First, Break All The Rules

By Marcus Buckingham, et al

Rating: 10/10

Best Line: The role of the company is to identify the desired end. The role of the individual is to find the best means possible to achieve that end. Therefore strong companies become experts in the destination and give the individual the thrill of the journey.

Best Line #2: You should not try to script culture.

There’s nothing more harmful than a bad manager. There are a lot of bad managers. There are a lot of bad drivers, too. And yet, no manager and no driver thinks they are below average. I think this is driven (ahem) by the fact that we only take one test to become a manager or a driver and are forever stamped approved. No additional assessments needed.

It gets worse, though, because the test to become a manager isn’t standardized. Licensed drivers are graded on the same bar, same set of clear rules. Managers? Some are hired into the role by virtue of the fact they’ve been around a long time and, well, no one else wanted it. That’s just one of many haphazard ways people enter the role.

This is not an argument for standardized entry exams or any such thing. Only a bad manager would suggest such a thing. And this isn’t so much about how people enter the profession; our concern is more about what they do in the years that follow.

That’s why this week’s book is categorized as the best resource for second-year managers. Many of the lessons here make sense the instant you read them but I don’t think you can truly appreciate them, or apply them, until you’ve gotten through your freshman year. Some maturity and credibility is required. Especially for the three themes that I think stand out the best.

Play favorites

“Investing in your struggling employees seems like a shrewd idea but the most effective managers do the opposite. They spend the most time with the most productive employees. Why? Because great managers see themselves as catalysts, turning talent into performance.”

The book’s title implies the existence of conventional rules that great managers ignore. The idea of not playing favorites is a prime example. Regardless of tenure, managers often think they should dole equal favor, equal attention, equal value to everyone. It’s an idea that is as noble as it is impossible. When managers realize the limitation, they naturally shift their attention to the problem areas, the struggling employees. The superstars don’t need my help; they’re already superstars. I’ll go serve the others instead and make them superstars too.

The book argues that such a tactic creates an imbalance in attention and that superstars then regress, they act out, in order to get the same attention. I have seen this firsthand as someone who committed the mistake a few times. It’s part of the identity crisis that managers suffer in their early years.

Is a manager an enforcer? There to ensure compliance? Or is a manager someone charged with “turning talent into performance”, doing the things necessary to multiply a team’s impact? The answer to that question colors every action a manager takes. If you’re seen as the enforcer, the compliance officer, a.k.a. “the boss”, your talented staff will never really respect you and the non-talented staff will only fear you. Which is probably what you want. Which is why you should immediately stop being a manager.  

But if you see yourself as a person turning talent into performance, a.k.a., “the coach”, your talented staff will not only respect you, they’ll actually listen to what you say; they’ll give you influence. And the non-talented staff? Well, a proper coach knows there is no such thing. Sure, some people aren’t cut out to be on the proverbial team. Yes, coaches have to cut people from the team. But they don’t cut because someone failed to comply. They cut because someone didn’t perform at the level necessary for the team to succeed. There is a world of difference in that.

Because coaches can be cut, too. Your typical cartoon “boss” is like some permanent tyrant, a petty authority figure fixed in his fiefdom, living large under no one’s rule. But a coach is expected to perform just like you. They have to deliver results and have to rely on you just as you rely on them. It’s a truer form of “we’re in this together” and it makes that first tenet, to play favorites, feel so much more natural.

Developer/Coach/Researcher

A second-year manager can understand the crossroads they face. By the start of their second year, they’ve had to be a coach at times, an enforcer at other times. No one likes both roles equally. So if the manager reads this book and feel a sense of excitement, it is a sure sign they identify with the “coach” role. But if they read this book and find it boring or too “squishy”, I think it’s best to offer them a fantastic new non-management role. Why? Because the guidance that follows has to make intuitive sense. It has to feel slightly obvious, like the sort of thing you were already thinking about but hadn’t quite articulated.  

An example from the book: The best managers want a routine that asks each employee to keep track of her own performance and learnings. They want her to write down her goals, successes, discoveries. It isn’t an exercise to inform the manager, per se, but to help each employee take responsibility for her performance.

What decent person/manager would not want to do this? Helping another person take charge of their own destiny, their own performance? That is the clearest sign that you are being helpful. Again, it’s the sort of thing that feels slightly obvious.

Unless you inhabit the “boss” mentality. Then it sounds weird. And therein lies the problem that this book is acutely capable of addressing. The book either calibrates your “coach” mindset or it helps you see that you’re just not up for it.

There are a few sets of questions that the book uses to help the manager engage with their staff. These questions are the most valuable aspect of the book and I would do a major disservice to the author by listing them. Suffice to say, these questions are worth the price of the book and everyone should get it and read them. Before that, as a prelude, just know that the questions help to better understand the rich complexity of the manager-worker-workplace environment. Such questions also turn you into not only a coach but also a researcher.

Asking these sets of questions with the full intent of understanding your staff and their experience doesn’t just lead to improvement, it leads to a more precise understanding of how an individual’s perception colors everything they do. Every staff member will have different answers, thus different needs, and personalized approaches will emerge so that you help them get to the collective goal. There are many managers who never get to this state of practice and it’s sad for everyone.

How Do You Identify Talent?

