William Coyne headed research and development at 3M—the company behind Ace bandages, Post-it notes, Scotch tape, and other inventions—for over a decade. Shortly after retiring, Coyne spoke to a group of hundreds of executives about innovation at 3M and his own management style. He said he’d started at 3M as a researcher and learned firsthand how well-meaning but nosy executives who proffer too many questions and suggestions can undermine creative work. So when he became head of R&D, he was determined to allow his teams to work for long stretches, unfettered by intrusions from higher-ups. Coyne understood his colleagues’ curiosity; if successful, an R&D project could generate millions in new revenue. But he limited their interference (and his own) because, he said, “After you plant a seed in the ground, you don’t dig it up every week to see how it is doing.”
Coyne knew that the performance of his employees—as well as his career and the company’s success—depended on shielding them from threats. This notion that management “buffers” the core work of the company from uncertainty and external perturbations is an old theme in organizational theory, going back at least to James D. Thompson’s 1967 classic Organizations in Action. The best bosses are committed to letting their workers work—whether on creative tasks such as inventing new products or on routine things such as assembling computers, making McDonald’s burgers, or flying planes. They take pride in being human shields, absorbing or deflecting heat from inside and outside the company, doing all manner of boring and silly tasks, and battling idiots and slights that make life harder than necessary on their people.
As a boss, you can protect your people’s backs in seven ways.
Resist Your Worst Instincts
Great bosses fret about the load they heap on others. The late theater director Frank Hauser said, in his book Notes on Directing that during rehearsals he didn’t keep “actors hanging about needlessly” because “it demoralizes the entire cast....If they have to wait a half-an-hour, that’s life. But if you are really behind, offer them the chance to go away and come back later. And apologize.” Hauser advised focusing on the play, not yourself: “Guard against the director’s first great vice—rabbiting on, making the same point again and again, getting laughs from your inimitable (and interminable) anecdotes.”
Meetings are infamous time wasters. Yes, some are necessary, but bosses bent on self-glorification often run them in disrespectful ways. If you want to grab power and show little regard for your people, arrive late to most meetings. And now and then, show up very late or send word after everyone has gathered that, alas, you are a Very Important Person who is in demand. But if you want your charges to be proud to do good work for you, then start and end meetings on time. You may miss the thrill of petty power displays, but you will earn more prestige by leading productive and grateful followers.
Will Wright, designer of computer games The Sims and Spore, used Ocean Quigley—a creative, impatient artist who worked for him—as his “canary in the coal mine” at meetings. Wright noted in the New York Times that when Quigley asked to be excused, “that was the point at which we always knew that the meeting had hit diminishing returns.” So Wright would simply end it at the canary’s cue. He also used a trick to make his designers think harder about calling unnecessary meetings. When someone booked one, he charged that person a dollar. Wright and his designers still went to many meetings, but he said “it did make them think twice...even though it was only a dollar.”
Make It Safe to Fight Right
When people have mutual respect, arguments over ideas are productive and creative. The best bosses orchestrate constructive battles—enabling people to feel safe to speak their minds, even to the leader. Pixar’s Brad Bird, who won Academy Awards for directing The Incredibles andRatatouille, is a vigorous advocate of constructive conflict. After a string of blockbusters, starting withToy Story, he was hired by Pixar with a mandate from bosses Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter to “mess with our heads, shake it up,” as Bird noted in an interview for McKinsey Quarterly. He took their words to heart and assembled a team of “malcontents” to make The Incredibles. The team members clashed with one another—but these were good fights, built on mutual trust. Indeed, Bird tells his teams, “I want you guys to speak up and drop your drawers. We’re going to look at your scenes in front of everybody. Everyone will get humiliated and encouraged together.”
Bird’s Incredibles team members shook things up as instructed. Pixar’s technical experts initially told them it would take 10 years and cost $500 million to render the realistic hair, water, and fire they wanted. But Bird and his malcontents pushed the technical team and themselves to invent new methods, which enabled them to complete the film for about $100 million. It had great commercial success, got rave reviews, and was a source of immense pride for Bird’s team and everyone else at Pixar.http://hbr.org/2010/09/managing-yourself-the-boss-as-human-shield/ar/1