Almost every employee or team member can remember that one special boss in their career who was the role model of a leader, always commanded respect, and was able to get the most voluntarily from everyone all the time. Every entrepreneur and business executive I know wants to emulate that boss, but most can’t even describe the attributes required.
They know these exceptional leaders seem to have a way of finding and enticing the best people into the organization, getting exceptional performance out of them, and fast-tracking their careers both inside and outside the organization. In my opinion, great examples in today’s entrepreneur world include Elon Musk (Tesla), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Richard Branson (Virgin Group).
I’ve also struggled trying to define the characteristics that set these bosses apart, so I was impressed with the classic book, “Superbosses,” by Dartmouth professor and consultant Sydney Finkelstein. Here is just a small selection of the sometimes counterintuitive practices he observes that I believe are common to this level of leadership:
- Create master-apprentice relationships. These leaders not only recognize team members who have high potential, but they willingly and selflessly customize their coaching to what these special protégés really need. Great leaders provide opportunities and personal growth assignments that go far beyond conventional training programs.
- Measure by relationships as well as competitiveness. Exemplary business leaders understand the cohort effect, where peer relationship building is as important to winning as knowledge and power. Good connections and team building are the keys to success. They mentor protégés on talent spotting, creativity, and motivation as well as strategy.
- Encourage employees to move on to new opportunities. Nobody likes it when great employees leave for a new challenge, but the best leaders don’t respond with anger or resentment. They know that former direct reports can become highly valuable members of their network, and new business partners as either rise to new major roles elsewhere.
- Adapt the job or organization to fit the talent. In today’s rapidly changing world, it makes sense to focus on the talent you have at the moment rather than tasks. Twitter and GrubHub are just a couple of examples where CFOs have been asked to absorb COO responsibilities in the last couple of years, to capitalize on individual strengths.
- Take chances on unconventional talent. Larry Ellison (Oracle) preferred a candidate who had accomplished something genuinely difficult over one with formal qualifications. If they were gifted enough, they would rise to the technical challenges. This is a win-win approach, since it often helps people accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
- Always searching for new talent sources. The best business leaders never wait until a position opens up to start searching for talent to fill it. They are always on the lookout for talent by peer networking, studying competitors, and working with top university contacts. The goal is to always have a backup plan to facilitate incumbent growth opportunities.
- Willing and able to hire on the spot. A few top business leaders seem to have the insight to recognize exceptional talent, and the confidence to go after it, without resumes and extensive interviews. I don’t recommend this approach to new entrepreneurs until you have a few successes under your belt from conventional hiring approaches.
- Accept high talent turnover as a sign of success. It makes sense to assume that highly talented people will be in demand, and will want new challenges, so expectations of long-term job commitments are not realistic. Great bosses capitalize on fresh new perspectives, the lure of no career constraints, and the benefits of a supportive network.
Especially in this new world of millennial values and rapid market change, every business leader and entrepreneur should aspire to this imperative of nurturing exceptional talent, and forgetting the tired old assumptions about retention and churn. Maybe then you can be the superboss you always wanted to see again.