Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent
“Superbosses aren’t like most bosses; they follow a playbook all their own.
They are usually intense and passionate – eating, sleeping and breathing
their businesses and inspiring others to do the same.” Sydney Finkelstein
A good boss leads their team. A superboss builds an army of new leaders
Superbosses can be fierce or gentle, belligerent or self-deprecating, but they do a much better job inspiring or teaching their people because they get in the trenches with their protégées, lead by example and give staff the personal attention they require to move up quickly. That’s the view of business consultant and professor of management Sydney Finkelstein, who spent ten years researching what it is that makes someone a superboss.
Interviewing successful former employees of fashion pioneer Ralph Lauren, musician Miles Davis, and chef Alice Waters from the legendary Chez Pannisse has led Finkelstein to the conclusion that while they may have different characteristics, they all approach their leadership roles in similar ways. Protégées of Jay Chiat from advertisers Chiat Day even set up a website posthumously to capture the life lessons, drama, creativity, and friendships of their time (some good, some bad) spent working with him. Many of the 200 interviewees described their teams as like a cult. Designer Joseph Abboud described working with Ralph Lauren as “It was very much like a cult. You wanted to be part of it. Ralph was our hero. We believed the myth: we dressed the myth. We were the legions.”
Finkelstein defines superbosses as:
- Being passionate, with a clear vision for themselves and their team
- Looking fearlessly for talent and interviewing candidates in colourful ways – on the lookout for new staff all the time and asking seemingly random questions to make their hiring decisions
- Creating impossibly high work standards that push protégées to their limits – while still caring about the individual and establishing deep emotional connections. Designer Jeff Banks, another Lauren protégée, describes his relationship as “almost like having a second father. He cared about me; he cared about my development as a person.”
- Engaging fully in mentoring and coaching, spontaneously, like the time-honoured hands-on approach of masters and apprentices
- Lavishing responsibility on inexperienced protégées, taking risks that may seem foolish to outsiders
And when the time is right, superbosses often encourage star talent to leave. They are not afraid of loosing a skilled performer but embrace the move so that they can become part of their strategic network.
To help assess your own leadership style, and see how you can learn from the superboss approach, Finkelstein suggests ten questions to ask yourself:
- Do you have a vision for your work that energises you and that you use to energise your team?
- How often do people leave your team to accept a bigger offer?
- Do you push your team on only formal goals or more?
- How do you, and how do you get your team, to question assumptions about the business?
- How much time do you usually spend coaching employees?
- Do you ever put employees in challenging roles they may fail? And how do you manage the risk?
- How much affection or connection do your team members feel? Do they socialise? What is the balance between competition and collaboration?
- Do you stay in touch with employees who have left?
- Have any former employees gone onto notable careers elsewhere? How many?
- How much time is spent developing individuals rather than getting the job done?
We have hopefully all benefited from working with a brilliant boss at one time or another who believed in us and were willing to spend time supporting us. Is it now time to pay it forward? Not only for our own satisfaction but because a highly engaged, fully motivated team is surely the holy grail in team leadership.
About the author
Sydney Finklestein 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 in New Hampshire, US. He is a consultant and speaker to senior executives around the globe, as well as an executive coach, focusing on talent development, corporate governance, learning from mistakes, and strategies for growth. He has published 11 previous books, including the Wall Street Journal bestseller Why Smart Executives Fail. He is listed in Thinkers50, the world’s most prestigious ranking of leadership gurus.
“This book could make some bosses angry—and that’s a good thing. Finkelstein’s examination of what actually makes a legendary leader goes against the grain of much standard management “best practice” and offers a whole new way to think about talent.” Kevin Roberts, executive chairman, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide
“A smart leader surrounds himself with smart people. Through his book, Superbosses, Sydney shows the surprising ways leaders actually find, develop, and grow a team of curious, talented individuals.” Millard Drexler, chairman and CEO J.Crew Group
“Superbosses is the rare business book that is chock-full of new, useful, and often unexpected ideas. After you read Finkelstein’s well-crafted gem, you will never go about leading, evaluating, and developing talent in quite the same way.” Robert Sutton, author of Scaling Up Excellence and The No Asshole Rule
Author: Sydney Finkelstein