When a well-respected national retailer asked us to facilitate a two-day talent review with their senior team, we stepped in eager to help them prepare for their future. Like many successful companies, this one clearly understands the crucial role its people play in making the organization exceptional, and we were impressed by their rigor and discipline in the realm of talent management. On the final afternoon, our conversation turned to a small set of people they called “Emerging Enterprise Talent” – folks so promising and precious that the executives all shared a commitment to bet on their future and collectively “own” their development.

“Those Opportunities are Likely Insufficient”

When the discussion focused on what they could do to accelerate this group’s growth, the leaders proposed a wide range of educational and experiential activities: executive programs, rotations, exposure to the Board, etc. Their eyes turned our direction for approval. “All good,” we responded, “but likely insufficient. If you want our honest opinion, the shortest, most certain path to actualizing potential is simply this: make sure each has a really great boss. And if they don’t, move them now!”

From their reaction, it appeared we had suggested something radical. A bit of uneasy laughter followed; after all, some of the people in the room were the bosses in question. Although this particular senior team sees the necessity of grooming terrific leaders, it seems safe to say they hadn’t fully considered how the relationship between an employee and his or her boss could make all the difference in accelerating talent development or leaving it dormant.

In fact, pairing a rising star to a terrific boss may be the most important developmental “opportunity” a company can provide. This requires, however, that an organization has terrific bosses they can offer.

The Problem of the Just-OK Boss

The “Be a Better Manager” industry is, by all accounts, flourishing. Every organization worth its weight is trying to gain competitive advantage through the identification and cultivation of great leadership, and, for over 40 years, we’ve been in the mix helping organization do just that. There are innumerable resources on the subject: books, conferences, speakers, tools, courses, coaches and gurus. But is any of it actually making a difference?

Our conclusion, after decades of study and work that has allowed us to cross paths with tens of thousands of people who’ve chosen (or have been forced) to be someone’s boss, is that growth at the far positive end of the spectrum is not in line with the increasing number of resources available. All the extraordinary attention that has been placed on cracking the code of effective leadership hasn’t necessarily translated into a far greater number of extraordinary leaders.

Without a doubt, the stories of very bad boss behavior have been shrinking over the decades (less yelling, fewer acts of intimidation); however, we think that the overall ratio of good to poor remains relatively unchanged.

Bad bosses are still abundant and impressively destructive – they leave scars and can even do some permanent damage to the people they lead. Their impact has been researched well, and their prevalence in popular culture – most office-based comedy involves a “bad boss” – suggests that the “Bad Boss” is a universally-recognized experience. In an oft-quoted 2012 State of the American Workforce Survey, Gallup reported that the number one reason people quit their job is because of their boss. If you really want to stomp out potential, assign your up-and-comers to one of these.

Yet most bosses fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum – neither very good nor very bad – and from the perspective of actualizing talent, these bosses are generally value-neutral.

Defining the Best Boss

Great bosses, on the other hand, while relatively rare, tend to have an extraordinary impact on the lives of those they lead. Further, their leadership qualities are relatively easy to spot, and remarkably consistent. In 2013, in partnership with us at Vantage, Lead Well conducted a survey asking leaders for stories about their best bosses. They analyzed the results and came away with five dimensions that were present in almost all “Best Boss” stories:

  • Leading from a higher purpose and operating from a values-based/servant mentality
  • Acting as an advocate, recognizing potential in individuals and driving them to cultivate it
  • Building a foundation for autonomy by establishing business expertise and clear performance expectations
  • Consistently providing timely, constructive and respectful feedback
  • Encouraging risk-taking and learning – especially from mistakes

These qualities may come out in different ways when described by leaders thinking back on their Best Boss, but regardless of how it’s phrased, the impact they have in accelerating an individual is clear. In sum, all the typical “investment” in talent development might not be as catalytic as a couple of years working for a great boss.

Let us know what you think.

Have you the opportunity to work for a great boss? When making decisions about High Potentials, how often does your organization think about the role of each individual’s boss?