How You Can Become A “Superboss"
Think back on your career: Was there ever a boss who recognized your special talents and truly believed in your potential? If you’re among the fortunate ones who has known that kind of leadership, you can easily recall how he or she inspired and motivated. You experienced first-hand the transformative power of talent development that goes far beyond mentoring…
Now consider your performance as a boss: Do your leadership practices exert the same inspirational, motivational effect on others? Are you effecting the same kind of career-transforming effects that meant so much to you?
Some leaders — simply because of long-held beliefs and unwavering values — are committed to selecting and developing “high talent” protégées to achieve their optimal performance. These leaders successfully encourage similar talent development by managers at every level in their organizations — resulting in a visible and sustained focus on people.
Talent Development: A Leader’s Highest Priority?
Developing an organization’s talent — consistently and systematically — may be (and arguably, should be) the single most important contribution a leader makes. Important for the employees, important for the organization and — as a result — essential for the bottom line. Unfortunately, leaders possessing the crucial skills to systematically identify, cultivate, nurture and inspire exceptional talent are not common.
An in-depth Gallup survey* reported that only 18% of managers have a “high talent” for leadership skills — such as establishing accountability in the workplace, motivating workers and building relationships with them. (*“Managers With High Talent Twice as Likely to be Engaged,” April 2, 2015 — from Gallup’s “State of the American Manager” report.) That research also identified a smaller group (just one in 10 managers) possessing "the unique blend of innate characteristics that Gallup has found to be predictors of management excellence, including the motivator, assertiveness, accountability, relationships, and decision-making talents."
Introducing the “Superbosses”
For the past 10 years, Sydney Finkelstein (the Steven Roth Professor of Management at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business) has been studying extraordinary leaders. He defines these characteristics in his new book, “Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Nurture Talent to Achieve Market Domination.” (Portfolio/Penguin, February 2016)
Professor Finkelstein researched leadership career patterns and organizational structures — developing a keen eye for spotting subtle trends in the aggregate talent-development data. He noticed patterns in the talent structure of specific industries — often observing that unexpected numbers of industry leaders all had worked at one time or another for the same type of powerful individual — a “superboss.”
His curiosity aroused, Professor Finkelstein engaged in “reverse-engineering” the character traits that define these superbosses. What was it that made these exceptional leaders capable of casting such long shadows of influence? (Impacts that often continued long after a formal top-down relationship had ended.) As Professor Finkelstein put it, he sought to go beyond the superstars themselves — to find the “secrets” of these “star-makers”.
The Leadership Link Between Talent Development & Value Creation
The exceptional leaders Professor Finkelstein identified constitute a diverse group — including Jon Stewart, Alice Waters, Loren Michaels, Ralph Lauren, Larry Ellison, Miles Davis and a dozen others. (Note: A table showing the diverse industry groupings of these superbosses is available here.) Aside from their shared drive to excel, these personalities could hardly be more different. To a person, however, these masterful talent developers are leaders who produce cumulative, sustainable financial results — not only for their organizations, but for entire industries.
A cause-and-effect linkage between talent and financial performance/value-creation intuitively makes sense. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), however, went beyond mere assumptions — by surveying more than 1,260 CEOs and HR directors at 85 global companies. Its research quantified self-reports on leadership and talent management across six categories: strategy; leadership and talent model; talent development; people sourcing; engagement; and culture. Among BCG’s key findings: self-rated “talent magnets” increased revenues 2.2x faster — and profits 1.5x faster — than “talent laggards” did. (Source: bcg.perspectives "The Global Leadership and Talent Index: The Smart Way to Improve Capabilities—and Create Value" March 16, 2015)
In effect, BCG quantified and confirmed what superbosses have known all along: Superior talent-development practices are very good for business.
Superboss Leadership Characteristics
Professor Finkelstein conducted hundreds of interviews — and defined three general, but not mutually exclusive, superboss categories:
Professor Finkelstein’s research also isolated characteristics that are common to all three superboss categories. Among these shared traits: a commitment to make others successful and to groom the next generation of leaders by inspiring and motivating them. When this talent-development commitment is coupled with creativity, flexibility, and a fearlessness in advancing their agendas, superbosses lead their teams on adventures that define careers — and sometimes shape entire industries.
More “Apprenticeship” Than “Mentorship”
To be clear, these superbosses are not “just” mentors. Their pervasive influence goes far beyond mentoring — and enters into a relationship more akin to that of a master and apprentice. Formally or informally, these talent masters create customized programs for their hand-picked apprentices, with an express focus on maximizing the performance of each of these protégées. Superbosses push their teams, as well — empowering these groups to break the molds of conventional practices for managing and influencing others.
