First, Break All the Rules review

First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do DifferentlyFirst, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This past week I took some manager-y classes at work. One of the books we were supposed to read was First, Break All the Rules. I got a lot out of it and so I thought I’d review it. Here’s what it’s all about:

Keeping employees engaged is (or should be) very important for businesses, but a lot of companies don’t do it well. Gallup did a bunch of studies and came up with a set of 12 questions that correlated positively with having engaged 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 seem to 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?

Note that there are are no questions about pay, benefits, etc., because those things are important to all employees, while these questions are better at identifying the best employees. The percentage of employees that answer yes to these questions varies a lot between “business units” of a company, and so seems to be tied to the manager (even questions like #2, which should be pretty consistent across a company). The 12 questions also correlate positively to productivity, profitability, retention, and customer satisfaction on a business unit basis. There’s an elaborate mountain climbing metaphor, but the gist is that you need to have people saying “yes” to the earlier questions before you worry about the later ones. In fact, the first 6 are the most important.

So, managers are important! “People leave managers, not companies” is pretty true. There are four main things a manager needs to do to be a good catalyst: select a person, set expectations, motivate the person, and develop the person.

Select a person: Everyone has talents or strengths, and they’re somewhere between hard and impossible to change. This is (not coincidentally) the theme of the whole Strengths Finder stuff, also by Gallup. When we’re a child, our brain has a ton of pathways, but as we get older some get stronger as some go away. The ones that get stronger correspond to our strengths, things we’re good at, and this is somewhat helpful in realizing that our strengths aren’t really going to change. There are three main kinds of strengths: Striving (what motivates you), Thinking (how you think and come to decisions), and Relating (whom you trust and build relationships with). Finally, all roles require talent, even ones that might seem menial. (they give an example of talking to great housekeepers)

Set expectations: The key here is to define the outcomes you want your employees to accomplish, and not force them to take the steps you would take. Because people have different strengths, they may approach problems in different ways, and that’s OK as long as the results are the same. Of course, in some cases the steps are required. (ensuring accuracy, safety, following industry standards, etc., etc.)

Focus on strengths: Don’t try to fix people’s weaknesses in most cases, because you won’t be able to. Focus on their strengths and making them even…um, stronger. Try to find the right role for people that fits their strengths. Spend the most time with your best people to help them achieve even more. (this suggestion in particular is challenging) Sometimes you do have to manage around a weakness – try to devise a support system (give a Rolodex to someone who can’t remember names), find a complementary partner, or find an alternative role.

Find the right fit: The Peter Principle says we promote each person to his level of incompetence. So…don’t do this! The way around it is to have “heroes” in every role. If someone’s a great software engineer but isn’t interested in management, let her do that if she wants and don’t force her up the hierarchy. (this is what lawyers do – even once you make partner, you still practice law!) For this to work, there have to be prestigious roles that are still individual contributors, and there needs to be broad bands of pay so you don’t feel like you have to move up the ladder to get more money. If your organization is more traditional and won’t let you do this, do your best to shield your employees from the rules. Thank goodness NI gets this 🙂

Admittedly I’m easily suggestable, but I really bought in to the book and its philosophy. It’s one of the commonly read books at NI, and we seem to try to follow a lot of its ideas. (borrowed, not owned)

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