Read all about it! Why biographies of leaders are a goldmine of invaluable HR insight

CHROs can learn just as much HR by reading the biographies of well-known leaders, says Sally Percy - author of new book, 21st Century Business Icons:

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Oct 18, 2023
This article is part of a series called Book Review.

When ‘Elon Musk’ – Walter Isaacson’s latest biography on what is arguably the world’s most famous business leader hit the shelves last month, it’s safe to say they didn’t stay there for very long.

Shifting 92,560 copies in its first week, the 670-page tome has quickly become the second-fastest selling biography ever and number one bestseller. Only Isaacson’s other biography, on Apple founder Steve Jobs, currently beats it.

The success of both these books dramatically reveals the ongoing fascination ordinary folk have with people they regard as being extra-ordinary. Like him or loathe him, Musk (for example), has a mystique that simply won’t go away. And despite all the negative headlines, it seems just as many people still want to work for him as never want to work for him again.

But at a time when leaders are increasingly being looked up to, to provide stability and clarity of direction, perhaps it’s no wonder people want to know what actually makes these people (their bosses for some of them), tick.

They want to know what they really care about; whether they really put their people (or themselves) first, and whether their company is built around them and their view of the world?

Because these tomes carry insights into these leaders’ ways of thinking, there are some who might well argue that HR professionals would be a lot better placed taking their heads out of HR policy manuals/ employment law updates and picking up these fascinating books too.

When leaders are having to be a lot more hands on, a lot can be learned by understanding how business leaders create (whether deliberately or not) the cultures they do.

It’s important HR leaders know this, given it’s them that ultimately have to deal with everything this entails.

That’s why TLNT thinks one particular new book – 21st Century Business Icons – written by Forbes contributor, Sally Percy, should arguably be on every HR professionals reading list.

Also published last month, it doesn’t just profile one leader, but comprises painstaking research on some of the world’s most innovative business leaders – everyone from Jeff Bezos to Jimmy Donaldson (YouTuber); and Whitney Wolfe Herd (dating platform Bumble), to Satoshi Nakamoto (the ‘creator’ of Bitcoin).

It reveals the common traits many of the most demanding leaders share, and in doing so we would argue it also paints a fascinating picture of who these people are, what their methods that HR heads needs to reflect on; and what similarities might be shared by leaders in their own organizations.

It arguably takes knowing a bit more about some other great leaders for HRD to be able to determine what HR strategies may or may not be appropriate inside their own organizations.

So, to celebrate the recent launch of her book, we decided to speak exclusively to Sally, to hear her thoughts about what HR leaders can learn from some of the most high profile business leaders out there:

Q: First things first, what first drew you to wanting to write this book?

A: “Having previously written the book, ‘Reach the top in Finance’, I was fascinated to see what it was that ‘great’ leaders all seem to possess. I thought it would be an exciting project to start because lots of people probably think they know a lot about many of the people the book covers, but they probably don’t know the real person behind their public image. I think many great business icons are also misunderstood and there are many misconceptions out there about them – Musk being a case in point. In the book I draw on literature and numerous other source material to draw my own conclusions about these people – based on what ‘they’ have said and done, not what others have said about them. In addition to the very well known leaders covered, there are also leaders that are less well known, and are considerably less written about, but which I think a lot can be learned from. A common theme amongst those covered, are that they are entrepreneurs – which I think gives them more of a free rein in their business to be themselves and bring their own personas to the businesses they run. At the same time though, this has interesting repercussions for the HR people below them.

 Q: Which leaders particularly stand out for you that you feel HR professionals could learn from?

A: “Several leaders stand out, but one of them is undoubtedly Whitney Wolfe Herd, who aged just 31 became the youngest woman ever to take a company [online dating site, Bumble] public, and which made her an instant billionaire. She’s an interesting person – she was the co-founder of Tinder, but was forced to resign and filed a lawsuit against Tinder, alleging sexual harassment. She did the classic ‘don’t get mad, get even’, and founded a rival site, aimed at eradicating online toxicity and empowering women. Her story is very much addressing a personal pain point, and this very clearly translates to her leadership style where she is outspoken around diversity – not just gender – but racial inclusion. She’s interesting too because, in many ways, she’s also quite reserved, and has been open about being shy and suffering bouts of depression. This is one leader who actually isn’t on an ego trip – and I think it feeds through into what she wants the values of her company to be about. In this sense, she really is setting the scene for what HR has to follow.

Q: It’s seems like dealing adversity plays some part in many leaders’ lives and shapes their views once in business – would you agree?

A: “It certainly comes up. In 2012, Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, became the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire, and her business was born out of frustration working as a fax machine saleswomen and the dresscode enforced on her. Her philosophy however continues to pervade now. One very clear policy she’s always promoted – and continues to promote – is the need for leaders to hire for their weaknesses. She says she always wants to hire people who compliment her weaknesses, and allow her to free her own time up. She’s also very famously said in the past that she favors culture fit over technical training when hiring people. In one interview she revealed that if there was a choice between a super talented individual and one who was less talented, but had superior culture fit, she would choose culture fit any day of the week. It’s ‘fit’ that is important to her. She’s saying that if people want to work in her business, they really need to demonstrate passion for it too. Again, this is something HR needs to tune into.

Q: Did you find many leaders set unrealistic expectations of staff though? Can employees really be expected to be as passionate as founders are?

A: “What’s common across all the leaders I looked at is that they expect their people to buy into a vision. This vision is what initially made them successful and it’s something they expect of others. I think however, that this is a sustainable virtue. If we see anything at the moment, it’s the fact that staff do seem to want to buy into working somewhere where they feel they are able to make a difference. They want to be part of something bigger. Where this plays out in the HR space is how business leaders translate this into motivating others. The one thing many entrepreneur leaders are less successful at doing is getitng their staff to buy into their own vision with the same degree of passion as they have. Entrepreneurs seem to have a head start here, for obvious reasons.

Q: When they’re on the up, many leaders create followership, but are the stars of some leaders now starting to lose their shine. And if so, what’s the repercussions for staff?

A: “I think Mark Zuckerbeg and Facebook/Meta have faced this challenge in recent years. His reputation is definitely one that’s been dented. Recently, the launch of Threads hasn’t really taken off. But we’ve got to remember that he’s also been around now for two decades – so I would also say it’s also hard to be a leader and keep reinventing yourself. On the one hand, perhaps he should have kudos in the fact he’s still going, whereas others like Bezos have stepped down and is doing other things. I still believe that people who work for him still find him inspiring. But on certain aspects, he is now being seen as reading the room wrong – for instance on his stance around returning to the office. A few years ago he said people could work anywhere; now he seems to be following the same line as everyone else, and demanding people come back.

Q: What common traits come through from all the leaders you’ve looked at?

A: “It think the thing that really comes through is that they are all incredibly hard-working. They don’t want their people to stop either – so this can be a possible source of demotivation. Despite this, they do all seem to be able to get their staff to really want to work for them – even Musk – and so the power of their persona must say something. What also interesting, is that many of these leaders have launched businesses that were not first in their field, but they’ve managed to execute on what they have created really well. ‘Positivity’ – almost relentlessly-so is another trait that shines through. It’s this positivity that allows people who work for them to believe they can believe in themselves too, and this is what gives them confidence.

Q: What can HR leaders really learn from reading about business heroes?

A: “That every business depends on its people, and that true leadership and management is getting the best out of their people at all times. People are the power of all businesses.

This article is part of a series called Book Review.
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