In “First, Break All The Rules”, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman told the story of how the Gallup Organisation had interviewed and sifted the responses of more than one million employees and how they’d boiled this mass of data down to twelve simple factors that matter to highly engaged employees.

Not perfectly decent, average, everyday employees, but the most loyal, productive, and highly engaged employees.

Nine years on, the book is as punchy and relevant as it was then – probably more so, given the need for companies to attract and retain talented employees during an economic downturn. As the authors said at the time: “These twelve questions don’t capture everything you may want to know about your workplace, but they do capture the most information and the most important information. They measure the core elements needed to attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees.”

  1. Do I know what’s expected of me at work? (Goals)
  2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right? (Tools to do the job)
  3. At work do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day? (Getting the right fit)
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for good work? (Reward & recognition)
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person? (Interpersonal relationships)
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development? (Development)
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count? (Interpersonal relationships)
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my work is important? (Getting the right fit)
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work? (Getting the right fit)
  10. Do I have a best friend at work? (Interpersonal relationships)
  11. In the last six months, have I talked with someone about my progress? (Development)
  12. At work, have I had the opportunity to learn and grow? (Development)


The first seven questions are in bold because they’re the stand-out questions – the ones that count even more than the other five – and if you’re looking to get cracking on these issues, begin at the beginning and work through them in the order they’re in here.

On reading the list of twelve questions, three issues immediately come to mind, and these lead to an all-important fourth issue:

1. Why no mention of pay, benefits and senior management – the usual hot spots in Employee Surveys?

Answer: Because, say Buckingham and Coffman, these things are just as important to average or below average employees as they are to highly engaged and talented employees – they don’t separate one from the other.

2. Is there a connection between positive responses to the 12 questions and business performance?

Answer: Yes, indeed – higher levels of productivity, profit, retention and customer satisfaction.

3. Is there a common factor that seems to underpin or inspire these highly engaged employees?

Answer: Yes – their managers. Positive responses to the 12 questions differed according to business unit within the same companies – the unit managers were creating the right circumstances for excellence to thrive in.

4. So what were these managers doing, exactly? How come they were so great at their jobs?
Answer: Read on.

What Great Managers Do – The Four Keys to Unlocking Employee Talent

The First Key – Get people with talent

When hiring or selecting for jobs, do so not just on the basis of experience, qualifications, and track record, but on the basis of the talents people bring to the job. Talent, according to Buckingham and Coffman, is “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behaviour, that can be productively applied”. So how come so many footballers who kick a ball day in and day out aren’t thought of as talented, but David Beckham is – what’s the difference?

Beckham’s talent is that he kicks the ball with great precision – kicking a ball with great precision is his talent and having a talent; kicking a ball is the skill, kicking a ball with precision is the talent. Also, talents are transferable from one situation to another, whereas skills are less easily transferred. Determination (a talent) can be applied to virtually any task, but knowledge of computer programming won’t help you to climb a mountain.

Gallup identified a multitude of talents and these can be grouped under three basic categories:

  • Striving: the why of a person; why they’re motivated to do something that little bit better than someone else, why they’re competitive, why they’re altruistic, why they prefer technology to people.
  • Thinking: the how of a person; how they prefer to think, how they make decisions,  are they focused or do they keep their options open, do they prefer to be disciplined or loose? Do they think strategically, weighing all the options, or spontaneously, trusting in their instincts?
  • Relating: the who of a person; who they trust, who they’re wary of people they’re drawn to, the ones they try and avoid, who they try to please and who they feel able to confront.

You have to know what talents you’re looking for. Look beyond the job title and description. If it’s a customer service role, do you place the emphasis on relating well to customers and delivering high quality service, or on basic service and clearing queries quickly and objectively? Does the work need people who like lots of structure or people who can go with the flow and adapt quickly to change?

The Second Key – Define the right outcomes

Short of watching them every minute of every working day, your staff decide what they will do and how they will do it. Your job as a manager is to influence their choices in a positive way. You have to manage by remote control.

