Note: This is the first in a series of interviews conducted by Rob Cahill, CEO of the management-training and education firm Jhana, with industry leading scholars, CEOs, founders and consultants on the topic of management.
The topic for anyone who cares about management, Bob Sutton is something of a household name. A professor of management science at Stanford University (where I did my M.S.) and a researcher in the field of evidence-based management, he has authored multiple best-selling books and is easily one of the leading management minds of our time.
So I confess I was a little star-struck when Bob agreed to chat (but I recovered quickly!). When I asked him to share a defining moment or experience that has shaped his current management worldview, he shared the following anecdote about his wife, Marina Park. The story is just too good to summarize, so I’ve copied it below in full.
Marina is the former managing partner of a large international law firm, now CEO of the Girl Scouts of Northern California, a member of a bank board and a nonprofit, and a mentor to many people. When she was a young lawyer, a senior partner gave her a job that he never would give to a man. In fact, in the past, the task had been carried out by the wives of male associates — organizing the annual firm party, which everyone called “The Prom.” Asking her to do it was pure sexism. My wife did it and did not complain. In the process of organizing the prom, she did the seating chart. Through it, she learned who got the seats of power, who would not sit near whom, and over a five or so year period, she saw partners and associates go up and down in power based on where they were seated.
She also learned who complained about every little thing, who was reasonable, who was gracious — and which spouses (mostly wives of senior male partners) were helpful, versus sexist and insulting. She also wielded some power, as she was able to make decisions about where people sat — within constraints. This role made her visible in the firm, and most importantly, she developed a very fine-grained sense of the power structure, which helped her to become the first part-time partner in the firm’s history, to grow the firm’s then tiny Silicon Valley office into a profit powerhouse, and (with Mary Cranston) to become the first women to run a top 100 law firm.
Bob’s key takeaway? “Some crap work is just crap, but some can have quite a silver lining.”
While I’m glad it worked out well for Marina, I’m deeply disappointed in the aforementioned senior partner who couldn’t look past her gender and probably underutilized her talents for years. I’m struck by the applicability of another quote from Bob, published in his book The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t:
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The difference between how a person treats the powerless versus the powerful is as good a measure of human character as I know.