How To Be A Great Boss

Adapt the job or organization to fit the talent


Christian Stadler

3 years ago | 4 min read

Steve Jobs was an iconic leader, but would you like to work for him? He was ready to fire people on the spot, expected everyone to understand his ideas, and occasionally humiliated people publicly if they did not. In short, he struck fear into his subordinates.

Steve Jobs (Photo by Noah Berger/Bloomberg News)

A great boss has to not only achieve outstanding results, but we also expect him to help us realize personal goals and fulfillment. In his new book Sydney Finkelstein, a professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, studied leaders with a particular focus on the latter.

His Superbosses are able to identify and develop some of the greatest talent in their industry. For example, dozens of top fund managers previously worked for Julian Robertson the founder of Tiger Management Corp and 20 of the NFL’s 32 head coaches had a connection to Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers.

Finkelstein offers counter-intuitive ideas to explain what set these bosses apart from others. I want to discuss three particularly interesting suggestions.

Adapt the job or organization to fit the talent

Finkelstein’s Superbosses don’t stick to traditional HR practices. Rather than finding people who can excel in a particular job that needs to be done, they are prepared to adapt the organization to fit the talent of their employees. Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live for example allowed the members of the show to change their roles and contributions.

Directors would sometimes contribute to the writing, writers occasionally became performers, and performers in turn will help with the directing. While it is easy to see how that works well in creative industries, Finkelstein’s most compelling example is from sports. During Walsh’s time as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals his quarterback got injured. His replacement had great accuracy but less strength.

To accommodate this, Walsh developed an unusual tactic around short passes which became known as the West Coast offense when he coached the 49ers.

How such an approach will add to the performance of more conventional companies is not immediately obvious. But if you bear in mind that companies have to constantly change anyway, it makes sense to focus on talent rather than tasks.

Shell, one of the organizations I studied intensively for example, developed a rather unusual criterion to evaluate talent. The ‘helicopter approach’ referred to the ability to zoom in and out of a problem to understand the wider implications of an issue at hand. While technical skills also mattered, this ability to become a helicopter set those apart who made it to the very top. Opportunities were found to fit the specific talent of an employee.

Organizations typically face a wide variety of challenges. This provides them with the flexibility to find the best spot for their talent rather than the other way round. The question you need to ask yourself is simple: is it easier to find great people or deal with one particular issue?

Find unlikely winners

Conventional application processes usually turn out conventional candidates. Nothing wrong about hiring from Harvard and Stanford, but as Finkelstein notes, Superbosses go further. They are prepared to spot talent in places where others don’t look. Ralph Lauren for example hired a runway model once to head Women’s design for no other reason than ‘getting it’, i.e. having a true feel for clothes.

Similarly Tommy Frist, from health care giant HCA, spotted talent in unlikely places and set even physical therapists on a path to the C-suite.

A big advantage of such openness is that the talent pool becomes much wider. In a recent article I wrote about the entrepreneurial talent of immigrants. Their talents are easily overlooked – particularly if they don’t have conventional qualifications.

A great opportunity to hire unspotted talent or those who are prepared to look for unlikely winners! Same goes for minorities and women, where Finkelstein noted, for example, the determination Mary Kay cosmetic’s founder to develop female talent and the firm’s compelling slogan: “If she can do it, so can I.”

If we accept that we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, the obvious implication is that we can benefit from greater diversity in our companies. More diversity means that a greater variety of solutions will emerge and hence a greater chance to deal with whatever a company faces. Conventional hiring will not get you this.

Be a master

In my work on companies which survived and thrived for more than 100 years, I took a keen interest in their leaders. Were they any different from leaders in less successful competitors? One of the most surprising insights was that they were typically not charismatic superstars. They were company men and women, who had a great understanding of their industry and an ability to reach out. Cor Herkstroeter, the leader of Shell in the mid-1990s, started a great transformation journey.

But rather than doing anything radical – such as centralizing a company dominated by country subsidiaries – he only initiated a series of workshops helping people to be less bureaucratic. More radical steps were only taken when the time was right under his successor Mark Moody-Stuart.

The oil price had dropped below 10 dollars and the industry went into panic mode. Shell employees were prepared to make changes now and Herkstroeter’s program had laid an important foundation. He had started the discussion, involving people throughout Shell.

Shell’s journey highlights the ability of leaders to understand their own limitations and the willingness to get others involved. Finkelstein finds something similar for his Superbosses when he notes that they give people the freedom they need. But he also points at a more intimate role they play as mentors, more alike to the master-apprentice relationship you find in a traditional artisan workshop.

HCA’sFrist, for example, tutored subordinates when he took them on his plane to company events. The key, according to Finkelstein, is to strike the right balance between involvement and autonomy. Superbosses get that right.


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Christian Stadler







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