Many books have been written about talent, applying everything from common sense to psychology to Big Data, but nobody has studied those few individuals who, with their seemingly strange, idiosyncratic practices, grow human capital better than anyone else. We desperately need new approaches to nurturing people so that they’re primed for success and are in turn driving the success of managers and organizations.
Superbosses, exceptional and colorful as they are, offer wisdom that all of us can apply to build meaningful careers for others. And when we help others make their way, the benefits we reap are equally great. What could be more fulfilling than knowing that we’ve helped others achieve their dreams? What could be more satisfying than having legions of protégés proclaim to the world that we mattered?
Getting People Who “Get It”
It isn’t easy for superbosses to recruit the kind of people they are looking for. To pull it off, they frequently must be willing to take a chance on unconventional backgrounds and qualifications.
Somewhat surprisingly, superbosses in technology-based industries—where employees must meet exacting standards—are just as fond of recruiting employees with unconventional qualifications as superbosses in more creative industries.
Many superbosses make a special effort to extend their search for new employees into groups that other companies have overlooked. Bill Walsh started an internship program in the NFL for minority coaches, allowing participants a fast track into the NFL and himself a chance to tap into a vast new source of talent. Jay Chiat was one of the first in advertising to regularly hire women and minorities to creative positions. This was not because he was trying to achieve greater social justice but because he saw these groups as a new pool of potential all-stars.
Superbosses also tend to be extremely opportunistic in their hiring. Constantly searching for outstanding new blood, they will jump at the chance to scoop it up whenever and in whatever form they find it. There are many stories of superbosses setting out to recruit one sort of employee and returning with a completely different one. Bill Walsh went to Kansas to check out a promising quarterback, but his attention was drawn to the quarterback’s roommate, who was catching passes as the quarterback demonstrated his throw. Walsh said no to the quarterback and drafted the roommate instead, even though Walsh’s own scouts thought it was a bad idea. That receiver was Dwight Clark, who became a 49ers legend.
Motivating Exceptional People to Do the Impossible
The first thing to know is that all superbosses, even the more supportive Nurturers, drive their people exceptionally hard. “Everybody knew that Bill demanded results,” said Ronald Blankenship, president and CEO of the Verde Group and longtime associate of Bill Sanders, “and if you were going to work with him, you needed to be prepared to make that the primary focus in your life.”
Victor Campbell, senior vice president at Hospital Corporation of America, remarked of Tommy Frist: “You were expected to get done what needed to get done and get it done in a timely fashion.”
Comedian Andy Samberg remembers that after working for Lorne Michaels at Saturday Night Live, acting in movies was a “cakewalk.” “The pressure doesn’t really seem that high. You’ve dealt with this thing that’s SNL, which is just this crazy, intense, beautiful pressure cooker.”
Superbosses don’t want merely strong performance; they expect world-class performance. As one protégé remarked of Larry Ellison, his great strength was “to make exceptional people do the impossible,”
accomplished in part by setting the impossible as a clear goal. As Carmen Policy, former president and CEO of the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns, remembered, “Bill Walsh came to the 49ers with a hunger, a vision, and a strong desire to do more than just ‘coach’ the team. He wanted to create a dynasty.”
Bill Sanders wanted his real estate investment company to have the national footprint and reputation of Goldman Sachs, so anything less than extraordinary effort from his staff just wouldn’t cut it. “One of the things Sanders taught me,” said Don Suter, former managing director at Sanders’s Security Capital Group (SCG), who went on to become CEO of M3 Capital Partners, a multibillion-dollar real estate investment and advisory company, “was if you are going to be in the service business, if you are going to have clients or investors, good is not good enough. . . . Perfect is good enough.”
Few leaders have mastered how to make change happen consistently over an extended period. Superbosses, operating in plain sight, have figured it out. Ultimately, a superboss doesn’t construct his organization around a specific framework or formula
Instead, superbosses embrace a mind-set of change, within the framework of their unyielding vision. That mind-set leads in turn to the welcoming of creative people into the company, to shared experiences that reinforce openness, to an ingrained culture of openness, and ultimately to a track record of sustained innovation and growth.
