Friday, April 8, 2016

Superbosses

There are bosses. Then there are a few superbosses.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. He is the author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin 2016).


Based on a decade of research, a review of thousands of articles and scores of books, and over 200 interviews, the book concludes that in a given industry, as many as half of the top people once worked for the same leader.

20 of the NFL's 32 head coaches trained under Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers.

In hedge funds, dozens of proteges of Julian Robertson have become top fund managers.

Between 1994 and 2004, 9 of the 11 executives who worked closely with Larry Ellison at Oracle and left the company without retiring went on to become CEOs, Chairs, or COOs of other companies.

Besides being extremely confident, competitive, and imaginative, these star makers exhibited certain similarities in nurturing and honing talent.

First, superbosses tend to adopt very unconventional hiring practices. More than a set of attributes or credentials, they look out for unusually gifted people. Superbosses often dispense with the conventional interview process. For example, when Ralph Lauren met with job candidates, he would ask them to explain what they were wearing and why. Since they reject traditional notions of what talent should look like, superbosses show greater openness toward disadvantaged sections of society.

Second, superbosses opportunistically tailor jobs and even their organizations to new hires. At Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas's employees don't even have a job description. They are assigned tasks on various projects based on what is needed and who is available. Such examples are contrarian to traditional HR practices, but they reflect an innovative mindset in everything that the organization does.

Third, superbosses accept churn. They realize that quality is more important than stability. They regard employee turnover as an opportunity to find new stars. When Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks found out that his second in command, Richard Allen, was asked to become the head of National Geographic's for-profit arm, Hendricks did not try to hold Allen back. He argued that he would rather have a friend leading his rival than anyone else. Superbosses demonstrate such generosity in abundance. As a result, they rarely need to recruit, because their reputations bring a continuous stream of talent to them.

Fourth, superbosses demand extraordinarily high performance ("Perfect is good enough"), provide extraordinary autonomy, encourage rapid growth for stellar performers ("forget competency models"), and perhaps most importantly, stay connected with their people even after the latter have left. In other words, superbosses employ practices that set them head and shoulders above even the best traditional bosses.


Professor Finkelstein concludes that we can all become better at nurturing talent, creating higher-performing workforce and, ultimately, more dynamic and sustainable businesses and industries.

A must-read for anyone interested in personal growth and mastery.

Note: The article on Superbosses appears in the January-February 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review. The book is available in Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback, and MP3 CD formats from Amazon.

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