First, Break all the Rules

Reviewed by: 
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
Simon & Schuster
Gill McKay, Associate Director, Extensor Limited

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I first came across this book 5 years ago when working as a Corporate HR Director, struggling for new insights for a conference presentation about employee engagement. Having been an advocate of “challenging the process” for years (see Extensor book review “The Leadership Challenge”) the title was immediately appealing! As Douglas Bader, the wartime fighter said, “rules are made for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools” – a constant frustration to me of every day organisational life.

Buckingham and Coffman make the point that the greatest managers in the world may differ in many different ways - but they all have one thing in common: they do not hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom.

The sub-title is "What the world's greatest managers do differently". It is therefore a modelling book, with real examples of application – immensely practical and research based. It just makes sense. First there's Gallup's research pedigree (in this case more than a million interviews over twenty five years), then there's the basic premise: if you want to know how the world's greatest managers get exceptional performance from their people, don't just ask the managers - ask the people.

The book is based upon a detailed analysis of interviews by the Gallup Organisation of over 80,000 managers at different levels of seniority – and all had one or more employees reporting to them. They focused their analysis on those managers who excelled at turning the talent of their employees into performance.

Key findings are that great managers do not help people overcome their weaknesses. They do not believe that each person has unlimited potential. They do play favourites and they break the 'Golden Rule' book everyday! The front-line manager is the key to attracting and retaining talented employees. No matter how generous the pay structure, or how renowned the training, the company that lacks great, front-line managers will suffer. Great managers are the heroes of this book. Vivid examples and interviews show how, as they select, focus, motivate and develop people, great managers turn talent into performance. Finally, the authors have distilled the essence of good management practice into 12 simple questions that work to distinguish the strongest departments of a company from all the rest. These represent an excellent measuring stick to assist you with the link between employee engagement and productivity, profit, customer satisfaction, and turnover. Hundreds of companies have now embraced these questions as their “barometer” within their employee opinion surveys.

If your employees can answer positively to all 12 questions, then you will have built a great place to work and will undoubtedly have highly motivated, highly productive people. A very powerful concept.

     What do I get?

     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?

     What do I give?

     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 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?

     Do I belong?

     7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
     8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel like my work is important?
     9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
     10. Do I have a best friend at work?

     How can we all grow?

     11. In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress?
     12. At work, have I had opportunities to learn and grow?"

More basic a discovery is that managers need to emphasis matching specific jobs with the right talent make-up. Talents are usually overshadowed by concentration on experience, skills, and determination when selecting candidates for jobs. Talents are here described as "simply recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behaviour" and include the areas of striving, thinking and relating. Different positions require different talents – which may sound obvious, however managers typically follow different “rules” – as outlined in the “not” statements in the following "Four Keys of Great Managers":

     1. When selecting someone, they select for talent ... not simply experience, intelligence, or determination.
     2. When setting expectations, they define the right outcomes ... not the right steps.
     3. When motivating someone, they focus on strengths ... not on weaknesses.
     4. When developing someone, they find him the right fit ... not simply the next rung on the ladder

The authors quote a mantra:

     People don't change that much
     Don't waste time trying to put in what was left out.
     Try to draw out what was left in.
     That is hard enough.

This insight is the source of the great manager’s wisdom. It explains everything they do with and for their people, especially why they do not help people fix their weaknesses. To an extent I put a health warning on this as the book focuses on the “people don’t change” philosophy which I don’t believe is as rigorous as the authors make out, particularly when I am coaching others! However, I whole heartedly believe that there are many people who would be happier and more productive in jobs that followed their natural talents.

This book cannot make the manager's role easier. But it certainly will provide you with some excellent insights into effective people management. As a result, you will understand that if you have any performance problems amongst your people it's not necessarily them - it's the environment you've created that they work within. The book's “Four Keys” will be useful for any people manager, even if you do not accept all of their findings. At least, you'll find yourself challenged as the authors unveil their findings based on 80,000 interviews.

My paperback copy is very worn and covered in highlighter pen, plastered in post-it notes and referred to again and again. I've recommended it to dozens of managers that I've worked with and coached.

This book should be part of everyone’s business collection, but don’t forget, it provides insights, not rules!


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