If you’re a boss and you’re clear about your nonnegotiable vision, then why not commit yourself to declaring open season on changing all that is negotiable? Sit down with your team and have everyone write down three major assumptions behind a strategy, initiative, or project you’re currently working on. Don’t be surprised if you and your team members write down different assumptions. What you’re really signaling is that it’s okay to examine, compare, and challenge how you go about doing what it is you do. You and your colleagues will find there may well be multiple ways of approaching a problem that are equally valid. The implicit message here is that no singular rationale for how something is done is sacred. And anything can be changed if something better comes along.
Masters and Apprentices
Today, most good bosses spend time teaching and mentoring the employees who work for them. They keep lines of communications open, ask questions designed to impart wisdom, accompany employees on sales calls, visit them on the front lines, and offer valuable advice. Superbosses, however, take such laudable practices much further than even the typical “good” boss does, effectively raising the bar. By apprenticeship-style management, I’m talking about workplace relationships that are more sustained, all-encompassing, intense, and intimate than the best traditional corporate “mentorships.”
Although the boundaries of these relationships may be unspoken or undefined, superbosses take much deeper personal responsibility for the growth and development of employees than conventionally good bosses do, and apprentices in turn expect far more in the way of attention and instruction than their counterparts at other organizations. And they receive this attention and instruction, often by working with superbosses on a daily basis. Of course, they don’t work only with superbosses; again, it’s not that rigid or formal. Leonardo da Vinci would hardly have been able to accomplish what he did if all his time was spent with Verrocchio.
Like any apprentice, protégés of superbosses need time to interact with colleagues and to acquire know-how, but they also need time to be alone, practice what they’ve learned, and invent their own ways of doing things.
The Hands-On Delegator
Superbosses are able to constantly and rapidly propel their protégés to new heights because they are the consummate delegators, relinquishing a degree of authority and oversight that would make many ordinary bosses cringe.
What superbosses also do to support the learning experience is to hold protégés strictly accountable for their performance. In superboss organizations, the rule is clear: Sink or swim.
That said, superbosses aren’t unfeeling tyrants; they will let you fail once—but you better learn from that mistake.
With so much responsibility on their shoulders and a clear sense of accountability, not to mention the trust of their superboss, protégés come away feeling a sense of their own power and worth, as if they are more like partners than subordinates.
Networks of Success
Perhaps the most meaningful thing superbosses do to show affection is actively promote protégés’ careers. Behaving like benevolent godparents, all the superbosses have recommended protégés for new jobs or even made phone calls on their behalf to inquire about job opportunities elsewhere. Bill Walsh is well known for this. If he heard that a college was seeking a football coach, he “wouldn’t just make one call; he would make ten or fifteen. Lots of coaches are the exact opposite—they will not be looking out for the best interests of their people.”
A shining example of superbosses who catapult former protégés into new jobs are Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Clintons are known for spawning dozens, even hundreds, of prominent figures in politics and government. Many superboss networks are informal in nature, but the Clintons’ was at least partially codified during Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign, taking the form of an Excel spreadsheet that charted both supporters and traitors to the cause.
The Clintons have not hesitated to vigorously support politicians and others who have supported them, including many former employees who have gone on to seek political office or other positions on their own. Leaving politics aside, there’s no question this network creates value for superbosses and protégés alike.
Superbosses and You
Superbosses have cracked the code on how to make organizations work better by designing a playbook that helps people accomplish more than they ever thought possible in their careers, or their lives. By studying the superbosses and what they do, we now know how genuinely unusual talent comes to populate an organization. We know how to motivate and inspire people, how to energize people, and how to give people the confidence to believe they can make things happen.
We know how to unleash the creative potential of people at work—or in any organization—and understand the great things that happen when you do so.
We know how to create an organization that is built to change.
We know how to craft a different type of relationship between bosses and employees, one that is built on apprenticeship, opportunity spotting, and learning.
We know how to fashion teams that are like bands of brothers and sisters, and not just transactional work units.
And we know what it takes to become a talent magnet whose network of protégés continues to create social and economic value long after they’ve moved on to new challenges.