First, Break All The Rules

by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

This book is the product of two studies: the first asked, “What do the most talented employees need from the workplace?” and the second asked, “How do the world’s greatest managers find, focus, and keep talented employees?” The Gallup Organization interviewed more than one million employees and eighty thousand managers for these studies making them, together, the largest study of its kind ever undertaken.

The authors cite Thomas Stewart who states that the most valuable aspects of jobs are “the most essentially human tasks: serving, judging, creating, and building relationships.” In other words, a great deal of the organization’s value resides in the minds of its members and when they leave, they take this value with them. Many times, they take it to the competition.

Gallup discovered twelve core questions that give an organization the most important information it needs to attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees. They are:

1.      Do I know what is expected of me at work?

2.      Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?

3.      At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?

4.      In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?

5.      Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

6.      Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

7.      At work, do my opinions count?

8.      Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?

9.      Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?

10.   Do I have a best friend at work?

11.   In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?

12.   This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

These questions help in developing a great workplace. Questions regarding pay, benefits, senior management, or organizational structure fell out of their list of core questions as they discovered that these questions were equally important to all employees – most talented, good, bad, and mediocre.

Using what Gallup calls “meta-analysis” they discovered that “those employees who responded more positively to the twelve questions also worked in business units with higher levels of productivity, profit, retention, and customer satisfaction.” Gallup also discovered that “employees rated the questions differently depending on which business unit they worked for rather than the company. This meant that, for the most part, these twelve opinions were being formed by the employees’ immediate manager rather than by the policies or procedures of the overall company. We had discovered that the manager – not pay, benefits, perks, or a charismatic corporate leader – was the critical player in building a strong workplace. The manager was the key.”

Research showed that people leave managers. If there is a retention problem, look to the managers first.

The authors state that “the best thing any leader can do to drive the whole company to greatness is, first, to hold each manager accountable for what his/her employees say to these twelve questions, and second, to help each manager know what actions to take to deserve “Strongly Agree” responses from his/her employees.”

The authors state that to be most effective, the twelve questions must be dealt with in order. Great managers begin with the first six and know that they must spend a great deal of time and energy there. Great managers know that each person is different and they work to capitalize on this. They do not try to change or mold people but help them become more of what they already are. As a result, great managers do not believe that everyone has unlimited potential; they do not help people fix their weaknesses; they insist on breaking the “Golden Rule” with every employee; and they play favorites. In short, they break all the rules of conventional wisdom.

Managers play a vital and distinct role. This role is to “reach inside each employee and release his/her unique talents into performance.” This is accomplished by working with each employee one-by-one. The manager role is the catalyst role. Looking back to the twelve questions, the first six provide the detail for the catalyst role.

Great managers differ from great leaders. Great managers look inward. They look inside the organization, into each individual, into the differences in style, goals, needs, and motivation of each person. They then work to release each person’s unique talents into performance. Great leaders look outward. They look at competition, the future, and the various ways to move forward. They must be visionaries, strategic thinkers, and activators.

Great managers see themselves as catalysts that have four core activities: 1) they select for talent, 2) they define the right outcomes, 3) they focus on strengths, and 4) they help the employee find the right fit. The authors call these “the Four Keys” of great managers.

Select for talent – Talents are any recurring patterns of behavior that can be productively applied. The key to excellent performance is “finding the match between your talents and your role.” Your talents are a part of you; they are a result of the way you perceive the world. Talent cannot be taught. Talents are powerful since they are transferable from situation to situation. The manager’s role is not to try to teach people talent. It is to help them earn the accolade “talented” by matching their talent to the role. Great managers know this and believe that every role has its own nobility. Managers need to know what talents they want. To determine this, they first look at the company – they think about the culture of the company, how the expectations will be set, and the others on the team. The great managers study their best workers and select for similar talents.

Define the right outcomes – Great managers are hemmed in by two fervent beliefs: 1) people don’t change that much, and 2) an organization exists for a purpose and that purpose is performance. This creates a dilemma – how does a manager retain control and focus people on performance? The authors’ answer: Define the right outcomes and then let each person find his/her own route toward the outcomes. Great managers do not create “one best way” to do things. They trust their workers. A manager’s basic responsibility is to turn talent into performance. This involves satisfying customers. Workers must understand customer expectations. The authors state that four customer expectations are consistent across various types of businesses and types of people. The expectations, which are hierarchical, are: Level 1 – accuracy (if the company consistently fails here, customers defect), Level 2 – availability (hence the rise of drive through windows, ATM machines, and Web sites). It should be noted that most companies meet these expectations today and that meeting them is more a commodity than a competitive advantage. Level 3 – partnership (customers want you to listen to and understand them; the authors point out that a customer who feels understood is a step closer to real satisfaction and loyalty. Level 4 – advice (customers feel the closest bond to organizations that have helped them learn).

With customer expectations known and understood, the right outcomes are set. The manager, after defining the outcomes, identifies a person’s strengths, defines outcomes that play to these strengths, finds a way to measure the outcomes, and then lets the person go for it.

Focus on strengths – Great managers “Focus on each person’s strengths and manage around his weaknesses. Don’t try to fix the weaknesses. Don’t try to perfect each person. Instead do everything you can to help each person cultivate his talents. Help each person become more of who he already is.” Great managers are aggressive in trying to identify each person’s talents and helping him/her cultivate those talents. They do this by casting people in the right role, managing by exception (treating each person differently, each according to their needs), and spending the most time with their best people (giving these people the time they need to help them excel).

Great managers manage around a weakness by asking two questions: First, is the poor performance trainable? Second, is the nonperformance caused by the manager tripping the wrong trigger? If you can genuinely answer “No” to both questions, then by default the nonperformance is probably a talent issue.

A nontalent becomes a weakness when you find yourself in a role where success depends on your excelling in an area that is a nontalent. There are three possible routes to helping a person succeed: 1) Devise a support system (focusing on strengths which help every worker excel is “more productive and more fun than trying to fix the weakness”); 2) find a complementary partner (focusing on helping workers capitalize on who they are and not trying to fix who they aren’t); 3) find an alternative role (when you realize the person has been miscast you look to find him/her another role).

Find the Right Fit – Great managers stick to their goal: “Regardless of what the employee wants, the manager’s responsibility is to steer the employee toward roles where the employee has the greatest chance of success.” This means doing away with the Peter Principle. It also means recognizing that one rung on the corporate ladder doesn’t necessarily lead to another. Great managers ask: “Why not make prestige more available? Why not carve out alternative career paths by conveying meaningful prestige on every role performed at excellence? Why not create heroes in every role?” Great managers believe that every role performed at a level of excellence is valuable. The authors say that every role should be measured and rewards established for reaching or exceeding goals. Great managers excel at giving performance feedback. They shared these characteristics: 1) their feedback was constant, 2) each session with the worker began with a brief review of past performance (usually about ten minutes of the hour-long meeting) then shifted to the future, and 3) they made a point of giving their feedback in private.

Finally, using the Four Keys as a guide, the authors describe four Master Keys that the senior management of an organization can use: 1) Keep the focus on outcomes, 2) Value world-class performance in every role, 3) Study your best, and 4) Teach the language of great managers. 


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