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Complimenting and Complementing: Great Management through Praising and Partnering

Firstbreakalltherules I recently finished “First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently”, by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, in which they emphasize the importance of discovering each individual’s unique constellation of talents – the things he/she cannot help but do (and do well) – and aligning those with appropriate roles – where doing those things add value – within an organization. They also emphasize the importance of offering positive feedback at frequent and regular intervals, and managing around “weaknesses” by establishing effective partnerships - within the team itself and among the management – with others who have complementary talents.

This approach emphasizes discovering, developing and capitalizing on people’s natural strengths, rather than the conventional “wisdom” of creating “well-rounded” employees (what I might call "rounding errors") by “fixing” their weaknesses or, more euphemistically, addressing their “areas for development” (I found myself ruminating on the “spay” or "castrate" meanings of "fix") and/or instituting detailed processes intended to ensure desired outcomes (rather than empowering employees to engage their talents and natural creativity to achieve those outcomes).

The book defines talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied”, and differentiates talent from skill (ability to follow steps) and knowledge (awareness of facts and practices). Talent typically involves skill and knowledge, but most importantly, it is something we are inexorably drawn toward … something we have a deep passion for (reminding me of Rumi’s maxim, and my former email signature quotation: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love”). Buckingham and Coffman go on to distinguish three types of talent – striving (the why of a person), thinking (the how of a person) and relating (the who of a person) – and offer a dozen or so more specific examples of each type of talent in an appendix. I must confess that I do not appear to have a talent for understanding the specificity of these distinctions.

The authors, who are (or were?) leaders in the Gallup organization’s 25-year effort to understand attitudes, opinions and behaviors in work settings, offer 12 questions that represent “the simplest and most accurate way to measure the strength of a workplace”:

  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?

In polling over one million employees with these questions, Gallup found that the proportions of employees who “strongly agree” (a “5” on a 5-point scale) with these statements is highly correlated with their group’s productivity, profitability, retention and customer satisfaction.

Gallup also interviewed eighty thousand managers to better understand what the great managers did differently from the good (and bad) managers. They found that great managers are able to both identify an employee’s true talents, and capitalize on them by aligning those talents with roles in the organization. The authors share a mantra that was shared with them (in various forms) by great managers:

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.

They also shared their view of manager as a catalyst rather than a controller, which can be summarized in three passages in the book:

The manager role is to reach inside each employee and release his unique talents into performance … one employee at a time.
You can’t make things happen. All you can do is influence, motivate, berate, or cajole, in the hope that most of your people will do what you ask of them.
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.

Great managers accomplish this alignment of talents and roles through four key activities:

  • Select people for talent (not simply skills, knowledge and experience)
  • Define right outcomes (not precise steps or processes to achieve outcomes)
  • Focus on people’s strengths (not their weaknesses)
  • Help people find the right fit (possibly in another group or company)

Other insights shared by great managers include:

  • You’re always on stage (we are always modeling by example)
  • Every role performed at excellence deserves respect (reminding me of a recent Wall Street Journal article on Joie de Vivre Hospitality's practice of buying hotel housekeepers new vacuum cleaners every year)
  • Unrestrained empowerment can be a value killer (“Allowing each person to make all of his own decisions may well result in a team of fully self-actualized employees, but it may not be a very productive team”)

The authors use the analogy of sports, invoking the wisdom of a great sports coach in promoting the primacy of people over pre-defined procedures (or plays):

Bud Grant, stone-faced Hall of Fame coach of the Minnesota Vikings described it this way: "You can’t draw up plays and then just plug your players in. No matter how well you have designed your play book, it’s useless if you don’t know which plays your players can run. When I draw up my play book, I always go from the players to the play."

This, in turn, brings up an issue about which I’ve been ruminating lately – the idea of a “player / coach” in the business world. There are very few examples of people who have excelled in both roles (simultaneously). Most great coaches are / were former players … but I don’t believe most great coaches were great players. Management is a talent – or, perhaps, a collection of talents. Having skills, knowledge and experience with the types of activities, people and organizations in which great performance is to be achieved can be very helpful in practicing great management. However, the best players rarely make the best coaches. There are, of course, exceptions – after all, as the book notes, everyone is exceptional – but organizational structures in which managers are also expected to be significant individual contributors may not offer the highest probability for optimal success on any level.

