In the process, he examines the protégés and careers of leaders like legendary football coach Bill Walsh, who launched the careers of so many future NFL coaches; fast casual dining pioneer Norman Brinker, whose employees went on to found many similar restaurant joints; and fashion magnate Ralph Lauren, who helped along designers ranging from Joseph Abboud to Vera Wang.
But don't get the wrong idea, Finkelstein says: "superbosses" are not necessarily nice, generous mentors. Rather, they tend to be motivated by their own goals, whether it's to win, improve their legacy, or better their own work or their own art. We spoke with Finkelstein about what we can learn from these "talent spawners." The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How'd you come up with the idea for the book?
I’m really into food. All kinds of restaurants. There was an article I was reading that showed a graphic of a famous French chef -- I wish I could remember who it was -- which talked about all his sous chefs and former sous chefs. It graphed out this tree, of how everybody went on after a period of time and worked at all these other really great restaurants, who used to work for this great chef.
I thought 'that’s really kind of cool,' and I wondered whether that’s true anywhere else, so I started to poke around. I wanted to know who’s the best of the best, and that’s what got me to [Chez Panisse chef and founder] Alice Waters. The evidence is pretty overwhelming -- the number of chefs and bakers and restauranteurs who worked for her.
I'd also heard stories in the past about [former San Francisco 49ers] coach Bill Walsh, and how he had a lot of former assistant coaches that had become head coaches. It turned out to be an overwhelming number. For everyone else, there was considerably less.
You saw it in food, you saw it in football. How did you turn that into an idea for a book?
To me it was an absolutely fascinating pattern to see. I don’t think most people think that’s the way the world works. There are so many people in so many industries. The fact that one person could have such a gigantic influence on the development of top talent in an industry -- I found that to be very, very interesting.
So how do you define the term?
A superboss is a leader who helps other people accomplish more than they ever thought possible. Those people who accomplish more than they ever thought possible become incredibly capable and as a result, become highly sought after leaders in their own right.
That’s the most counterintuitive part of what I found. The best people will want to move on to bigger and bigger responsibilities. It would be great if you were growing enough as an organization to keep all those people. But they want to run the show. They want to create a new business. They want to be the CEO. Why do we run organizations as if we have control over what people do for their entire careers?
If you know that the best people are going to go at some point, then why not create an organization that doesn’t try to optimize on talent retention, but optimize on talent flow?
And superbosses think about this differently?
For example, Tommy Frist, who was the longtime CEO of Hospital Corporation of America, ended up spinning off and creating all these businesses. He was a very entrepreneurial guy, and he would create an opportunity with an individual in mind. That worked for him--he knew [the protégé] was ready to go on to something better, but he stayed in his orbit.
You see it in comedy, too. Lorne Michaels -- he's now executive producer of the Jimmy Fallon show, the Seth Meyers show, he invested in Tina Fey for 30 Rock. You’re going to lose some of those people. But you want to lose them because it makes room for other great people.
Many General Electric executives under Jack Welch went on to lead companies elsewhere. Was Jack Welch a "superboss"?
No, I would not list him as one. GE and PepsiCo and some of these companies we used to call "academy companies," they bore me quite a bit. GE has had very mixed results from a lot of people who came out of the Jack Welch era. I was more curious about the individuals and not the company [they worked in]. That’s what makes it so much more teachable, or learnable. If you read about GE or McKinsey as an individual, how are you going to recreate that yourself?
Superbosses, as you define them, are not all these nice, generous types. How do you categorize them?
This is another thing I think is important. A lot of people throw around the word mentor, but it's such a common word now that it doesn’t have a ton of meaning. I think we throw it around way too much. What superbosses do is just on a different scale. When I look at who these people were, I tried to figure out what their motivation was. So that's what the three categories are based on.
You have people like [Oracle chairman and founder] Larry Ellison, who are really tough, cutthroat characters. They are not easy to deal with. They have giant egos. These are the "glorious bastards." What motivates him is winning. He wants to win and he wants to win above all else. One of the things he understands is if you want to win, you need to have the world’s best teams, and that’s the big driver. He’ll do everything he possibly can to find great people.
"Nurturers" are the ones we might think about more often. Why do they care about doing this? Because they care about legacy. They enjoy the fact that they are helping other people advance their careers.
The third category are the creative types -- I call them "iconoclasts." Miles Davis is the most unusual of those examples. These are people who become real magnets in and of themselves. They attract really good people to become part of their circle who want to keep learning, and because they want to learn too, they end up teaching other people at the same time. For them, the motivation comes out of the natural activity of performing and creating--whatever their art happens to be. It's almost a natural outgrowth.
But what really distinguishes these folks from those who are simply a good manager? Is it the diaspora they produce? That they inspired so many other people to go on to lead others?
That's the evidence. When you go and look at who’s been a significant figure in an industry you do see this outsized influence. While good bosses do some of the things super bosses do, they very seldom do so many of them. Secondly, they don’t go as deep, they don’t go as far. It's one thing to be a mentor and provide a little guidance, but the degree of involvement of a super boss with someone on their team is much more intense and long-lived than the typical mentorship experience.