Leaders are talent magnets

regeneration skills

‘In our business, it’s very difficult to motivate people simply by money. You cannot,’ Vivek Singh, head chef and CEO of the Cinnamon Club restaurant chain, told us:

A chef might earn £20,000 a year. For that, he works forty, fifty, sixty hours sometimes, a week, in a very hot environment. If I was relying on money as a motivator, I would never be able to build a team. So we’re big on our values, what makes us different, what makes us unique, why do we do things differently? When we say ‘how about doing it like this?’ or ‘why are you doing it like this?’, the common answer is ‘because it’s easier’. Often that’s not the right answer, because if it’s easy, that’s not good enough.

I say to the guys, there’s two things I can give you. One is I can give you knowledge. Nothing is secret, everything is open. And I can give you respect.

For Vivek Singh developing the people in his team is core to his leadership. ‘You can grow yourself, you’re good, you follow instructions, you do things the way you’re told. But how can you have the same effect on the people below you, so we’re all constantly pulling and bringing people up? It’s a slightly different skill to growing yourself. But to bring other people up to the next level, that’s the challenge I see, from here onwards. It will be about those people who can spot talent and see the potential in something.’

Unconsciously, Vivek Singh was echoing the observation of that doyen of leadership thinking, Nicolo Machiavelli: ‘The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.’ He was right.

Talking to a Silicon Valley VC we asked what he was looking for when he met up with an entrepreneur with a fledgling business in need of investment. His answer was simple. He didn’t especially look for particular character traits or personalities. Experience had told him that all shapes and sizes of entrepreneurs with lots of different personalities succeeded and, anyway, gauging personality is notoriously difficult. What he looked for was who were the entrepreneur’s first hires. If they hired someone who looked to all intents and purposes out of their league this was a good sign. If they attracted a couple of unexpectedly great people even better.

We talked to David Pyott when he was CEO of Allergan, the company that brought Botox to the world, headquartered in Irvine, California. ‘A strong leader must surround him or herself with very strong people. We have a very strong management team. If people don’t keep growing, at some point they’ll be asked to leave and I think the board is the same. I’m not looking for an easy ride,’ said Pyott.

The entrepreneur Brent Hoberman (co-founder of lastminute.com) told us much the same:

You want to invest in amazingly smart people, and sometimes even if they’ve got slightly the wrong idea, one should just back them because they’ll get the right idea. They’ll pivot and find it. And I don’t think I’ve always been brutal enough in my investment strategy. Sometimes I could say, that idea is brilliant, I could see myself using it. But there have been a few good examples of where somebody else has made it happen, not the company I’ve invested in. That’s because the entrepreneurs probably didn’t have the passion, the tenacity. I look for people who are really savvy and sharp.

A key question is: what does employee number ten look like? Is the idea exciting enough that employee number ten is going to be a really exceptional individual?

A follow-up question, Hoberman suggests, is ‘Would I work for this person?’

And it is much the same with leaders. The best leaders attract great, talented people who want to change the world by working for the leader and the organization.

‘We look for a particular profile,’ Joe Jimenez, the CEO of Novartis told us. ‘Some scientists look at Novartis coming in from academia and they want to pursue the science, not necessarily to develop new drugs. We screen those people out. We want people to pursue being a scientist but we want people who fundamentally want to move from an academic environment to discover new drugs that will help patients.’

Describing the new breed of leaders, Warren Bennis observed:

They are connoisseurs of talent, more curators than creators. The leader is rarely the best or the brightest in the new organizations. The new leader has a smell for talent, an imaginative Rolodex, is unafraid of hiring people better than they are. In my research into great groups I found that in most cases the leader was rarely the cleverest or the sharpest. Peter Schneider, president of Disney’s colossally successful Feature Animation studio, leads a group of 1,200 animators. He can’t draw to save his life. Bob Taylor, former head of the Palo Alto Research Center, where the first commercial PC was invented, wasn’t a computer scientist. Max DePree put it best when he said that good leaders ‘abandon their ego to the talents of others.’

Not only do the best leaders attract the best, they also develop them – that is part of the bargain. Think back to Vivek Singh and his chefs. ‘Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power of those being led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders,’ observed the early management thinker Mary Parker Follett. The key question any leader should ask is how they are creating the next generation of leaders in their team or organization.

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