An Acid Test for Every Boss

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Of all the famous business leaders that Peter Drucker worked with, perhaps the most confounding was Thomas Watson Sr., the great visionary who ran International Business Machines Corp. from World War I until the mid-1950s.

“He was irascible, vain, opinionated, a publicity hound and an incorrigible name-dropper,” Drucker recalled in The Frontiers of Management. “And as he grew older he became increasingly addicted to being grossly flattered.” Yet, at the same time, Watson “was also intensely loyal and quite willing to admit that he had been wrong and to apologize.” The bottom line: Those at IBM “loved to work for him.”

Few of us are as complex as Watson. But what do our employees say about us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately after reading an article in the latest issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review by Julian Birkinshaw, a professor at London Business School. In the piece, Birkinshaw makes the case that “we need a better and more focused way of assessing the quality of management in our organizations,” and he suggests that this can be achieved by asking a single question: Would your employees recommend you?

The deceptively simple methodology is based on a long-recognized marketing tool called the Net Promoter Score, which gauges the degree to which customers are actively talking up a product or a company to their friends and families. This has become a widely accepted way to evaluate customer loyalty.

What Birkinshaw proposes is that companies turn the system inward, as well. “Your employees aren’t just passive recipients of your efforts to create a great place to work; they are also potentially your biggest promoters,” says Birkinshaw, who credits a team at pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche, one of his consulting clients, with the idea. They dubbed the metric the Net Management Promoter Score, or NMPS.

Birkinshaw notes that the group at Roche “really liked how sharp and to-the-point” the NMPS could be, phrasing it this way: On a scale of 1 to 10, “how likely is it that you would recommend your line manager to a colleague as someone they should work for in the future?”

The measure, Birkinshaw’s ongoing research has shown, can be highly useful. For one thing, he says, it sheds a lot of light on the overall “workplace climate in a unit or organization. . . . By tracking this number over time, you get an interesting indicator of how well-managed a company is.” In addition, the NMPS can provide valuable feedback for individual managers. “Of course, this is very direct feedback,” Birkinshaw points out. “There is nowhere for the manager to hide if his or her score is negative.”

So how do you ensure that your employees would, in fact, recommend you as a boss? Drucker wrote dozens of books on what it means to be a good manager, but I bet he’d start with a handful of core principles.

First, make sure that everyone who works for you is crystal clear on the contribution he or she is expected to make. But set these goals through dialogue, not diktat. “Go in and say, ‘What should this organization hold you accountable for over the next 18 months?’” Drucker advised. “The first time you ask this, your people will find that this is a very difficult question. They’ve never thought that way. Most people, believe me, think in terms of work and not in terms of results.”

Second, as I’ve discussed, when appraising someone, concentrate on building on their strengths, not correcting their weaknesses. “The impairments, the bad habits, the areas of ignorance . . . will all come out,” Drucker explained. “You will not have to point them out.”

Third, if someone is foundering in a particular role, see if you can match their strengths with a genuine need that the organization has elsewhere. “You may put somebody into a specific job, and the chemistry is wrong,” Drucker wrote. “People don’t always get along with a boss.” But when that happens, it’s incumbent upon the enterprise “to try them in another job” as long as they’re making a sincere effort.

Fourth, for those who are totally dogging it or failing beyond hope, let them go. You have a duty to those who are doing well “not to tolerate the poor performer,” Drucker said. “That quenches motivation, when they see that everybody gets the same praise, when they know perfectly well that Jim or Jane hasn’t done a lick of work and what they have done is shoddy. That demoralizes.”

Fifth, and most important, set your sights high—for you and your team. When he ran IBM, Watson “was a demanding boss and not one bit permissive,” Drucker observed. “But he demanded the right things: dedication and performance to high standards.”

For in the end, it is performance—and not personality—that truly matters. “There is tremendous stress these days on liking people, helping people, getting along with people, as qualifications for a manager,” Drucker wrote in his 1954 landmark The Practice of Management. “These alone are never enough. . . . The one contribution he is uniquely expected to make is to give others vision and ability to perform.”

When you do that, folks can’t wait to tell others that they’d be lucky to work for you.