What happens when you interview hundreds of people over a 10-year period from industries as night-and-day as fashion and cooking, finance and comic books, and tech and television, to find out the best on-the-job practices of great bosses?
You get insight into what author Syd Finkelstein, management professor at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business, calls superbosses. In his latest gem, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, Finkelstein says such leaders know that the foundation for any organization to thrive is to help their people develop into other superbosses.
The superboss list:
Here's the list of superbosses in Finkelstein's book. After reading below about the attributes that superbosses supposedly have, should all 18 names be on this list?
- The late Bill Walsh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
- Fashion magnate Ralph Lauren.
- Alice Waters, founder of California's chic Chez Panisse restaurant.
- Saturday Night Live TV producer Lorne Michaels.
- Intel co-founder Robert Noyce.
- Restaurant format designer Norman Brinker.
- Advertising legend Jay Chiat.
- Filmmaker Roger Corman.
- Jazz musician Miles Davis.
- Oracle CEO Larry Ellison.
- Hospital Corporation of America co-founder Tommy Frist.
- Star Wars creator George Lucas.
- The late Kraft Foods CEO Michael Miles.
- Milken Institute founder Michael Milken.
- Kuopio Symphony Orchestra conductor Jorma Panula.
- Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Gene Roberts.
- Hedge fund titan Julian Robertson.
- Real estate developer Bill Sanders.
Yes, there's an explanation for the near absence of women on that list. Finklestein says it's because "women have only recently become executives in large numbers. Only a handful of women bosses have produced a chain of protegés."
There are, however, notable mentions of women superbosses throughout: In addition to Alice Waters, he mentions chef Julia Child, singer Lady Gaga, former Texas governor Ann Richards, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, the late cosmetics titan Mary Kay Ash, former Snapchat chief operating officer Emily White, and television magnate Oprah Winfrey to name a few.
The on-the-job practices of superbosses.
Finkelstein suggests there are five attributes of superbosses:
1. They have extreme confidence in their abilities and are fearless in pursuing their ideas.
2. They are highly competitive.
3. They are inquisitive and imaginative.
4. They have impeccable integrity in sticking to a core vision or their own values.
5. They are authentic: in their daily interactions with others, "they let their personalities hang out."
So how do these superboss attributes play out?
According to Finkelstein, here's how these attributes are manifest in the superboss playbook.
- They do anything to win and raise the bar for employees.
- When recruiting talent, they look not only for skills and competence, but also for smart, creative, and versatile people who can teach their managers new skills.
- They lead through direct coaching and mentorship.
- They care about their direct reports by paying close attention to them, and helping support their development as they progress along a career path.
- They take chances on people and tolerate a phase of turnover if it means they'll find the right fit down the line.
- They drive their people (and themselves) hard to get results, and they expect world-class excellence. But they do so by inspiring their people with huge aspirations.
- They create an environment where it's safe for people to experiment with new ideas, even if they fail. This is possible only through a culture of collaboration, respect, encouragement, and support among teams.
- On the flip side, they also promote healthy and fierce competition among team members under their leadership.
- They're open to change and consider all options, even those that come from their subordinates. If it works, superbosses will consider it and move forward.
- They employ an apprenticeship model where less experienced, high-potential talent receive shadowing, mentoring, and exposure to the way they work and to other leaders (called "masters") on the team.
- They are great teachers, always looking for opportunities to transfer knowledge.
- They downplay executive perks.
- They walk their four corners, constantly scanning the scenery for people with unique strengths, gifts, and talents who can take on more responsibility.
- They are exceptional networkers, keeping close contact with people who have moved on to other organizations.
- They set the stage for each manager to have plenty of challenges and opportunities to make a big difference.
- They create an open environment where creativity is possible.
Bringing it home.
The point of the book is to replicate a competency model of superbosses for culture change in your current or future company.
In the Harvard Business Review, Finkelstein says if you look at the top people in a given industry, you'll often find that as many as half of them once worked for the same well-known leader.
For example, nine of the 11 executives who worked closely with Larry Ellison--a superboss at Oracle--left the company and went on to become superboss CEOs, chairs, or COOs of other companies.
Back to the list: Do you agree that these leaders are truly superbosses?