Chuck Lauer: For bosses, it’s no more Mr. Rude Guy

Is the hard-charging, aggressive boss a thing of the past?

 

In my career I have had the good fortune to be involved with bosses who by and large behaved like human beings. Some were very open, while others were more guarded. Some were grouchy, while others had at least a semblance of a sense of humor. But in all cases you knew who was the boss, and if you were smart you tried to make sure the boss knew what you were up to and you didn't try to hide in the murky depths of the organizational chart — that was the kiss of death.
 
Of course, there are mid-level employees who still think their job is to keep their job, mostly by buttering up the boss, agreeing with everything he/she says. Unfortunately — or fortunately depending on your perspective — that strategy can only be effective for so long. With profits squeezed and global competition fierce, what most bosses want is results, such as increased sales and more productivity and predictability. The emphasis today is on teams — working well with othersand being productive in that milieu, with no hiding allowed.
 
A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the intriguing title, "Is the Old School, Hard-Nosed Boss Obsolete?" It's a good question and one that is worth pondering. Look, the corporate ladder is filled with sharp elbows, and getting ahead in any outfit is tough business, so the folks who make it to the top are more likely to be tough and at least a little abrasive. Once someone has become a leader, there are all sorts of not-so-easy decisions to make, such as doing away with unprofitable divisions, under-productive employees and underperforming initiatives. It's a tough job no matter how you cut it, with little room for niceties.
 
A couple of decades ago, ruthless bosses like the former Sunbeam Corp. Chairman Albert Dunlap, known as "Chainsaw Al" for mass layoffs, ran companies without sugarcoating their approaches.

Even more infamous was General Electric's Jack Welch, who obviously cultivated a reputation for toughness. As a matter of fact, he earned the nickname "Neutron Jack" in the early 1980s for shifting some operations overseas and dismissing thousands of workers. These guys seemed to like laying off workers by the factory-load.
 
Today seems to be a new day, and Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of "The No A-hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn't," believes that the Chainsaw Al and Neutron Jack tactics have to be used with caution.

“At a middle-manager level, (being aggressive) probably helps you propel your career, but you need to evolve your personality as you just get a little bit older," Jim Lillie, chief executive of Jarden Corp., whose brands include Mr. Coffee, Crock-Pot and Coleman camping gear, told the Journal.

Then there are the social media and the constant electronic communications that expose matters that once stayed behind closed doors. Sir Martin Sorrell, the CEO of London-based advertising and marketing company WPP, points out that in previous times any message issued internally just didn't get out. However, today "Everything you write, everything you say, you should think about it being on the front page of the Wall Street Journal."
 
Here is a case in point. After AOL CEO Tim Armstrong fired a subordinate on a conference call last year, an audio recording was quickly posted online, sparking an outcry over the firing. Mr. Armstrong later issued an apology for his handling of the dismissal, while noting the "difficult situations that arise when turning around a company." So there is a tough lesson here. Any communication a leader makes has to be promulgated with the understanding of how it would appear if the general public were to see it. Talk about a different ball game from just a few years ago!
 
Daniel Hamburger, the chief executive of DeVry Education Group, says that until six or seven years ago "there was more of an authoritarian streak in management" but then goes on to say, "In today's world, that doesn't cut it. There's too much transparency.There's too much need for genuineness, authenticity, respect." But as pointed out in the Journal article, sometimes a little wood is still necessary. Mr. Hamburger had to move on an IT system overhaul, which had cost his company $100 million. He called for weekly status updates, setting the meetings at 8 a.m. "to make it even more uncomfortable." The message was clear, and after three months of meetings the project was back on track.
 
The bottom line is this: Most companies today are getting more enlightened about how they handle their employees. Theodore Dysart, a vice chairman of the executive search firm Heidrick and Struggles International, says companies are growing hesitant to hire executives known for berating colleagues or moody behavior even if their business results are solid. That is entirely different from just a few years ago and finally we are beginning to recognize that happy and secure employees are more productive, give customers better service and are more willing to go the extra mile when called upon to do so.

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