Since results are what count, performance is what everyone should be primarily focused on, but people are different and work in different ways, so how to manage them effectively? Define the right outcomes, say Buckingham and Coffman, but don’t over-manage and tell them how they must get there.

Hire talented people, get them bought into the outcomes you want, work with them to make sure they deliver, and trust them to do a good job.

What about company policies and procedures? Nothing wrong with them so long as they don’t stifle individual talents. Turn your staff into automatons if you must, but don’t moan when people don’t use their initiative, don’t think outside the box, and fail to take responsibility for anything other than what they’re strictly paid to do.

Better still, say the authors, let people work according to Rules of Thumb. Rather than define all the steps of a procedure for delivering any particular outcome, give employees certain rules of thumb to guide them on issues concerning things such as Accuracy and Safety, Company or Industry standards etc.

What’s right for your customers?

Ask your customers! Visit them, talk to them – most important of all, listen to them. Are your measures of customer satisfaction aimed at satisfying company needs or customer needs? What do your customers think? To your measures of timeliness and accuracy, add responsiveness – are you responsive to their needs?

What’s right for the Company?

Make sure the outcomes you define fit with your company strategy. Keep your Mission constant and your strategy flexible. Have a 5-year plan that changes every year in line with circumstances, like a budget would. Involve your staff in this and encourage them to grow with it, but if they ultimately can’t fit in with the new strategy, they should move on.

What’s right for the individual?

Tailor aspects of your strategy to your people’s strengths; recruit for the talents you want, observe and understand your people well, and tailor your leadership style, their benefits etc. to get the most out of them with regard to the outcomes you desire.

The Third Key – Focus on strengths

1) Let your people become more of who they already are

You’ve hired people on the basis of talent, you’ve defined the right outcomes, now focus on each person’s strengths and manage around their weaknesses.

Don’t try and transform people into something they’re not. This doesn’t mean that you accept poor performance, it means you manage people into jobs that suit them best – whether that be in your team, in your department, in your company or out of the business altogether.

2) Manage by exception

Treat everyone for what they are – different to you and different to everyone else in your team. Ask them what they need to make them perform and, as much as possible, give it to them. What career goals do they have? What motivates them? How do they like to be praised? Do they prefer to learn from courses, books or from a mentor on the job? Over time, build up a picture of your people and manage them accordingly.

3) Spend the most time with your best people

This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s the right thing to do. Don’t neglect your best performers, and don’t spend too long with your strugglers; they need quality time, not quantity time.

Spending more time with your best performers is fair – they deserve the best. Spend time with and study excellent performers, not weak performers.

4) Don’t target at “average” performance

Make excellence your yardstick for measuring people’s performance, otherwise you underestimate what’s possible and underachieve as an organisation. Push your excellent performers to ever greater heights; it may be counterintuitive, but excellent performers have the most room for growth.

5) How to manage around weaknesses

Most important, act quickly when you identify a problem; procrastination is a killer! Most problems centre on one of two things and while not necessarily easy to resolve, they’re usually fairly easy to identify.

  • mechanical cause (e.g. not having the info to do the job)
  • personal causes (depression, grief etc.)

More subtle causes can be harder to identify, but can still be uncovered; try asking three questions:

  • is it a skill problem? – is it possible to train it away?
  • is it a will problem? – is some psychological digging needed?
  • is it a managerial? – are you pushing the wrong buttons?

If the answer to all of the above is “no” and you’re spending too much time managing around weaknesses, then it’s probably a talent issue, a casting error, with one of three most likely solutions;

  • devise a support system to minimise the problem: encourage bad spellers to run spellcheck programmes
  • find a complementary partner who can be Laurel to the other’s Hardy
  • find the person another role

In summary, make sure you have the right person in the role, balance the strengths and weaknesses of each individual in the team so that they complement one another, then, and only then, create a team spirit where people support one another; a successful team is a collection of successful individuals.

The Fourth Key – Find The Right Fit

Career development needs to be about encouraging your people to do more of what they’re best at. It’s a great idea to broaden horizons but this needs to be done in ways that still play to a person’s strengths, not by placing them into roles that they can’t perform well in. Sideways moves into areas that require none of a person’s major talents; upward moves that promote people to the level of their incompetence – all should be avoided.