The book offers insights and observations about “managing around weaknesses” that I believe apply equally well to managers and employees. Noting that “no one possesses all of the talents needed to excel in a particular role”, the authors suggest three strategies that can be used to promote performance: devise a support system, find a complementary partner or find an alternative role. The first focuses on logistics – arranging physical or procedural aspects of work so that individual weaknesses can be compensated through other dimensions. The second strategy focuses on the specific dimension of other people, and this notion of complementary partnership reminds me of Starbucks' founder Howard Schultz' insights into passion, perseverance and partnership, and that all successful teams are really partnerships [I've written before that everyone's a customer, and it appears that Starbucks already recognizes and celebrates a corollary - everyone's a partner.]

The third strategy is consonant with more poetic treatments of the issue I’ve encountered (or re-discovered) recently  –the notion that “self-discovery is the driving, guiding force for a healthy career”. The book includes several references to the metaphor of a mirror, emphasizing that great managers help guide their employees to discover – and accept – themselves and their unique talents, and to work with them to apply those talents in ways that are optimally productive for the employee and the organization. This process – or journey – unfolds through regular meetings and discussions, where mutual awareness and trust can be cultivated ... ideally amounting to at least one hour every quarter (vs. the more conventional half hour or hour ever year or half year).

Of course, it may turn out, in some cases, that a productive channeling of an employee’s talents can not be found or created within a group or organization, in which case the best course is for the employee to change jobs. The key here is not to take anything personally – the problem is simply miscasting, not a defect in the character of either the manager or employee.

The book was published in 1999. I bought it in 2004, when I actively entertained ambitions for growing and managing a high performance team for designing and deploying technologies to “help people relate” – the dream, and erstwhile business, of Interrelativity (my now-defunct start-up). After a brief burst of activity as a team of 2, we soon became a team of one, and so the book sat on my shelf for the next three years. Toward the end of a recent presentation I gave at the SDForum on our new generation of proactive displays (which I entitled “Friendsters @ Work”), someone asked me whether I thought our proactive displays – which provide large, ambient windows into personal digital media (e.g., photos from an online photo sharing service like Flickr) in a professional physical workplace (our lab) to promote awareness, interactions and community – were, in effect, manifestations of the Gallup management philosophy. I had to admit I hadn’t thought about it, but in continuing our conversation after the presentation session, he mentioned the “First Break All the Rules” book, and helped me recognize that the design of the proactive display application (the “Context, Content and Community Collage”) was, in fact, very well aligned with the Gallup management philosophy … which I recognized as also being reflected in another book I’ve read (and blogged about): “How Full Is Your Bucket: Positive Strategies for Life and Work” by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton (also with the Gallup management organization).

The Buckingham and Coffman book and has two sequels, "Now Discover Your Strengths" (Buckingham & Clifton, 2001) and "Go Put Your Strengths to Work" (Buckingham, 2007). I have not read these yet, but I have taken the Clifton StrengthsFinder test - referenced in all of the above - which suggested that my five top talents (or strengths) are:

  • Woo (Win Others Over)
    People strong in the Woo theme love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over. They derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection with another person.
  • Connectedness
    People strong in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason.
  • Relator
    People strong in the Relator theme enjoy close relationships with others. They find deep satisfaction in working hard with friends to achieve a goal.
  • Ideation
    People strong in the Ideation theme are fascinated by ideas. They are able to find connections between disparate phenomena.
  • Adaptability
    People strong in the Adaptability theme prefer to "go with the flow". They tend to be "now" people who take things as they come and discover the future one day at a time.

I like to think of myself as someone who is willing to break rules, aware of my strengths, and willing and able to put them to work ... hopefully in complimentary and complementary ways.

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