IDEO is perhaps the leading innovation consulting firm in the world. IDEO Chairman and founder David Kelley, a boss I have studied, worked with, and watched for years, strikes me as someone who is very aware of the effect of his presence.
Although no one would accuse him of being pushy or arrogant, he realizes that because he is the boss — and even beyond that, a renowned design thinker and industry leader — too much of the attention in a room threatens to come his way.
His mere presence can stifle his people's contributions.
I have seen David do a very clever thing to counter this. In meetings he takes part in, whether they are brainstorming sessions, client meetings, or a work-related gatherings of any kind, he'll start at the front of the room, as expected. But once he's covered the preliminaries — introducing people, setting the tone and goals — he pulls in others to talk and lead, and moves to the side of the room. He jumps back in if the ideas stop flowing, or if some uncomfortable moment needs to be covered, perhaps by telling a little story or joke, but if he's confident the meeting is going well, he drifts to the back of the room and remains silent. Usually, well before the meeting is over, he is able to slip out without saying good-bye.
Of course, David Kelley doesn't leave because he has some higher priority — he does so because he wants the meeting to be as productive as possible. His brilliance is that he is so intensely in tune with the context he has set, and how his words, actions, and little facial expressions affect the room. He keeps making adjustments with the goal of getting the group interacting so well that his presence becomes an unnecessary distraction.
It's a simple example, but a telling one. I would argue that, in general, the best bosses are people who realize that they are prone to suffering blind spots about themselves, their colleagues, and problems in the organization — and who work doggedly to overcome them.
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Robert Sutton is a Professor and Organizational Psychologist at Stanford University. This post draws on central themes in his new book Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to be the Best…. and Learn from the Worst (Business Plus, 2010). His personal blog is Work Matters.
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