Apprentice Requirements: Stamina, Discipline, and Results
The chosen ones — those talented staff members identified as having “the right stuff” — must affirmatively sign on for the challenging journey ahead. Although their superboss may ease a new recruit’s transition by granting them early “observer status” in an unfamiliar situation, such honeymoon periods rarely last long. A more typical apprentice experience? Immediate and active exposure to difficult and complex problems — where an apprentice is pushed hard to achieve extraordinary results for themselves and their organizations. The demands are great. Discipline is instilled. Loyalty and accountability are demanded. Complacency and misbehavior are not tolerated. Supportive participation in a high-performance team is required and cultivated. Results are measured — and exceptional performance is an unapologetic expectation.
Not surprisingly, these stringent requirements are too rigorous for some. But those apprentices who truly understand the unique gift offered to them will dig deep to meet the challenges, and will continuously embrace the opportunities and learnings. Many go on to great personal and professional successes, leading first-rate organizations or re-inventing longstanding industry practices. These talented protégées report personal achievements beyond what they believed they were capable of — and they desperately do not want to disappoint their superboss. For some, the deep loyalty and affection for their superboss still lingers — and the personal relationship continues — even decades later.
Talent Development’s “Dark Side”
Not every superboss relationship ends amicably, of course. After all, superbosses are driven by insatiable appetites for improvement and innovation — qualities that often don’t win popularity contests, even when that leader may be charismatic and committed. Sometimes, too, a master-apprentice relationship can be a victim of its own success — such as when a former protégé becomes an unfriendly competitor. Even with the fraying of a formerly close relationship, however, an apprentice often still holds the superboss in high esteem. Superboss bonds, it seems, aren’t easily broken.
Even so, any organization that actively recognizes and rewards a subset of high-achievers may be susceptible to “collateral damage” — from envious co-workers or disgruntled employees who simply can’t keep up. Those who are not “apprenticeship material” sometimes disengage — and choose not to hold themselves accountable — resulting in significant losses in productivity. (Gallup’s 2013 “State of the American Workplace” estimated the cost of “unhappy” workers at between $450-$550 billion annually in lost productivity.) At worst, jealous or jilted employees turn their energies to sabotage or other mischief-making, seeking to harm the superboss, his/her close associates, and sometimes the organization itself.
Yes, any organization will still have its share of “bad apples.” Despite state-of-the-art screenings, tests, and human resources interviews, “rogue” employees sometimes slip through. High-performance groups must be watchful of “sulkers” displaying aberrant behavior, delusions of grandeur, narcissism, and a general unwillingness to embrace the strategies and challenges that accompany any meaningful change. Experienced leaders take it as a given that the more ambitious their change-management initiatives, the more likely that second-string employees will dig in their heels — or actively engage in unethical behavior. Despite these age-old risks, however, effective leaders cannot allow themselves or the organization to be held hostage by internal troublemakers and naysayers; after all, there’s work to be done.
Leadership Playbook: Build Superboss Skills, Create a Superboss Culture
Throughout the book, Professor Finkelstein employs engaging and instructive stories that explain how uber-leaders have achieved an uncommonly widespread scope of influence. From those stories, he presents an approach that makes it possible for leaders in any organization and at any level to implement similar talent-development practices.
Developing those skills may seem a daunting — or even impossible. But take courage from the playbook Professor Finkelstein provides, which includes numerous guidelines for thinking and acting as a superboss. (Sometimes you have to be there before you get there.)
With diligent application of Professor Finkelstein’s practical approach, you may find yourself inspiring others as never before. In time, you will notice progress in how employees interact with you, perceive their capabilities, and approach their jobs. Becoming a superboss is “a marathon, not a sprint,” Professor Finkelstein counsels. So be focused, strategic, and patient.
Consider how even a slight improvement in your talent-development skills could influence your company’s culture and enhance the legacy you will leave. The people you manage, the organizations you serve, the industry where you practice your craft — each of these arenas is ready-willing-and-able to receive the benefits of your superboss skills.
The code has been cracked.
The playbook is ready.
So what are you waiting for?
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Note: For further information on “Superbosses,” read Professor Finkelstein’s recent blog post, “Secrets of the Superbosses,” in the January-February 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review. Or visit the “Superbosses” website.
Disclaimer: Christine Spadafor is a Visiting Executive at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, where she lectures with “Superbosses” author Professor Sydney Finkelstein. Ms. Spadafor is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Public Health. She is a former partner at BCG and other global management consulting firms, and served as CEO at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children — a nonprofit organization caring for abused and homeless children.
For more on Christine Spadafor, visit her personal website at www.christinespadafor.com.