Superbosses don't just build successful companies. They also spot, train, and cultivate the next generation of exceptional leaders.
That's according to Sydney Finkelstein, professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, who identified this category of über-manager for his new book, Superbosses. He noticed that in almost any given industry--from entertainment to football to food to software--you can find "trees" of talent. The trunk of the tree is a venerable, well-known leader. And the branches of that tree are all the younger leaders who once trained with the "trunk" leader--some as formal protégés, some as standard employees--before branching out to lead their own organizations.
For example, Alice Waters, founder of the renowned Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, has fostered an entire generation of award-winning chefs. In the National Football League, 20 of the 32 head coaches trained under Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, or one of Walsh's direct protégés. And in the world of big business, from 1994 until 2004, nine of the 11 executives who worked closely with Larry Ellison at Oracle went on to become CEOs, chairs, or COOs of other companies.
What's more, Waters, Walsh, and Ellison haven't been the only talent cultivators in their respective fields. In the NFL, for example, Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells also spawned plenty of present day talent. In the world of hedge funds, dozens of understudies of Julian Robertson, founder of investment firm Tiger Management, have gone on to become top fund managers themselves.
Having detected the pattern, Finkelstein recognized he had potentially hit on a powerful solution to a perpetual problem for companies large and small: finding talent. "Companies are not too good at this," he says. "Ask them about their challenges, and finding talent is at the top of every list."
Despite all the books and articles devoted to talent, Finkelstein wondered why no one, to his knowledge, had studied the approaches of superbosses, "who with their seemingly strange, idiosyncratic practices, grow human capital better than anyone else," he writes. Hungry to learn more, he conducted more than 200 interviews and read extensively about superbosses. His goal was to explore the practices superbosses use to hire and hone talent--practices his students and readers could apply to their own organizations.
Here's a short list of those practices:
1. Superbosses make room for others to shine--and they enjoy doing so. Specifically, they celebrate the success of their understudies. Instead of feeling jealous or threatened, they take pride in the role they played in guiding a raw talent from obscurity to renown and respect.
In the book, one of most compelling examples is legendary trumpeter Miles Davis, who spawned an entire generation of musical talent, including Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Keith Jarrett. As Finkelstein notes, shortly after Davis recruited the relatively unknown Coltrane, Coltrane began developing a huge following of his own. Instead of feeling threatened by it, Davis was energized by it. He even kept Coltrane in his band when the latter was struggling with a heroin addiction.
2. Superbosses approach hiring in an unconventional way. Finkelstein tells the tale of how Paul Bertolli, the executive chef at Chez Panisse who'd learned the ropes from Waters, once interviewed a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. He flicked the applicant's résumé off the table and instead began asking her questions such as: "Where did you eat yesterday?" and "What books do you read? Not necessarily cookbooks." One month after this interview, Chez Panisse called her and asked her to come in for a tryout.
The episode is salient, in Finkelstein's view, for a few reasons. First of all, it wasBertolliwho did the hiring--meaning Waters's hiring practices had spread to her understudies. "The extraordinary practices that define superbosses and contribute to their success are teachable," writes Finkelstein.
He suggests that leaders resist the urge to hire or eliminate job candidates on the basis of their on-paper credentials. Be open to "diamond in the rough" candidates who might not have the ideal résumé. And don't be afraid to veer from a duties-oriented interview script to talk about life in general.
3. Superbosses are unusually accessible to their employees. Michael Miles, the former CEO of Kraft Foods, was a master of nurturing consumer-marketing talent. His understudies became the CEOs of Mattel, Young & Rubicam, Gillette, Sears, Heinz, Hershey Foods, Quaker Oats, 3M, CVS, and Campbell Soup.
One of the keys to Miles's success was an almost insatiable habit of making himself available. He habitually had lunch with employees several rungs below him in the hierarchy--and he did it in the employee cafeteria, so everyone could see. His office door was always open. And every morning, he picked a younger employee at random and asked him or her to come to his office for an hourlong talk.
These talks revealed Miles' depth of knowledge about his employees. "His questions were very direct, very pointed," John Tucker, a longtime Kraft executive, told Finkelstein. "It was like taking a final exam."
4. Superbosses work as hard as anyone in the organization. Many superbosses model their passion for the job through their own extraordinary work ethics. Tucker told a story about routinely reaching the office at 6:30 each morning--only to find that Miles was already there.
The two of them became tacitly competitive about who would arrive first. One day, when Tucker arrived at 4:30, he thought he had won--until he saw the headlights of Miles's car. "He got out of the car and just smiled at me," Tucker told Finkelstein. "Both of us knew exactly what was going on."