What We Can Learn from Jon Stewart about Talent Development

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As I sat down to write this piece, Jon Stewart had recently finished up as the host of the Daily Show after 16+ years. The media was filled with kudos for his humor and longevity in the role. Along with all of the accolades, the media also noted his uncanny ability in launching the careers of a number of the show’s “correspondents.” One of his enduring legacies will likely be the career success of all of his proteges whom he helped along the way. That list is long, and many returned for that final show to say thanks and to celebrate his achievement. The audience was reminded of Stewart’s impact on the careers of so many when Stephen Colbert noted in his thank-you, given on behalf of all the correspondents: “We owe you because we learned from you. We learned from you by example how to do a show with intention, how to work with clarity, how to treat people with respect. You were infuriatingly good at your job."

An article in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR), “Jon Stewart, Superboss,” used the term superboss to describe those individuals who are exceptionally skilled at helping others build their careers. The author, Sydney Finkelstein, studied diverse professions and discovered: “If you take the top fifty most prominent or influential people in many industries, just one or a few top people mentored a disproportionate share of that talent.” He also noted: “Although their personalities varied, these bosses all demonstrated an unusual, even legendary ability to develop the best talent in their industries.” Besides Stewart, the author identified other superbosses: Lorne Michaels, the creator of Saturday Night Live; the legendary chef Alice Waters; the fashion designer Ralph Lauren; and the football coach Bill Walsh. Each has furthered the careers of many of their employees.

All of this well-deserved praise for Stewart’s talent-development efforts resonated with me. As managers and leaders, we must simultaneously build our team (see Kirk Kelly’s blog on the importance of hiring), as well as help our staff further their own careers (see Scott Tiner’s piece on his own professional development journey). Mentoring and coaching doesn’t just mean having someone outside of the organization or unit develop staff. I would argue that it is a leader’s fundamental responsibility. Exceptional managers play a critical role in the talent management and career development of the people who work for them. As highlighted in an HBR article by Monique Valcour: “Good managers attract candidates, drive performance, engagement and retention, and play a key role in maximizing employees’ contribution to the firm. Poor managers, by contrast, are a drag on all of the above. They cost your firm a ton of money in turnover costs and missed opportunities for employee contribution, and they do more damage than you realize.”  No truer statement was ever written.

Google’s analytics team examined data from countless employee surveys and performance reviews to find out which behaviors characterize its most effective managers. Coaching topped a list that also included helping with career development. Valcour notes that teams in which staff report that their supervisor (or someone else at work) takes an interest in them as a person, talks to them about their career goals and progress, encourages their development, and provides opportunities to learn and grow have lower turnover, higher productivity, and better customer loyalty than teams with employees reporting that these developmental elements are scarce. While the report focuses on the corporate world, the same holds true for IT organizations on campuses.

According to Finkelstein’s research: “Superbosses are exceptionally adept at developing talent because they share particular character traits and adopt a set of common practices that, taken together, are both rare and extraordinarily effective. They are unusually intense and passionate—eating, sleeping, and breathing their businesses and inspiring others to do the same.”

I once had a boss who told me that it was my job to prepare my staff to take my job. He was right. I did have a responsibility and an accountability to facilitate my staff’s learning and development so that they could aspire to reach their full potential. Doing this is also one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as a manager and leader. But what does that statement really entail?

  • Set high standards and expect all members (even new staff) to step up to the challenge. By setting high standards for yourself and demonstrating that you live up to what you set, you provide a good example for your staff, and they likely will be inspired to do the same.
  • Give lots of responsibility to each person, even the newbies. Doing so creates confidence in them. It’s also a great motivator.
  • Take a chance. Give your staff an opportunity to do something risky (e.g., implementing one of their ideas) and give room for experimentation whether the outcome is a success or a failure (perhaps especially if it’s a failure!). Experimentation leads to innovation. It’s like a muscle that needs to be flexed in order to develop and grow—the more you work at something, the better you get. Falling down and getting back up again is a great teacher. People grow in confidence when they know that their boss has their back.
  • Encourage staff to operate outside their comfort zone. Providing them that experience is invaluable, since it helps them (over time) to take ownership of their experience and to trust their instincts even when something goes wrong. Such an environment can lead to strong team bonding, loyalty, and high productivity. I was once part of a team in an organization with very low morale. Morale was high in my unit, however. Team members helped each other to succeed by pulling together even when things were tough. For the first time, I experienced how much fun it could be to go to work every day.
  • Be transparent. Let the team see your failures as well as your successes. When people talk about their role models, they often mention how much they appreciate that the person owns up to his/her mistakes, learns from these, and moves on. Their role model is human just like they are, and that’s empowering to witness.
  • Surround yourself with better people. Don’t be afraid to hire really talented people and, more importantly, support them as they develop through their career even if it means that they may leave to go on to bigger and better things. An inspired leader is dedicated and committed to producing the next generation of leaders who will go out and do great things on their own.
  • Trust your people. I once had to miss (because of a catastrophic family emergency) an extremely important meeting with an outside organization that was funding a crucial project. Everyone was in an uproar (including my boss), and there were suggestions for workarounds. Although this was stressful on many levels, I was confident that my staff could handle the visit, do the presentation, answer questions, and refer to me any questions they couldn’t answer. Guess what? They did a marvelous job AND the funder (as well as my boss) was impressed with the staff’s capacity to handle the situation. This was a win-win for everyone. The confidence-building experience for the staff was immeasurable, and their investment and interest in the project grew.
  • Be generous with your time and interest in others’ success. If you were fortunate to have a mentor or two to help you along in your career, then here is an opportunity to pay it forward. If a mentor wasn’t available to you, then you know firsthand how difficult the struggle can be, and as a consequence, you can be more compassionate; plus you have valuable tips and points to share.

I am sure there are opportunities for each of us to bring some of Jon Stewart’s type of talent development to our experience. For example, recommend staff for plum assignments (perhaps even ones that you would like for yourself) and for professional development leadership opportunities. Create situations that allow team members to undertake challenging tasks with no easy solutions. And even though doing so is difficult, support and encourage staff to pursue new positions that will allow them to grow. Take the time to develop your staff to reach their full potential. You won’t regret it. And who knows, you too, like Jon Stewart, might become a superboss!

Joan F. Cheverie is Manager, Professional Development Programs, EDUCAUSE.

© 2015 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.