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What makes a superboss super?

Image: Superboss.

In this Q&A contributing editor of our Strategy & Leadership journal Brian Leavy, asks leadership guru Prof Finkelstein what it is exactly that makes a superboss ‘super’ and finds out why it really is all about the people when it comes to leadership success.

In your latest book, ‘Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent’, you explore how ‘superbosses’ make the people who work for them more effective. Tell us more about the concept of a superboss.?

Finkelstein: “Superboss” is the word I invented to describe leaders who are exceptionally good at creating other leaders. Superbosses are leaders who help find and attract unusual talent and help them get to a level of success and accomplishment that many never even thought about or even thought possible.

They are in every walk of life, and they've found a solution to the single most important question CEOs have been asking themselves for decades – “How do I create an organization of leaders who can do anything?” This superboss approach is not the same as ‘team-building’ or ‘mentoring’, but something that transforms employees from talented apprentices to stars and superstars in their own right.

You found that the “great secret” of superbosses wasn’t who they are, but what they did. In terms of their approach to spotting and hiring talent, what are the qualities they typically prioritize and what are the hiring practices they follow?

Finkelstein: Superbosses are opportunity spotters, always on the lookout for great and unusual, talent. They don’t wait for talent to come to them – but are proactive in searching out people the way that some entrepreneurs search out business opportunities.

They put a high premium on people who are special, who ‘get it’. In practice, these are people who are willing to jump into an opportunity the superboss creates, work incredibly hard to make it happen and then come back asking for more. That’s not for everyone, but for high-aspiration people who want to have a big impact on their organizations, who want to make a difference, this is exactly what they’ve been looking for. That’s why millennials are so attracted to the superboss idea.

When it comes to motivating talent, superbosses see their ‘paramount job’ as injecting “a strong and unforgettable sense of possibility” in their workforce. How do they do this and why is it so crucial?

Finkelstein: Most people work today in a 24/7 world, always on, always working hard. Bosses push people and have high expectations. This is important, but it is only the first part of motivation.

What about energizing people to truly believe that they are making a difference? Why should people work so hard in the first place? Great motivators – and superbosses are great motivators – understand that work has to mean something for people to truly care.

The superbosses you write about take a distinct approach to coaching and mentoring. How does this differ from most conventional approaches and what are the primary benefits?

Finkelstein: In the corporate world, employees who seek to speak with their bosses normally attempt to “book time.” They might send an email to an assistant, and the resulting “meeting” occurs outside of the “actual work” being done. Such practices seem to bring bosses and employees closer together, but in reality they distance and control the degree of contact bosses have with staff. More than just making themselves available for meetings, superbosses are often in the thick of it with employees – not just for a half hour once a week, but regularly and informally. Superbosses often work side by side with employees, coaching them in unmediated ways.

What else makes up the “essence” of a ‘superboss’?

Finkelstein: The essence of the superboss phenomenon is the transfer of knowledge, wisdom and success from old to young – not just know-how, but also a way of thinking, even a way of life. At its core is an abiding respect that employees have for superbosses. Superbosses function as godparents – and employees appreciate this and feel grateful for it.

Finally, you highlighted how superbosses create a winning team through a powerful combination of collaboration and competition. How does this play out in practice?

Finkelstein: A unique quality of superboss companies is that employees compete with one another, but simultaneously they work together in a seamless and highly effective manner. Superbosses are skilled at creating these winning teams. They make a special effort to encourage collegiality, but also promote a strong competitive spirit. Many superbosses create a “cult-like” atmosphere in their organizations. They continually tell their employees that they are uniquely talented. They also convey that membership in this group means that they will set the standard for the rest of the industry. Superbosses do not shy away from publicizing their employees’ skills.

Find out more about this Q&A and Sydney Finkelstein’s book.

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