World’s Best B-School Professors: Robert Sutton

by John A. Byrne on

Stanford Professor Robert Sutton

Robert Sutton
Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business

Claim to Fame: He had the guts to come out with a book entitled The No Asshole Rule and it quickly became a national bestseller and made him a leading management thinker by dealing with a perennial workplace impediment

Education:

University of California, Berkeley, B.A., 1977
University of Michigan, MBA, 1981
University of Michigan, PhD, 1984

At Stanford Since: 1983

Fun Fact: I raced high-performance sailboats pretty seriously when I was young, a single-handed boat called a Laser (now an Olympic class) and a two-person boat called a 505 that I raced into my 40’s. I placed in the top ten in quite a few national championships, but was generally one of those sailors that the folks who went on to win Olympic medals and do America’s Cup campaigns expected to beat 75% of the time. It taught me discipline and focus, a tolerance for discomfort and pressing forward when all seems lost.

Another key thing about me is that without my wife, Marina Park, I would be lost. We have been together since she was 19 and I was 21 (we got married somewhere along the line). We met though sailing (most girls wouldn’t get into my car because it smelled so bad with all the wet clothes and such, as a sailor, she was used to it). Marina is one of the most sensible and unselfish people I have ever met. I have never seen her take or ask more for herself than she deserves — she always asks for less.  Marina is also always there to tell me when I have messed-up or am being a jerk, something we all need in life. All that goodness is exhausting at times, and keeping up is impossible, but I am a better — or at least less bad — person because of the nearly 40 years we’ve been together.

What do you like most about your job? It is privilege to be a university professor, and I have been especially lucky to be in the Stanford Engineering School where–so long as we are doing something constructive and teaching our classes–there is incredible freedom. I appreciate it more every year. I have been so lucky to have Jim Plummer as my dean for almost 15 years now, who is one of the most caring, wise, and unselfish leaders I have ever met — and the real engineers tell me he has astounding technical skills as well. I have a boss who has my back, and it isn’t just me, he cares about everyone. The best part of Stanford is that I get to work with and teach so many smart and relentless people. I have wonderful colleagues such as Steve Barley, Huggy Rao, Pam Hinds, Chip Heath, Tom Byers, Tina Seelig, David Kelley, and Jeff Pfeffer. I wrote two books with Jeff Pfeffer and I am currently writing one with Huggy. These guys are both scary smart. It is humbling and exciting.

Also, one of the great things about Stanford (especially the Engineering School) is that we have so much contact with people in industry, and in many cases, we entice them to teach with us.  My favorite person who fits this description is Perry Klebahn, now head of executive education at the Stanford d.school. Perry invented the modern snowshoe and then built a company called Atlas around it (he sold it to K2), was then a senior executive at Patagonia, and then CEO of an iconic San Francisco bag company called Timbuk2.  Perry has been teaching design thinking and coaching creative teams at Stanford in-between these jobs for some 20 years and I love working with him because he is so action oriented. Some of my other favorite teaching colleagues include Debra Dunn (a former senior executive at HP), Michael Dearing (former head of eBay North America, now a very successful early stage venture capitalist), Bonny Simi (Head of Talent at JetBlue, still an active pilot, and a three time Olympian in the luge), and Diego Rodriguez (a partner at IDEO and the smartest person I know when it comes to the intersection between design and business).

I especially want to emphasize how great it is to work with the amazing David Kelley, who is both the founder of IDEO (where they call me a Fellow, I sort of feel like a first cousin. I love the people there, so much heart and creativity) and also the founder of the Stanford d.school (and a tenured professor at Stanford).  David has taught me so much about so many things, from what creativity really looks like (academics like me don’t really understand), to the power of taking risks and having dreams (IDEO and the d.school had co-founders, but David was the one who made them happen), and the importance of compassion even with incompetent people (something that isn’t easy for me).  Every conversation with David over the years has two components — he is worried about something that is screwed-up and needs to be fixed (a problem with a less than competent colleague in this case) and he has some big dream out in the future that seems impossible (raising $50 million for some crazy idea of his about making Stanford even more amazing).

What do you like least? Academic politics. That said, I don’t have much to complain about. The politics at Stanford are trivial compared to most other universities. But I don’t like when I get in situations where certain colleagues start vying for power and are angling to stomp on their colleagues to get some silly little prize like a title or a little more money. Fortunately, the School of Engineering isn’t very political and while people who act like that sometimes reap short-term rewards, they usually suffer in the long-term. I used to try and fight people like that. Now I just avoid them as much as possible. There are plenty of unselfish givers at Stanford to hang out with. I also don’t like long boring meetings. A problem with professors is that we tenured folks in particular sometimes act as if we have an endless supply of time. I still haven’t completely recovered from a 90-minute meeting some 15 years ago where the discussion focused on how to regulate the office supply cabinet for the entire meeting with some 25 people. Of course, no decisions were made but we all wasted a lot of time. I confess, however, that I wouldn’t sit through that meeting now. I have learned that when a meeting is overly political or overly boring, and I am not central, that it is better for me to just walk out (not just because it wastes my time, but because I am prone to say things I regret in such cases).  I never lie and say I have a previous engagement, I just politely walk out.  Really, I am a mighty lucky guy, note that I have the freedom to escape from many of the few parts of me job that suck at times.

If you weren’t teaching, what would your dream job be?  People who don’t know me well think I am an extrovert as I am outgoing for short periods of time, but the social ramble always leaves me emotionally spent. I am happiest when I am alone, thinking and writing. I prefer exercising alone (I go for a bike ride in the hills behind Stanford four or five days a week) because it is just an extension of the thinking process. I especially love telling emotionally compelling stories, so my dream job — which really isn’t much different from what I do now, by the way — would be to write either fiction (I love reading good short stories) or first-person essays. I like telling stories and writing.

On Robert Sutton’s thoughtful and highly entertaining blog, Work Matters, the Stanford professor lists 12 things he believes. For someone who is considered one of the world’s thought leaders in the field of management, the first of his beliefs might surprise you: “Sometimes the best management is no management at all,” he says. “First do no harm!”

Sutton, author of the bestselling The No Asshole Rule, is a professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. He studies innovation, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and more recently, workplace assholes. No kidding. He works with organizations and managers of all kinds, from People magazine, to Procter & Gamble, to National Football League executives. He has published over 150 articles, in places ranging from peer-reviewed journals, to the Harvard Business Review, to Esquire magazine.

In his latest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton draws upon a large number of eclectic sources, including sociology research that shows top performing employees are far more likely to have high energy than high IQs. Sutton persuasively argues that the best bosses are not only not assholes, they are moderately assertive types, able to find the right balance between managing too much or too little. In his typically entertaining way, Sutton dubs this “Lasorda’s Law,” after the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda’s style.

His other books include Weird Ideas That Work: 11 ½ Practices for Promoting, Managing, and Sustaining Innovation, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Firms Turn Knowledge into Action (with Jeffrey Pfeffer), and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (also with Jeffrey Pfeffer). He is a Fellow at IDEO and a member of the Institute for the Future’s board of directors. And especially dear to his heart is the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which everyone calls “the Stanford d.school.” Sutton is a co-founder of this multi-disciplinary program, where they teach, practice, and spread “design thinking.” His personal blog is Work Matters.

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