. But it was his effort to save the free morning donut that really spoke to them emotionally. Coming on the heels of a whole series of cost-cutting moves, HP's decision to dispense with the morning donuts had pissed off Corey's people. It seemed like a petty slap to a team working such long hours and doing so much to fix the bottom line. So Corey took up the matter with corporate and pledged money from SPaM's own budget to buy the donuts. I was dumbfounded by how happy this made everyone. I remember sitting in the break room and having one employee after another tell me, as they chose their donut, "We earned the right to keep them."
If you're a boss, you may think you are constantly doing the same type of thing. And maybe you are. But remember the main lesson from my post Some Bosses Live in A Fool's Paradise. A lot of research suggests that bosses tend to be poor judges of what it feels like to work for them. Don't assume that it's obvious to your people that you go above and beyond to shield and support them. Your own selective memory might be focusing on occasional acts of heroic protection, while glossing over the times you leave them feeling it's everyone for him or herself.
Among themselves, your people may be telling different tales. And that's the last thing you want behind your back.