Career Coach: Successful leaders hire others who complement them

Billionaire businessman Richard Branson: "It’s incredibly important to surround yourself with people who complement you.”
Billionaire businessman Richard Branson: “It’s incredibly important to surround yourself with people who complement you.”
(Gustavo Caballero / Getty Images)

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, once said: “Surround yourself with people who complement your weaknesses and share your passions — success will follow.”

He went on to say, “Finding the spotlight isn’t about standing in it. There’s so much to be gained from working with people who support each other to achieve great things. It’s incredibly important to surround yourself with people who complement you, aid your self-development, and most importantly allow you to shine — even if it’s in their shadow.”

J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., executive chairman and chairman of the board of Marriott International, one of the world’s largest lodging companies, had similar advice.


“Surround yourself with good people. Then the important thing is to listen to them, and not let them know what you think before you ask them what they are thinking. Once they know what you think, most of the time they will just go along with it,” he said.

In fact, look at most successful firms and you will see that the top leader is not standing alone running the company. Instead, he or she has others who help propel the company forward.

Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak at Apple. Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett work as a team for Berkshire Hathaway, even though most people recognize Buffett as the public face of Berkshire and the “Oracle of Omaha.” Microsoft was the effort of both Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield had different roles to complement their strengths when forming Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Google was created by both Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who brought complementary styles.

Every successful leader has a team of folks who work with him or her, but some leaders have trouble remembering this. They start to believe that because they were chosen to run the firm, they possess all of the crucial attributes for success. They start to surround themselves with people who compliment them rather than complement them.

They hire or retain folks who make them feel comfortable. Yet, to have a truly successful leadership team, there needs to be a staff of individuals who complement the top leader’s strengths and weaknesses.


Some food for thought:

• Successful leaders are very self-aware. They are able to honestly list their own unique abilities and weaknesses. They know what their passions are (what they most enjoy doing in their jobs), and what parts of their jobs they are less capable of doing. They recognize that they are not masters of everything.

• Many successful leaders utilize the help of executive coaches and take various assessments to better understand themselves.

• They get feedback from others on a regular basis (“What am I doing well? How can I improve?”) to know how they are being perceived.

• They hire, recognize and retain those who are different on important dimensions, even if they feel threatened by those individuals.

• They listen to others’ ideas, especially if they are different, to get the most from their team.

• They empower their teams to tackle problems together and execute solutions as a team, knowing that the whole will be greater than the parts.


Leaders can benefit by hiring talented people capable of sharing their unique insights. To do otherwise is to employ a bunch of “yes” people simply implementing our ideas. Innovation and productivity are likely to suffer, and so will the firm and its people.

Joyce E.A. Russell is vice dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and director of its Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program. She writes a weekly Career Coach column for the Washington Post and often answers reader questions.