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Bob Pozen of MIT Sloan School of Management: “To create a fantastic work culture, don’t describe in detail tasks that employees should be doing”

…don’t describe in detail tasks that employees should be doing. Instead, present a general set of objectives and let your employees formulate the specific ways to implement them. That will empower your employees to “own their own space”. They will feel responsible for the success of the unit, rather than just carrying out instructions. When […]


…don’t describe in detail tasks that employees should be doing. Instead, present a general set of objectives and let your employees formulate the specific ways to implement them. That will empower your employees to “own their own space”. They will feel responsible for the success of the unit, rather than just carrying out instructions. When I became president of Fidelity Management & Research, we faced a major challenge because the fund business had grown so rapidly. So, we created lots of small units within the company to provide many employees with the opportunity to “own their own space.” We knew that creating so many units would bring coordination challenges, but it was worth the price to give portfolio managers more say over the activities of their own investment groups.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bob Pozen. Bob is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is a former president of Fidelity Investments and executive chairman of MFS Investment Management. He has extensive experience in business, government and journalism. Bob was executive chairman of MFS Investment Management from 2004 to 2011; during this period, the assets of MFS more than doubled from a starting point of $130 billion. From 1987 through 2001, he served in various positions at Fidelity Investments. During his tenure as President of Fidelity Management and Research, from 1997 thru 2001, the assets of the Fidelity Funds rose from $500 billion to $900 billion. Bob served as Associate General Counsel of the SEC in the late 1970s, and Chairman of the SEC’s Advisory Committee on Financial Reporting in 2007–2008. He was a member of the President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security, and served as Secretary of Economic Affairs under Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Bob has taught at Georgetown and NYU as well as Harvard and MIT. He has published seven books, mainly on financial issues. His latest book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, was #3 on Fast Company’s list of best business books for 2012. In addition, he often writes editorials for the Financial Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Bob is an outside director of Medtronic, Nielsen, and AMC (a second-tier subsidiary of the World Bank). He is also on the governing board of several non-profit organizations. He received the 2011 Fund Action Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in the mutual fund industry. Bob graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, and obtained a law degree from Yale Law School where he was a member of the editorial board of the Yale Law Journal. He also received a doctorate from Yale Law School for a book he wrote on state enterprises in Africa.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Bob! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While serving as Chairman of MFS, an asset management company managing over $400 billion, and teaching a full course load at Harvard Business School, a number of people told me that I should teach them to be as productive as me. I finally took up their idea and wrote my book on productivity.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

People from around the globe want to create a better work culture. I recently got a fantastic letter from a woman in England who said that her life was dramatically changed by reading my book. She said she now knew she could accomplish her goals without working long hours, and did not have to apologize for being much more productive than her colleagues.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Teaching others to be productive is my passion — to individuals I mentor, students in classes at MIT Sloan, or companies where I help their leadership team create a culture of productivity. It is amazing to me when I work with companies how many good people want to do their best, but are bogged down by minutia.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

We put too much emphasis still on hours logged or input, rather than the output or results. Most people that I work with can tell me their top goals, but find that they spend less than half their time working on those goals. Focus your time on your most critical goals and all of us will be much happier.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Productivity is not about working harder; it’s about working smarter. Unhappy workers are unproductive; they also make others unhappy — which leads to focusing on being unhappy instead of achieving goals. This downward spiral adversely affects profitability as well as employee health and wellbeing.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

First, you can’t start achieving your goals until you articulate your goals with priorities. When I first went to work in Massachusetts state government for Governor ( now Senator ) Romney, everyone was very busy, but no one could tell me the exact priorities of the Administration. We quickly ironed all of that out and solved a challenging budget crisis while building a stronger local economy. For example, within a year we attracted companies like Bristol Myers Squibb to put a billion dollar facility in Massachusetts, a place the CEO said he never would have considered in the past.

Second, as a senior executive, you should focus on the things that you and only you as the leader can do. This may include meeting with high-level government officials or visiting with key clients. It may also mean giving speeches to certain audiences or recruiting senior executives. But you have to hold yourself back from taking on other functions — even if you might excel at performing them — if someone else can do them. For example, when MFS CEO Rob Manning recruited me to join the firm as Chairman, we explicitly divided the high-priority functions. Although I had run the investment management group at Fidelity, Rob is a talented investment guy so he took charge of that group and I stayed out of that domain. Similarly, when there were important meetings with regulators, I attended but not Rob.

Third, don’t describe in detail tasks that employees should be doing. Instead, present a general set of objectives and let your employees formulate the specific ways to implement them. That will empower your employees to “own their own space”. They will feel responsible for the success of the unit, rather than just carrying out instructions. When I became president of Fidelity Management & Research, we faced a major challenge because the fund business had grown so rapidly. So, we created lots of small units within the company to provide many employees with the opportunity to “own their own space.” We knew that creating so many units would bring coordination challenges, but it was worth the price to give portfolio managers more say over the activities of their own investment groups.

Fourth, try out what I call the rebuttable presumption approach to making decisions with your team. It is designed to focus the discussion and encourage debate. With my leadership team, I would say, “Here is the area where we really need to do something. This is my preliminary view of the path we should take, but I could be wrong. Feel free to disagree and offer alternatives.” And then you have to be willing actually to discard or modify your plan if someone comes up with a better one. This style removes problematic styles of the very open leader, who has not given any structure to the conversation, so the participants can waste a lot of time. And, it cures the authoritative leader, who strongly asserts his or her position, so team members are afraid to disagree.

Fifth, establish a culture where results are what matter, not people just meeting to meet. Set a rule that no meeting can last more than 90 minutes. At 90 minutes, people turn off — they get tired and they stop paying attention. If you try to extend a meeting beyond 90 minutes, the diminishing returns are staggering. Get the materials out before the meeting. Expect them to have been read. Do not present just to present. Discuss. Decide. Move on. It is amazing what happens when you tell people that you respect your time and they must too.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

I live in a city with one of the longest commuting times in the United States, Boston, as just reported by INRIX. Spending hours in the car given all of the technology we have makes no sense. Find ways to use technology to work together and create a community driven to succeed. Maybe work two days in an office to get fruitful group time together and find ways to encourage productivity. But don’t insist that people come into the office each day, or work as many hours as possible.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I would describe my management style as demanding, but honest and fair. I set high standards for myself and those who work with me. If I feel that someone is not carrying their weight, I will speak to that person in private and go over my concerns. Then I will give that person a chance to explain their view of the situation. Finally, we together will formulate a plan to resolve the concerns, including an agreement to meet specific metrics within a target time period.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I learned a lot from my high school English teacher, who was the first person to instill in me a real intellectual curiosity and love of learning. She encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to Harvard. When I was at Fidelity, I had the privilege of working with Ned Johnson. He taught me to take a long term view of the business — invest in the future, even if that involves short term losses. That means investing in technology that can transform the business. That also means selling products to our customers only if he and I were willing to buy them ourselves.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have been quite involved in a few research projects on trying to cure major diseases. I sponsor a prize each year with the Boston Foundation for the most innovative school in the Boston area. My wife and I have also been big supporters of the arts in Boston, especially the Mass College of Art.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Let’s make a new mistake!” I believe that in managing teams, you have to tolerate mistakes that are made in good faith by intelligent and dedicated people. Don’t play the blame game. Try to understand why the mistake was make and install procedures to avoid it happening again.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Begin by thinking carefully about why you are engaging in any activity and what you expect to get out of it. Don’t just do things out of habit. Live a life with purpose.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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