“Give me your wackos.” Those were Jeff Bezos’s reported instruction to his original executive search firm when starting Amazon.)
In his new book, Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent, Dr. Sydney Finkelstein doesn’t speak specifically about Jeff Bezos, but I suspect he would well understand and approve of Bezos’s sentiments. Finkelstein states,
“In any industry, superbosses seek out unusual qualities most bosses don’t even think about. Superbosses don’t want just the candidates whose skills enabled them to score high on some test; they want candidates whose abilities are so special, no one would think to test them. If a candidate seems to have what the superboss is after, he won’t hesitate to overrule human-resources specialists. The superboss‘ quest for superstars will override everything else.”
Sydney is the Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Tuck Executive Program at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. His book Superbosses is a good read, though I do have a couple of cavils.
Finkelstein defines a superboss as “a leader who helps other people accomplish more than they ever thought possible.” They are leaders who delegate and place faith in their hires, even when the projects assigned are mission critical to their firms. They aggressively delegate meaningful and important work to their reports, their junior executives, and their employees. They know their hires will fail occasionally and they accept that. Furthermore, they create a nurturing cultural ambience that is supportive of managerial courage and thoughtful, creative risk. Superbosses put time into interaction with their employees–often working with them on the job and mentoring directly on projects, as well as giving direct feedback. They know their proteges first hand. He cites the old Reagan dictum: “Trust, but verify.” Finkelstein’s revision for superbosses is “Observe, coach, and trust. And then verify.”
The idea for Superbosses came out of Finkelstein’s avocation as a gourmet and foodie. He noticed that his friend Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, seemed to generate an exceptionally large group of successful acolytes. He started to research this and found that, indeed, the people who worked for Waters, including sous chefs, waiters, bakers and even busboys, went on to enormous independent success as chef/entrepreneur/owners.
From there Sydney interviewed hundreds of business leaders over a ten year period, looking for those who personally and culturally generated what he calls “trees of talent.” He focuses on 18 of these business leaders. These really marvelous examples are of people like Larry Ellison, John Stewart, Lorne Michaels, Ralph Lauren, Michael Milken, Roger Corman, and even Miles Davis, to mention a few.
Two of my favorite models of Finkelstein’s superbosses are Norman Brinker of Brinker International and Bill Walsh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers football team. Brinker was what Finkelstein calls a “hands on delegator.” He notes Brinker often would show up at his restaurants and bus tables with his employees He didn’t hesitate to share stories about his own mistakes and failures with his associates, helping create a fearless, through-branded culture. In the case of Bill Walsh, while he retired in 1989, the coaches trained by him still led 20 of the 32 teams in the NFL last year! Pretty amazing.
My favorite insight from Sydney is that the exceptional leaders he documents–leaders who create “trees of talent”–are confident enough to hire subordinates who are better than their bosses are. He says, “Superbosses take chances on people, and tolerate more churn if it means finding the right people later.”
I could not agree more. Though I do not consider myself a superboss, my own philosophy is to hire only people better than myself at my firm Corporate Rain International and turn ’em loose. Within the context of a deeply imbued service culture, I only want “bosses” working for me–bosses who can efficiently bring their best talents and full passion to their job without micromanagement. And that includes the receptionist. (If you want to read more on this subject, try my Inc. column of August 29, 2016. [“Why Giving Your Employees Autonomy is Crucial to Business Success”]
So bravo to Sydney Finkelstein. His book Superbosses is an impeccably researched, truly useful and actionable guide for leaders wanting to create “trees of talent.” While I do have a minor quibble or two (Sydney can be a bit didactically repetitive with some of his writing), this book offers an original, accessible, and learnable new way to approach HR and leadership development.
I like what Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatich & Saatchi Worldwide, says on the back of Superbosses. To wit, “This book could make some bosses angry–and that’s a good thing. Finkelstein’s examination of what actually makes a legendary leader goes against the grain of much standard management ‘best practice’ and offers a whole new way to think about talent.” Well said, Kevin. Thank you.