Get To Work: With Suzy Welch

Suzy Welch: The crucial career lesson I learned from Bob Woodward

A tough boss may be challenging, demanding and even downright mean. But according to bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch, that doesn't mean they're bad for your career.

In fact, knowing the difference between a tough boss and a bad boss can be crucial to your success. Welch says she learned this lesson as an intern at The Washington Post in 1981, while working for award-winning journalist Bob Woodward. ("Yes," she says, "that Bob Woodward.")

Welch had arrived for her internship in awe of Woodward and his reporting on the Watergate scandal, which earned him a Pulitzer and inspired a movie, but she tells CNBC Make It that initially, "I thought Bob Woodward was a terrible boss that summer because of how hard he made my life."

CNBC Contributor Suzy Welch 
CNBC Contributor Suzy Welch 

He routinely pushed her to go back to her sources for more information, and questioned everything she wrote. "He did not engage in pleasant banter," she says. "He never said, 'Good job,' even once when my story hit the front page of the Post — as an intern!"

Welch recalls a time when Woodward bristled at her suggesting a time for a meeting, instead of asking about a time that was convenient for him. "In short," she says, "Bob Woodward intimidated me."

But looking back, she says she now realizes that he was being tough on her "to toughen me up for the profession I had chosen. He didn't care about my feelings. He cared about my career."

"A bad boss is about [their] own success. A tough boss is about yours." -Suzy Welch, CNBC contributor

While Woodward, she says, was not a nice person to work for, he was not a bad boss. "Real bad bosses only care about themselves, and your performance is merely fodder for their upward trajectory," whereas "Bob Woodward was already at the top. He didn't need me to shine his star."

Welch says she now understands how the journalist's "pushing and prodding" was an effort to make her better not only for her employer, but for her profession. "Like any tough boss," she says, "he shoved me out of my comfort zone."

Unfortunately, Welch says, she ended up leaving the internship for a "nicer" newspaper, and now wonders what she might have learned had she stayed.

"His lesson about the difference between tough bosses and bad bosses is still with me today," she says. "A bad boss is about [their] own success. A tough boss is about yours."

Suzy Welch is the co-founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute and a noted business journalist, TV commentator and public speaker. Think you need Suzy to fix your career? Email her at gettowork@cnbc.com.

Video by Beatriz Bajuelos Castillo

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