Great bosses can lead a team to do great things. They can also help their employees develop their skills and grow into larger roles. But the better-than-great "super boss" knows how to create a network of successful protégés through effective mentoring and a knack for generating talent.
Sydney Finkelstein, professor of management and faculty director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, wrote a forthcoming book, Superbosses: How Great Leaders Build Unstoppable Networks of Talent. Finkelstein explains in the Harvard Business Review the most influential traits of the superboss.
He started doing research, conducting interviews and then identified dozens of these talent-generating bosses: restauranter and mother of the farm-to-table food movement Alice Waters, media mogul Oprah Winfrey, legendary Kraft CEO Michael Miles, San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, fashion's Ralph Lauren, SNL's Lorne Michaels, and the the Daily Show's Jon Stewart.
Pinpointing the secrets of what makes these leaders so successful, Finkelstein says it comes down to one thing: "Although their personalities varied, these bosses all demonstrated an unusual, even legendary ability to develop the best talent in their industries," he says. "If you take the top fifty most prominent or influential people in many industries, just one or a few top people mentored a disproportionate share of that talent."
Finkelstein points out that Lorne Michaels helped bring a long, generation-spanning group of comics who have become almost more prominent than Lorne himself. His protégés include the likes of Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Fallon. And Jon Stewart, who will be leaving the Daily Show this week, has built his own mini-empire of talent who have also gone to greater success once they left his show--Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Ed Helms, and Rob Corddry.
The reason superbosses are so effective in building talent is because of a set of common practices, Finkelstein says:
"They are unusually intense and passionate--eating, sleeping, and breathing their businesses and inspiring others to do the same. They create impossibly high work standards that push protégés to their limits. They are geniuses at motivation, inspiring people to do more than they ever thought possible. Remarkably, they can be intimately involved in the detailed work their people are doing, while at the same time lavish responsibility on inexperienced protégés, taking risks with them that seem foolish to outsiders," he writes. "They encourage the creation of strong, emotional bonds and loyalties between protégés as well as between protégés and themselves."
Taking a closer at Stewart--considering we will all miss his sarcastic yet strangely serious hybrid of comedy, journalism and political satire--Finkelstein found Stewart's key to generating talent. Instead of keeping talent submerged under a hierarchy of seniority, Stewart threw new members into the mix right away.
"Stewart expected new performers to step up to the challenge from their very first day," Finkelstein says.
He created a fertile environment where talented people could collaborate and work together, instead of competing against one another or bogged down by office politics and titles. The goal was to make the best show possible by relying on everyone's strengths.
"Many of us aim for financial or professional success. Stewart achieved both by helping others to build their careers and realize their full potential. He unleashed a generation of humorists to entertain, amuse, and infuriate us," he says. "What we'll ultimately miss most about Stewart may not be his take on current events. It's his take on talent."