“Employees of superbosses never watch the clock”

Larry Ellison as a Superboss

Superbosses take for granted that employees buy into their visions, writes Sydney Finkelstein in his book Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent.

This is one of those books that’s based on 10 years of research and countless interviews with very successful people, many of whom you’ll have never heard of. It is the most extensive and rigorous research project of its kind, as Finkelstein informs his reader early on.

I was expecting to find inspiration in a series of short tales of top leaders’ achievements, but the book does not work like that. Instead, Finkelstein mashes together all his research and illustrates his findings with stories culled from all over. The downside to this approach is that you have to remember a big cast of characters, as one minute you are on a football field, the next in a film studio, the next in a restaurant, and so on.

On balance, this approach works because there are many challenging ideas being shared. To continue the quote from the first sentence, Finkelstein writes that superbosses “don’t need to constantly monitor their employees to make sure they’re putting out their best – alignment with the vision does that naturally. Many [are] utterly riveted to their work so that almost nothing could tear them away.

“Joyce Goldstein… remembers that she was [at Chez Panisse] ‘from five in the morning till six at night. I worked six days a week. I inventoried on Sunday and I did the ordering for both restaurants… But I was in love with food. I discovered I loved the business and I never watched the clock.’

“Employees of superbosses never watch the clock and they’re not in it for the fame, the glory or the money. They’re in it because they see what the superboss sees. And it’s irresistible.”

Front cover of SuperbossesWhat is the take-away for Better Wholesaling readers? Finkelstein suggests that regardless of your position in an organisation, you have to craft a vision to energise your team. And then spend a lot of time communicating it.

All the superbosses do this, and Finkelstein notes three different types of superboss:

• ‘Iconoclasts’, such as film director George Lucas, jazz legend Miles Davis and fashion designer Ralph Lauren. People who are so “wholly fixated on their vision that they are able to teach in an intuitive, organic way”.

• ‘Glorious Bastards’, such as Oracle Corporation founder Larry Ellison or financier Michael Milken. Egotists who want to win, but perceive that the success of those around them is the pathway to glory.

• ‘Nurturers’, such as former FTSE 100 chairman and MP Archie Norman, American football coach Bill Walsh and KFC and Kraft Foods CEO Michael Miles, who are constantly present to guide and teach their protégés.

Finkelstein suggests that regardless of where you are in your career, you should study the businesses of these leaders, not least because “the protégés of the superbosses will usually determine where the industry is going next.”

Superbosses all possess extreme confidence (even fearlessness); they are competitive; they are visionaries; they show integrity, in the sense of a strict adherence to a core vision or sense of self; and they have authenticity, in that they are always ‘on’.

Whom do they hire? They hire people who ‘get it’, people who think differently, and people who are able to cope with change. Once recruited, these employees all drive their people exceptionally hard.

Finkelstein quotes Milken as saying: “I don’t think I should be criticised for working hard. Some people like to play basketball. Some like to play golf. I like to work hard.”

Later, Finkelstein writes that you have a choice when recruiting talent: hire and develop people who will reach a natural ceiling and keep them forever, or cultivate a new generation of talent that intends to surpass you and help them do it.

This book is for all those leaders who choose the second option.

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Nick Shanagher
As managing director of Newtrade Publishing Nick has over 20 years’ experience of covering retail markets, Nick helps shopkeepers and wholesalers of all sizes to think about what questions are important for themselves and their businesses, and to find answers that work in their shops.

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