Blame the leadership industrial complex.

Do you ever wonder how Google, or Amazon, seem to know what you’re interested in before you even typed in a search term or keyword? Or even in the analogue world why it is that you might get a different cover story on your favourite magazine than your next door neighbour?

Answer: we are the midst of an absolute revolution in customisation — the ability to target highly-tailored products and services to individuals.

We’ve gotten it all backwards.

But now compare all this to how your boss works with you. Do you feel like your boss is customising her interactions with you? The assignments you’re given, the motivational techniques employed, and day-to-day work you jointly engage in. The sad truth is that despite living in a world where a focus on customers has permeated virtually every part of how successful organisations operate, the one holdout is management.

I blame the leadership industrial complex. How many managers have taken various assessments designed to identify their “leadership style”? Armed with this information, along with exhortations to be “authentic” and to be who you are as a leader, we’ve actually created a world optimised to enable non-customisation. These leaders fulfil the destiny set by their styles, regardless of whether it makes sense for their team members.

We’ve created a world optimised to enable non-customisation from bosses, writes Sydney Finkelstein (Credit: Alamy)

We’ve created a world optimised to enable non-customisation from bosses, writes Sydney Finkelstein (Credit: Alamy)

You might be thinking, “there’s lots of customisation going on in my job, but it’s all me trying to figure out how to deal with my boss”. And that’s the problem. We’ve gotten it all backwards. Test me and tell me I’m a “directive” or “relationship-oriented” leader, and I now have license to do what my instincts tell me, regardless of what is best for the people on my team. That feeling of entitlement means everyone’s got to adapt to me, military-style, rather than the other way around.

A better way to lead

On a day-to-day basis, the best bosses customise their general teaching style to fit the individual.

“He didn’t react the same way to everyone,” saxophonist Bill Evans said of jazz great Miles Davis. “Everyone was different and personal to him, and that is one of the things that he was able to do . . . get to know each person and what each person needed. Some people he would be harder on than others. He was interesting in that way.” Of hedge-fund titan Julian Robertson, protégé Chase Coleman said, “He was very good at understanding some combination of what motivated people and how to extract maximum performance out of people. For some people, that was encouraging them, and for other people, it was making them feel less comfortable. He would adjust his feedback.”

Has the leadership industrial complex swallowed your boss? (Credit: Alamy)

Has the leadership industrial complex swallowed your boss? (Credit: Alamy)

While other bosses will certainly go the extra mile for their reports on occasion, superbosses possess a clear commitment to personal and informal career development that is far from the norm. Many large companies conceptualise careers in terms of “ladders” that define a standardised upward path for employees and managers. To get to a certain point on the ladder, you have to go through the intermediary rungs one by one.

Sophisticated companies go even further, deploying rigid “competency models” to help groom executives for advancement; they figure out the key skills required for a given position, evaluate whether employees have these competencies and provide training or coaching to “fill in the gaps”.

The superboss approach is a bit messier and more chaotic.

While ladders and competency models bring value, as it’s obviously helpful to advance people in a graduated, orderly way, the superboss approach is a bit messier and more chaotic, giving worthy employees opportunities to advance rapidly and in line with their true capabilities.

Employees as customers

The best bosses, whether the CEO of a company or a lower-level line manager, deploy an approach to development that is closely tailored to the individual needs of each protégé. It’s the difference between buying a car off the dealer’s lot and customising your Mini Cooper online. The customised car fits your life better because it’s made for you — it has exactly the features you want, and nothing (or very little) you don’t want.

Customised development of talent requires a lot more effort. As one former player noted of legendary US football coach Bill Walsh, he “put in the extra work to figure out each of his player’s personalities and what drove each.” Customised development also requires fearlessness, a willingness to depart from the fixed “road map” and the ability to make an unorthodox decision that might just be perfect for one particular person.

Do modern managers fail to see you as an individual? (Credit: iStock)

Do modern managers fail to see you as an individual? (Credit: iStock)

For example, one manager I know credits much of his subsequent success to a boss early in his career who moved him to a bigger assignment in Japan, where he didn’t speak the language or have any particular cultural knowledge. It wasn’t the “standard” next step, but it pushed him to raise his game and gain a level of confidence that continues to this day.

The Mini Cooper comparison is apt. Great bosses regard protégés not as generic employees but as individual customers whose needs must be served. Imagine an organisation where leaders take it upon themselves to identify exactly what customers need and then create appropriate ways of delivering it.

Replace “customer” with “employee,” and that’s just what the best bosses do to help people advance in their careers. To a much greater extent than other bosses, superbosses create suitable opportunities for employees that fit their developmental needs, rather than slotting employees mindlessly into an existing, bureaucratic system. The employee as customer—what a strange idea!

Sydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of The Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His new book is Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, 2016). You can learn more at www.superbosses.com.

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