The notion of talent in the workplace feels natural and foreign. Sure, there are people who are uniquely talented at what they do. But a talented accountant? I don’t know what that looks like. So all the talk about talent in this book can get a person infatuated with the normal cues. We see someone who his charismatic, eloquent, intelligent, and fun and we can easily say “that person is talented”. But they might hate their job. So are they talented? Sure. Does it matter? Probably not. Meanwhile, some quiet, unseen wunderkind in the Finance department continues to perform miracles with spreadsheets.

So what’s a better way to understand and find talent outside the conventional sense of the term? The authors suggest the following:

A person’s satisfaction is the clue to their talent. So ask what their greatest personal satisfaction is.

This is a great insight because it not only helps you identify a person’s realized talent but also their latent talents. Where there is a sense of personal satisfaction in, say, building workstations for office environments, you’ll find the energy for someone to become uniquely skilled. Even if they don’t do a lot of it right now. Far too often, we look for talent in the work being done without any consideration to the work that could be done. So a lens towards points of personal satisfaction, instead of current performance, lets you see a lot more.

It makes sense, right? Work enough in any job and you’ll find moments where you stumble into a very satisfying flow state; you enter “the zone” and find yourself performing certain aspects of the work with power and alacrity. It can be quite addictive; you don’t want to go back to the drudgery. You want to stay right where you are, doing that thing that you do. That thing is at the nexus of your talent, where you probably have the greatest potential and will feel the greatest joy in your job.

I should know. I’ve tried damn near everything available to the knowledge worker and the things I do best are the things that give me the most satisfaction. It’s a cyclical, self-reinforcing loop. Do this thing well, feel satisfaction; feel satisfaction, do that thing well again. When I’m in that zone, I’m not “working” anymore. I’m much more alive than that. This is the stuff that makes me forget to eat lunch, take a walk, or do anything else.

You know what I mean?

Anyway, a truly great manager looks for the intersection of talent and work. They see it as their responsibility to get people in a place where they can exercise those talents every day. It creates a recipe for something supremely powerful.

If, as a manager, you can help an employee find those loops and tailor a job to those strengths, you will give that employee the thing that we all want: a chance to be great. It’s a tremendous gift, the opportunity of opportunities, and great managers love to make it happen.

And why not? Everyone wins. This is the stuff that is planted firmly in the middle ground of the Venn Diagram between organizational and personal needs. So again, this book is an important resource for helping managers remember that this is their top job.

Once done, the manager can stop bothering with the silly stuff of “meeting expectations” and “average” performance. They can move on to excellence, pushing their staff to do the work they’re uniquely made to do at ever-increasing levels of quality. That’s what makes a great workplace. I’m frustrated by how little of this exists. It reminds me of a quote from Tobias Lutke, CEO of Shopify. I’ve borrowed this in previous writings because I think of it regularly: “Everyone wants to be on an epic journey with their friends.” Why aren’t we getting this at work?

Conclusion

I reread this book for the third time while developing this week’s content. In doing so, I recognized the persistent holes in my managerial game. It’s far too easy to forget that, as a manager, I have the chance to make people’s work experience really great. So this book isn’t just for second-year managers. It serves the eight-year manager quite nicely, too. But I can’t imagine how wrong a path I could have taken had I not read it early in my tenure.

Time has a funny way of turning revolutionary ideas into obvious platitudes. Recognizing that this book was originally written in 1999, a lot of what you find fits the precast mold of a well-read, modern day manager. But there aren’t many well-read modern day managers. So to the vast share of the intended audience, this book is evergreen and quite inspiring. If you actually do the things it asks you to do, you’ll see some real progress.

And for the second-year manager who has started to understand the crossroad they face (Do I become a coach or a boss? A manager or a leader? A multiplier or diminisher?), this book is a test. Required reading. In fact, it’s so important that it leads me to jump to absolutes: if this book doesn’t speak to you as a manager, you are not management material. Not yet, anyway.

Mental Models and Principles

  • The most powerful questions to ask employees are the questions that bear the strongest link to the most business outcomes.
  • In the face of poor performance, start with why. Is the poor performance trainable? Is it caused by a manager tripping the wrong trigger? Missing the motivation?
  • Great performance management is simple, frequent, and focused on the future.
  • In the same manner as cartage schemes for strategy, develop a canned series of questions for assessing employee conditions, performance, and need.
  • As much as possible, define every role using outcome terms.
  • Attention is the manager’s greatest currency.
  • Great managers look inward. Great leaders look outward.
  • Persistence directed primarily toward your non-talents is self-destructive.
  • Don’t use average to estimate the limits of excellence.
  • A person’s satisfaction is the clue to their talent. So ask what their greatest personal satisfaction is.
  • People leave managers, not companies.
  • When setting expectations, define the right outcomes, not the right steps.
  • Rapid learning is a vital clue to find talent. There is a talent connected to whatever a person has learned quickly.
  • Always have an answer ready for when an employee asks “Where do I go from here?”
  • A person has talent, skills, and knowledge. You can only hire for talent. The rest can be taught.
  • Great managers do not believe that everyone has unlimited potential.
  • You can never breathe motivational life into someone else.
  • A person is considered ‘talented’ when their roles match their talents. Otherwise, talent has no chance to exhibit itself.
  • Define the right outcomes and give freedom for people to pursue those outcomes according to their style and talent.
  • Do not script culture.
  • Identify a person’s strengths. Define outcomes that play to those strengths. Find a way to count, rate, or rank those outcomes. And then let the person run.
  • No matter the task or role, if you measure it and reward it, people will try to excel at it.
  • The poor performer knows he is struggling before you do.