First, Break all the Rules

Management books and the practice of management are kind of mushy. Think about the premise; Jack Welch managed GE – GE had good returns while he was there – you can become a better manager by reading Straight from the Gut and acting like Jack. This seems sensible to me. But what if my persona and skills don’t line up with Jack’s? Can I reasonably expect to be able to incorporate his policies and practices? Or worse, what if his management skills had less to do with GE’s success during his tenure than the corporate culture, the economy, and the great line managers that made their way through the legendary training ground in Crotonville? Or more subtly, does reading a management book by a rock star CEO really give a line manager the stuff needed to build a rewarding work environment that churns out great financial results?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I can’t really even take credit for asking them because these are effectively the questions that Buckingham and Coffman (B&C) ask (and answer) in their fine book. They didn’t focus on one great manager, or even a group of successful managers. They used statistical techniques to compile the results of thousands of interviews of both managers and employees over the course of a few decades, and it ends up being a pretty impressive body of work.

B&C work for the Gallup Organization, which sponsored this huge study. The study ties together employee satisfaction, management practices, and business unit results in a quantitative manner. First they figured out how to measure the strength of the workplace. Then they linked the strength of the workplace to performance in the areas of productivity, profitability, employee retention, and customer satisfaction. Then, after being certain that a strong workplace means stellar business unit performance, they honed in on the management practices that build a strong workplace. Quite fascinating for a digit head like myself.

To assess the strength of a workplace, one that can “attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees,” you just have to ask twelve questions. The more yes answers you get, the stronger the workplace. They know this because they talked to over a million employees over some 20+ years. Here are the questions:

  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?

But that’s just the start. They took these twelve questions out to the field and posed them to employees of about 2,500 business units in 24 different companies. They matched up the answers (1 being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree) with business outcomes (profits, productivity, employee retention, customer satisfaction) and reviewed the data. Yes, you guessed it, positive answers to the twelve questions correlate strongly with great business unit results.

So then, as a manager, what are the best ways to get yes answers to those twelve questions? That should be the goal, since yes answers mean great results, right? Additionally, are certain questions more important than others? Great managers have the answers to these questions, so Gallup went out to the managers to document them. Once again, they interviewed thousands of managers. They “listened to the tapes, read the transcripts,” and compiled answers. The result is a treatise on “what great managers know” and “what great managers do.”

Great managers know that there is an order and a grouping aspect to these twelve questions. B&C put them into a mountain climbing analogy.

Base Camp (questions 1-2): What do I get?

Camp 1 (questions 3-6): What do I give?

Camp 2 (questions 7-10): Do I belong here?

Camp 3 (questions 11-12): How can we all grow?

If you answer yes to all 12, you’ve passed the Camp 3 level and reached the Summit of employee satisfaction and productivity. The most important levels are Base Camp and Camp 1, these questions are more closely correlated high performing organizations than the others; they build a strong foundation for happy employees that consistently deliver great results.

As they say, to be the catalyst to get positive answers, especially to Base Camp and Camp 1 questions, “a manager must be able to do four activities extremely well: select a person, set expectations, motivate the person, develop the person.” But there is another ingredient underlying all of this is that they discovered; an insight that came out on top as the most “revolutionary” and the “most common.” Here it is in the manager’s words (collectively):

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.

B&C have only been setting the table at this point, we’re at about page 70. They take all of this information and settle on “the Four Keys” of great managers. The rest of the book delves into each of those Four Keys of great management in detail. They are:

When selecting someone, they select for talent…not simply experience, intelligence and determination.

When setting expectations, they define the right outcomes…not the right steps.

When motivating someone, they focus on strengths…not on weaknesses.

When developing someone, they help him find the right fit…not simply the next rung on the latter.

I’m not going to dig into these as part of this post, but I’m going to keep this book around as a reference. I think it’s that good. I think it’s the kind of book you keep in your office and bat around every time you think about your employees and if you’re doing right by them.