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Superbosses

Are you having trouble hiring that 5-10 year A/E/Env professional? I know you are. Besides my personal experience at such futality I was just reminded of this plight at the ACEC April conference CEO Roundtable discussions.  So, you are not alone.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could put your near entry level staff in a time machine and have them exit with ten years experience? What if I tell you that you have such a device?  And that device is in your control.

Rather than spending hundreds of management hours and tens of thousands of dollars on recruiters have you compared this to accelerating skill development and boosting authority of your younger staff.

But first, allow me to tell you a story about how my bosses encouraged me in my younger years as an A/E/Env professional.

In Sydney Finkelstein’a piece in the Harvard Business Review, the Secrets of the Superbosses,

There’s one thing that distinguishes these business icons from their equally famous peers: the ability to groom talent. They didn’t just build organizations; they spotted, trained, and developed a future generation of leaders. They belong in a category beyond superstars: superbosses.

I started researching this cohort of managers a decade ago, when I noticed a curious pattern: If you look at the top people in a given industry, you’ll often find that as many as half of them once worked for the same well-known leader. In professional football, 20 of the NFL’s 32 head coaches trained under Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers or under someone in his coaching tree. In hedge funds, dozens of protégés of Julian Robertson, the founder of the investment firm Tiger Management, have become top fund managers. And from 1994 until 2004, nine of the 11 executives who worked closely with Larry Ellison at Oracle and left the company without retiring went on to become CEOs, chairs, or COOs of other companies.

Eager to learn the secrets of these star makers, I reviewed thousands of articles and books and conducted more than 200 interviews to identify 18 primary study subjects (definite superbosses) and a few dozen secondary ones (likely superbosses). I then looked for patterns—common tastes, proclivities, behaviors—anything that might help explain why these people were able to propel not only their companies but also their protégés to such great heights.

I found that superbosses share a number of key personality traits. They tend to be extremely confident, competitive, and imaginative. They also act with integrity and aren’t afraid to let their authentic selves shine through.

But far more interesting (and more important for teaching purposes) were the similarities I saw in the “people strategies” that superbosses employed. Their remarkable success as talent spawners was not the result of some innate genius. These leaders follow specific practices in hiring and honing talent—practices that the rest of us can study and incorporate into our own repertoires.

Unconventional Hiring

Superbosses begin by seeking out unusually gifted people—individuals who are capable not merely of driving a business forward but of rewriting the very definition of success. As Lorne Michaels, the longtime producer of Saturday Night Live, has said, “If you look around the room and you think, ‘God, these people are amazing,’ then you’re probably in the right room.” Here’s how he and others do it.

Focus on intelligence, creativity, and flexibility.

Superbosses value these three attributes above all others. C. Ronald Blankenship and R. Scot Sellers, both protégés of real estate guru Bill Sanders before they became CEOs of leading property companies themselves, remember how Sanders would brag about bringing in so many people who were “four times smarter” than he was. He would insist that if you weren’t going to hire someone great, you shouldn’t hire anyone at all.

Superbosses begin by seeking out unusually gifted people.

Superbosses want people who can approach problems from new angles, handle surprises, learn quickly, and excel in any position. Norman Brinker, the casual-dining innovator who founded Steak and Ale, was a good example. As Rick Berman, who worked under him before founding a successful lobbying firm, recalls, Brinker “wasn’t a fan of hiring people to play first base; he just wanted to hire a good baseball player.” That emphasis on versatility helped give rise to a generation of top leaders in the restaurant industry, including the CEOs of Outback Steakhouse, P.F. Chang’s, and Burger King.

Find unlikely winners.

Superbosses consider credentials, of course, but they’re also willing to take chances on people who lack industry experience or even college degrees. According to Marty Staff, who worked for Ralph Lauren before becoming CEO of Hugo Boss USA, Lauren once made a runway model the head of women’s design “for no other reason than she seemed to get it—she got the clothes.” At health care giant HCA, Tommy Frist sometimes set even physical therapists on a path to the C-suite, simply because he spotted something in them.

Because they reject preconceived notions of what talent should look like, superbosses often show greater openness toward women and minorities. Mary Kay Ash, in fact, expressly designed her company to empower women, holding sales conferences where the message was “If she can do it, so can I.” Walsh started a fellowship program in the NFL for minority coaches, giving participants a fast track into the league and himself a chance to tap into a vast new source of talent.

Superbosses often dispense with the conventional interview process, too; instead, they pose unusual or quirky questions or use observation as a tool. When Ralph Lauren met with job candidates, for example, he would ask them to explain what they were wearing and why. Sanders would invite prospects to hike a 7,000-foot peak on his New Mexico ranch with him and other managers. “We learned a whole lot about these kids on the hikes,” recalls Constance Moore, who worked for Sanders at Security Capital before becoming CEO of BRE Properties. “After, we would all sit down and talk about each of them and figure out which ones we wanted to ask to join.”

Adapt the job or organization to fit the talent.

Superbosses opportunistically tailor jobs and sometimes even their organizations to new hires. As an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Bengals, Walsh had to invent a new offense to enable the backup quarterback to excel after an injury brought down the team’s starter. Because the second-stringer had more accuracy than arm strength, Walsh designed an unusual strategy around short passes—which later became known as the West Coast offense (when Walsh was with the 49ers). Lorne Michaels lets his ensemble’s ideas and abilities constantly shape and reshape their contributions to Saturday Night Live. Writers sometimes become performers, and performers or assistant directors sometimes become writers. At Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’s employees didn’t even have job descriptions. They were assigned tasks on various projects according to what was needed and who was available. All these examples run counter to traditional HR practices, but they reflect an innovative mindset that superbosses bring to virtually everything they do.

Accept churn.

Smart, creative, flexible people tend to have fast-paced careers. Some may soon want to move on. That’s OK with superbosses. They understand that the quality of talent on their teams matters more than stability, and they regard turnover as an opportunity to find fresh stars. Consider how Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks reacted when, in 1997, his second in command, Richard Allen, was asked to become the head of National Geographic’s for-profit arm. Hendricks would have loved to have kept Allen but never tried to hold him back, realizing that he’d rather have a friend leading his rival than anyone else. “It was a real indication of his generosity of spirit,” Allen says.