How to Lead Like a Superboss

By Sydney Finkelstein Mar 30, 2016
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syd_finkelstein_superbosses.jpgWhat do football coach Bill Walsh, restaurateur Alice Waters, television executive Lorne Michaels, technol-ogy CEO Larry Ellison and fashion pioneer Ralph Lauren have in common? On the surface, not much, other than consistent success in their fields. But below the surface, they share a common approach to finding, nurturing, leading and even letting go of great people. The way they deal with talent makes them not merely success stories, not merely organization builders, but what I call superbosses.

After 10 years of research and more than 200 interviews for my new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016), I discovered that superbosses exist in nearly every industry. If you study the top 50 leaders in any field, as many as one-third will have once worked for a superboss.

While superbosses differ in their personal styles, they all focus on identifying promising newcomers, inspiring their best work and launching them into highly successful careers—while also expanding their own networks and building stronger companies.

Among the practices that distinguish superbosses:

  • They create master-apprentice relationships. Superbosses customize their coaching to what each protégé really needs, and also are constant founts of practical wisdom. Advertising legend Jay Chiat not only worked closely with each of his employees but would sometimes extend their discussions into the night.
  • They rely on the cohort effect. Superbosses strongly encourage collegiality even as they simultaneously drive internal competition. Lorne Michaels set up Saturday Night Live so that writers and performers are judged by how much of their material actually gets on the air, but they can’t get anything on the air without the support of their co-workers.
  • They say goodbye on good terms. Nobody likes it when great employees quit, but superbosses don’t respond with anger or resentment. They know that former direct reports can become highly valuable members of their network, especially as they rise to major new roles elsewhere. Julian Robertson, the billionaire hedge fund manager, continued to work with his former employees who started compet¬ing hedge funds, and he often profited by investing in them.
  • They adapt the job or organization to fit the talent. Bill Walsh changed the way his teams played football in order to find the best use for new talent. Jay Chiat remade his whole advertising agency to make the most of the capabilities that an account-planning expert brought to the table.
  • They take chances on unconventional talent. Larry Ellison preferred candidates who had accomplished something genuinely difficult over those with formal qualifications. If they were gifted enough, he believed, they would rise to the technical challenges.
  • They look for new talent pools. Bill Walsh started an internship program in the NFL for minority coaches, allowing participants a fast track into the NFL and himself a chance to tap into a vast new source of talent.

By sharing the stories of superbosses and their protégés, my book explores the phenomenon of how each of us can emulate the best tactics of exceptional leaders to create our own powerful networks of extraordinary talent.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and the director of Tuck’s Center for Leadership. He is also the author of eight previous books, including Why Smart Executives Fail (Portfolio, 2003).

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