What superbosses do to energize talent – and bossy bosses don’t
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Wix brought in $200 million worth of noodles in 2015 and is looking for more (screenshot, YouTube)

Wix brought in $200 million worth of noodles in 2015 and is looking for more (screenshot, YouTube)

These are their habits

Tech in Asia

“Why would a person want to wait until he is on his deathbed before starting to eat right and exercise?” asks Sydney Finkelstein, professor of management at the Tuck School of Business and author of a new book published this week, titled Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent.

Sydney’s question is rhetorical and also a dig at Harvard Business School’s John Kotter.

John Kotter’s eight-step model for Leading Change has become a bible on leadership, and Sydney acknowledges there’s much to learn from it. But its basic premise hinges on creating a “sense of urgency” for change. It advocates creating a “burning platform” within the organization for pushing change initiatives. What that implies, argues Sydney, is change can only happen when a company is seen to be in dire straits, faced with a new, challenging business environment. His own 10-year-long research on great leaders suggests they don’t wait to feel such a sense of crisis – their organizations are “built to change” – they’re proactive about change, rather than being reactive to tough times.

“Superbosses never get to the crisis point envisioned by Kotter because they are constantly growing and evolving in an organic way. They lead the change in their industry,” writes Sydney, who is listed in Thinkers50, a global ranking of management gurus, which includes the likes of Michael Porter, Clayton Christensen, and, well, John Kotter.

Image credit: PR

Image credit: PR

The habits of superbosses

It makes you stop and think when two of the world’s top management gurus have such a fundamental difference in perception on leadership. It’s a reminder to always apply one’s own mind in adapting management mantras to different contexts and people.

The superbosses Sydney describes in his book are never formulaic in their approach. They are first and foremost true to themselves, and so what they do comes naturally to them. At the same time, we can learn from the traits and practices that make them super successful as bosses, whatever the leadership role we have. It can also help us assess the leaders we follow with high hopes they will make us grow. The book comes to our aid by distilling the habits of superbosses. But first, who are these superbosses anyway?

Sydney is eclectic in his choice. The superbosses he’s identified come from different walks of life: Oracle founder Larry Ellison; Intel co-founder Robert Noyce; billionaire investor Julian Robertson, who founded Tiger Management; chef and restaurateur Alice Waters, who pioneered the farm-to-table movement for fresh, local food; American football coach Bill Walsh; jazz musician Miles Davis; newspaper editor Gene Roberts; Star Wars creator George Lucas; fashion designer Ralph Lauren, and nine others: 18 in all.

What does such a diverse bunch of leaders have in common?

Grow a “tree of talent”

They spawn talent. Julian Robertson seeded a constellation of Tiger Cubs, who were once his proteges, including Chase Coleman of Tiger Global Management. In 2008, the year after Bill Walsh’s death, coaches once trained by him led 26 of the 32 teams in the NFL (National Football League). Gene Roberts produced 17 Pulitzer Prize winners in his 18 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. The pattern repeats in superboss after superboss. They stand head and shoulders above their peers in growing a “tree of talent” – that is, the leaders they nurture, in turn, build up new cohorts of talent.

To Sydney, this aspect of leadership is what’s most important for organizations, and yet it has found scant attention in business schools and management literature. In an earlier bestseller,Why Smart Executives Fail, he had examined why even seemingly intelligent leaders fail to adapt to changing business conditions. Studies by McKinsey and others showed that most workers are unhappy and unengaged, despite scores of HR best practices. Companies had got too caught up with close-minded strategies, processes, and metrics to see the one thing that would make the biggest difference: the personalized attention that brings out the best in each individual and encourages them to be curious and creative, take risks and make mistakes, and continually adapt to change.

Sydney contrasts this with the archetypal bossy boss – “Donald Trump-style personalities who crack the whip and push employees to their limits.”

Bossy bosses “lord it over their reports, standing as remote, godlike figures, people to be admired but never, ever equaled,” the book points out.

Get in the trenches

“Superbosses can be fierce or gentle, belligerent or self-deprecating, but whatever their style,” writes Sydney, “they do a much better job inspiring and teaching, because they get in the trenches with proteges, leading by example and giving them the personalized attention they require. Bossy bosses may achieve great personal success for a time, but eventually they lose it all as their house of cards collapses. Superbosses enjoy more lasting success and they also spawn a generation of proteges who become movers and shakers in their own right.”

Ahem, that’s a statement many organizations would do well to put up next to their mission statements to create happier, kickass workplaces – and I use “kickass” in its positive sense of being creative and wonderful.

What I like most about the book is that it puts people above management strategies. There’s no better way to learn about leadership than by studying what makes leaders succeed or fail. Of course, it’s still a matter of interpretation what exactly makes superbosses tick, and you may not agree with everything Sydney sees in them – but it’s a good starting point to think differently about attracting, nurturing, and leading great talent. And nothing is more important to any organization – especially in the fast-changing world of digital innovation – than its talent.

Editing by Paloma Ganguly and Terence Lee

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia

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