First, Break All The Rules

By: Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman



Over the last twenty years, managers have come to realise that competitiveness depends on being able to find and keep talent. They have started to realise that whatever the role a person has, their most valuable assets lie between the ears: their talent.

So how does a manager attract and retain talent? According to Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman they must First, Break All the Rules. Join us for the next ten minutes to find out why and what we should break to do what great managers do differently.

Lesson 1: The Defining Dozen

Buckingham and Coffman spent a significant amount of time interviewing great managers and researching leading companies to distil the essence of a great workplace. What did they find?

By considering the answers to twelve questions, an organisation can measure where it is on the scale regarding their ability to attract and retain talent. These questions don’t necessarily give a recipe, but what they do is cover the key elements. The questions are:

  • Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  • Do I have the right materials and equipment I need to do my work properly?
  • At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  • In the last 7 days have I received recognition or praise for good work?
  • Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  • At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  • Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel like my work is important?
  • Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  • Do I have a best friend at work?
  • In the last 6 months, have I talked with someone at work about my progress?
  • At work, have I had opportunities to learn and grow?

By considering these twelve questions alone we have probably enough to focus on and start revising our talent retention strategy. But that’s only the first 30 pages of the book. Buckingham and Coffman offer much more. Let’s press on.

Lesson 2: Climb Every Mountain

Buckingham and Coffman don’t suggest that we are going to be in a position to address all of the 12 challenges in one go. They compare progress towards creating positive answers for the 12 questions to climbing a mountain, and that aligning our companies to the questions is a journey.

The first stage is Base Camp and fundamentally helping our staff understand what the expectations of working for us are. What are they expected to do? How much can they expect to earn? Can they expect an office, a desk, a workstation? Effectively they ask: “What do I get?”, aligning to the first two questions.

The second stage is Camp 1. Having settled into the role, staff begin to ask different questions. Are they doing good work? Are they in a job where they can excel? Do others recognise this? Will others help them get better? They focus on their individual contribution.

This aligns to questions 3, 4, 5 and 6. Next it’s Camp 2. It’s all about belonging. They are comfortable with their contribution but does this really align to the company? Are co-workers similarly committed? Can the company offer support for the long game or do they need to move on? Here questions 7,8, 9 and 10 are addressed.

Camp 3 beckons and the summit is in sight. Here it’s all about teamwork - pulling together in the same common and forward moving direction. It leads to innovation, building in growth for self and company.

The last two questions, 11 and 12 are raised. With positive answers to all 12 questions the summit has been reached. Focus is clear. Staff feel a sense of achievement, of belonging, of being “in the zone” at work. It’s a great place to work, with a great manager. So how does a great manager create this feeling? According to Buckingham and Coffman they apply four skills, four rule-breaking actions.

Lesson 3: Key #1: Select for Talent

Traditional managerial convention says that when we are recruiting we should select a person based on their experience, intelligence and determination. Buckingham and Coffman say: BREAK THIS RULE! Great managers select for talent.

Great managers disagree with the common definition of talent. It is too narrow. In their mind, talent is a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour that can be productively applied. The right talent is fundamental – much more than experience, much more than brainpower, much more than will power. We need to nurture talent to succeed.

Skills and knowledge can be easily taught. Talent cannot. Skills are the how-to’s of a role. They are traits that can be passed from one person to another.

Buckingham and Coffman break talent into three categories. Striving talents – the “why” of a person. Why they do things, their drive, why they are who they are. Thinking talents – the “how” of a person. How they think, how they rationalise decisions, their values. Relating talents – the “who” of a person. Who they trust, who they confront, who they ignore.

As a manager we need to know the talents we want. At selection time we need to look beyond the job title and description. Which talent is more aligned to our needs? Are we looking for drive – then striving talent is our target. Are we looking for logic? Thinking talent is best. Are we looking for communication? Choose someone with relating talent.

We need to think about how the person will fit into our organisational culture. Different companies require different talent types. We need to think of our team. Where is their talent alignment? Where is the talent gap?

It’s not easy. Talent spotting is a talent itself. To help, Buckingham and Coffman suggest we identify the one critical factor relating to each of the three talent categories and focus on them during selection. We should structure our interview technique around seeking out those who hold the right blend.

Lesson 4: Key #2: Define the Right Outcomes

Managerial convention also states that when setting expectations we should first define the right steps. Break this rule, too. Great managers define the right outcomes.

As a manager we may think we are in control, but we’re not. Our staff, the people who report to us have more. They can ultimately decide what they will do and how they will perform. So how can we maintain direction and performance?

Buckingham and Coffman tell us that great managers define the outcomes – what they want to happen – then let their staff decide how to get there. A side benefit of this approach is that staff take on responsibility. By making the choice of how things will be done they are accountable for the outcomes.

Letting staff take on responsibility does not mean we have to relinquish everything. Buckingham and Coffman give us “Rules of Thumb” to follow.

  • Rule of thumb #1: Don’t risk it. Employees must follow certain required steps for all aspects of their role that involves accuracy or safety.
  • Rule of thumb #2: Standards rule. Employees must follow required steps when those steps are a part of a company or industry standard.
  • Rule of thumb #3: Don’t let creed overshadow the message. Required steps are useful only if they do not obscure the desired outcome.
  • Rule of thumb #4: There are no steps leading to customer satisfaction. Required steps only prevent dis-satisfaction. They cannot drive customer satisfaction.

All of these rules create a framework to allow a focus on outcomes. They identify what must remain and what can be given away in the process of achieving the desired outcome.

Lesson 5: Key #3: Focus on Strengths

Managerial convention states that when motivating a person we should help them identify and overcome their weaknesses. Break this rule. Great managers focus on strengths.

Good managers don’t try to fix weaknesses. Good managers have recognised the unique talents of individuals and therefore focus on the strengths these bring and work around the weaknesses. Great managers build roles for people around their strengths, not around organisational hierarchies.

This means that staff can focus on what they are wired to do. If we want to be a great manager we must openly discuss ‘strength exploitation’ with our staff. We need to sit down with them and say things like: “Bob – you are good with words, I want you to be our marketing copywriter”.

Treat people as you want to be treated. We’ve all heard that guidance many times. Great managers ignore it. They recognise that behind the statement is conformity. Making everyone similar. It also implies that we know best. But are we better than everyone else in each of their roles? I doubt it.

Great managers treat staff as the staff wants to be treated. When a great manager sits down with a staff member, they are not fixing or correcting, they are looking for ways to further exploit the individual’s talent. They seek to highlight and perfect the individual’s unique style. They seek to create ways to help the individual avoid interference and help them focus on their strengths.

Lesson 6: Key #4: Find the Right Fit

Managerial convention states that when developing a person we should help them learn and get promoted. Break this rule. Great managers help find the right fit.

At some point in their employment a staff member will ask their manager: “What’s next for me? Where do I go from here?” Great managers help staff find roles that further expand what they are good at. What a manager should not do is promote to fill gaps in an org chart. Frequently, good workers don’t make good supervisors.

Great managers are good at feedback. They don’t leave it to an annual performance review. After all, they are always on the lookout for better ways to exploit strengths so feedback is constant. As a result, great managers are always aware where the next opportunity will come.

Their role is not to protect the organisation by pigeon-holing staff. What they strive to do is better the best. A great manager puts their staff on the right path and simply gets out of the way.

So there we have it. Twelve questions, five levels, and four keys to breaking lots of rules, and building better teams.