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Secrets of the Superbosses

R1601J_BLAIRHere is an excerpt from an article written by Sydney Finkelstein for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Illustration: Kelly Blair

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What do Ralph Lauren, Larry Ellison, Julian Robertson, Jay Chiat, Bill Walsh, George Lucas, Bob Noyce, Lorne Michaels, and Mary Kay Ash have in common?

Certainly all of them are known for being talented and successful—even legendary—in their respective fields. All have reputations as innovators who pioneered new business models, products, or services that created billions of dollars in value. But there’s one thing that distinguishes these business icons from their equally famous peers: the ability to groom talent. They didn’t just build organizations; they spotted, trained, and developed a future generation of leaders. They belong in a category beyond superstars: superbosses.

I started researching this cohort of managers a decade ago, when I noticed a curious pattern: 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. In professional football, 20 of the NFL’s 32 head coaches trained under Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers or under someone in his coaching tree. In hedge funds, dozens of protégés of Julian Robertson, the founder of the investment firm Tiger Management, have become top fund managers. And from 1994 until 2004, nine of the 11 executives who worked closely with Larry Ellison at Oracle and left the company without retiring went on to become CEOs, chairs, or COOs of other companies.

Eager to learn the secrets of these star makers, I reviewed thousands of articles and books and conducted more than 200 interviews to identify 18 primary study subjects (definite superbosses) and a few dozen secondary ones (likely superbosses). I then looked for patterns—common tastes, proclivities, behaviors—anything that might help explain why these people were able to propel not only their companies but also their protégés to such great heights.

I found that superbosses share a number of key personality traits. They tend to be extremely confident, competitive, and imaginative. They also act with integrity and aren’t afraid to let their authentic selves shine through.

But far more interesting (and more important for teaching purposes) were the similarities I saw in the “people strategies” that superbosses employed. Their remarkable success as talent spawners was not the result of some innate genius. These leaders follow specific practices in hiring and honing talent—practices that the rest of us can study and incorporate into our own repertoires.

Unconventional Hiring

Superbosses begin by seeking out unusually gifted people—individuals who are capable not merely of driving a business forward but of rewriting the very definition of success. As Lorne Michaels, the longtime producer of Saturday Night Live, has said, “If you look around the room and you think, ‘God, these people are amazing,’ then you’re probably in the right room.” Here’s how he and others do it.

Focus on intelligence, creativity, and flexibility.

Superbosses value these three attributes above all others. C. Ronald Blankenship and R. Scot Sellers, both protégés of real estate guru Bill Sanders before they became CEOs of leading property companies themselves, remember how Sanders would brag about bringing in so many people who were “four times smarter” than he was. He would insist that if you weren’t going to hire someone great, you shouldn’t hire anyone at all.

Superbosses begin by seeking out unusually gifted people.

Superbosses want people who can approach problems from new angles, handle surprises, learn quickly, and excel in any position. Norman Brinker, the casual-dining innovator who founded Steak and Ale, was a good example. As Rick Berman, who worked under him before founding a successful lobbying firm, recalls, Brinker “wasn’t a fan of hiring people to play first base; he just wanted to hire a good baseball player.” That emphasis on versatility helped give rise to a generation of top leaders in the restaurant industry, including the CEOs of Outback Steakhouse, P.F. Chang’s, and Burger King.*Here is a direct link to the complete art

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management in Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and the author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, February 2016) from which this article was adapted.

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