Some people will progress through upward moves, others through sideways moves, others through staying where they are, or even retracing their steps into past positions. For this to succeed, pay, benefits and titles need to be linked to growth and performance, not just to moving up the ladder.

One rung on the ladder doesn’t necessarily lead to the next, and there are too few at the top to make room for everyone, which inevitably leads to conflict and disappointment. If, on the other hand, we create heroes in every role, then there’s much more opportunity for excellence to be rewarded.

One way to facilitate this is to create graded levels of achievement within the role, as in a law firm, for example, where the newly-qualified lawyer moves through the positions of junior associate, associate, senior associate, junior partner, partner, and senior partner, all within his chosen field of expertise.

When it comes to pay, broadbanding provides flexibility in rewarding in excellence without having to resort to promotions. Pay is defined according to broad bands, or ranges, with the top end of the lower-level overlapping the bottom end of the role above.

With this arrangement, salespeople can earn way more than their managers, so a switch into a management position can often result in a drop in pay. Even if this can be made up and surpassed later (not always the case) by performing excellently as a manager, the decision has to make sense on all sorts of levels, not just pay.

If company rules won’t permit this kind of pay structure, be creative. Give staff tickets to the theatre, vouchers, share options, days off, prestigious projects with financial rewards attached – anything to reward excellence and keep people motivated.

As ever, best fit applies in all of these scenarios and what often lies at the root of discovering the best fit is that employees themselves discover that they have a particular talent for something. This discovery is often a crucial step in getting someone on the path of having a best-fit career. As a leader or a manager, it is down to you to help people to make this discovery and find their own best fit.

Great managers excel at giving performance feedback; not just the annual appraisal, but regular, appropriate feedback. Good feedback should have the following characteristics:

  • it should be a constant feature (however frequent) of the relationship between manager and employee
  • start it with a brief review of past performance, paying particular attention to getting the employee to identify what it was about their style of working – their talent and non-talents – that produced these results
  • continue with a discussion focusing on the future and how the employee can use their style to be more productive and accomplished, and on how the manager can help him/her do this
  • do it in private, one-to-one. Group feedback is one thing, public pats on the back are another, but detailed discussions on how someone is doing should be tailored specifically to the employee’s needs and therefore done in private

Get to know your staff, build personal relationships with them. Familiarity only breeds contempt if you allow it to. Appropriate, direct feedback can still be delivered to people you know well if it’s done with respect and integrity and a firm sense that it’s done on a business footing. If an employee is consistently late, ask why before deciding what to do; blanket reactions don’t take into account personal circumstances and it’s only by understanding these that you can hope to get to the bottom of the situation.

Create a safety net for career progression; if someone moves upwards or sideways, make it for a trial period to ensure everyone’s happy and that it is, indeed, a best fit solution. If everyone knows it’s for a trial period, there should be far less stigma attached to not continuing in the role if either the company or the employee feels they don’t fit well in the new role.

Be very explicit about what’s happening; how long it will last, whether the pay will change, how progress will be measured, how and how often feedback will be given, what will happen if the employee isn’t given the job at the end of the trial period, who will cover for her while she’s out of her usual role.

What if you have to terminate someone’s employment due to a performance-related issue? Great managers employ the tough love approach; they have a mind-set that reconciles a desire for excellence with a genuine need to care for people. If someone is hovering around the average performance mark with no upward trend in sight, this is unacceptable performance, and work starts to manage the employee into or out of the organisation. For how long is average performance tolerated? Not very long (see our previous article ‘Handling that awkward meeting’). Procrastination makes things worse, and if regular feedback and genuine efforts to improve the situation aren’t working, a manager has to be tough and deal with the situation face to face.

The ‘love’ element comes from recognising that we all have our talents, our weaknesses and our problems and if things aren’t working out we look to these rather than blaming the employee to explain away the poor performance. If someone has been miscast in the role, that’s no-one’s fault, it’s just a fact of life; better to acknowledge it and deal with it than let it carry on causing problems for all concerned. Better to show you care and work with the employee to set them up for future success in another role or outside the company than to keep them where they are if their performance doesn’t match your needs.

If you know your people well, and they know you’ve invested in them in the past, you’re in a much better position to carry off the tough love negotiations successfully. They may not be ready to hear what you have to say, but at least the conversation is on a sound footing.

Performance Management: Facilitate the self-discovery that aids the performance process

Probably the most difficult aspect of performance management is having the discipline to do it.

Great managers do the following to help them along:

  1. Keep it simple. They avoid complicated bureaucratic forms and concentrate on the truly difficult work of having the conversation
  2. Make it frequent,at least once a quarter.
  3. Focus the discussion on the future. Use past performance to reveal discoveries about the person’s style of working, but after 10 minutes or so of this, move on and discuss what the employee is going to achieve in the future and how they’re going to do it.
  4. Get the employee to keep track of their own performance. By all means use system-generated performance statistics if you have them, or other means of statistically verifying performance. But more than that, get the employee to keep a file of their goals, achievements, skills learned, “thank you” letters received.

Learning About an Employee

Useful questions to ask in order to learn about an employee as he or she perceive themselves, as this is where they’re starting from, where they think they are:

  • Q1 What did you enjoy about your previous job(s)? What brought you here? What keeps you here?
  • Q2 What do you think your strengths are? (skills, knowledge, talent)
  • Q3 What about your weaknesses?
  • Q4 What are your goals for your current role? (Ask for scores and timelines)
  • Q5 How often would you like to meet with me to discuss your progress? Are you the kind of person who will tell me how you’re feeling or will I have to ask?
  • Q6 Do you have any personal goals or commitment you would like to tell me about?
  • Q7 what is the best praise you have ever received? What made it so good?
  • Q8 Have you had any really productive partnerships or mentors? Why do you think these relationships worked so well for you?
  • Q9 What are your future growth goals, your career goals? Are there any particular skills you want to learn? Are there some specific challenges you want to experience? How can I help?
  • Q10 Is there anything else you want to talk about that might help us work well together?

Performance Planning Meetings

Before each performance meeting, employees should write down details of the following three things:

a) What actions have you taken? These should be details of her performance since the last meeting (about three months). There should be scores, rankings, volumes, ratings etc. depending on the outcomes you’ve defined and how these are measured.

b) What discoveries have you made? These discoveries might be in the form of training classes she attended, or they might simply be new insights derived from a presentation she delivered, or even a book that she read. Wherever they came from, encourage this process of learning and self-discovery.

c) What partnerships have you built? These might be new relationships, or strengthening existing relationships. They might be with clients, colleagues, professional relationships or personal ones. The key is that she takes personal responsibility for building relationships with people.

Make a note of her answers to these questions and keep a copy. Use them as a jumping-off point to start discussing the last 3 months’ performance. After 10 minutes or so, move onto future issues, drawing on the following questions:

d) What is your main focus? What are your primary goals for the next 3 months?

e) What new discoveries are you planning? What specific discoveries are you hoping to make over the next 3 months?

f) What new partnerships are you hoping to build? How are you planning to develop (in terms of size or depth) your circle of contacts over the next 3 months?

Both of you should keep a copy of the answers to these questions and review them at the next meeting. As this cycle repeats over the next 12 months you will build a very useful sense of just who this person is and how she functions. So to, will she have a better sense of who she is, her strengths and weaknesses, her opinions and needs, the ways in which she succeeds and falters, all of which should lead to a better focus on making the most of her strengths.

Career Discovery Questions

  • Q1 How would you describe success in your current role? Can you measure it? Here’s what I think (add your own comments)
  • Q2 What do you actually do that makes you as good as you are? What does this tell you about your skills, knowledge, and, talent? Here’s what I think  (add your own comments)
  • Q3 Which part of your role do you enjoy the most? Why?
  • Q4 Which part of your role are you struggling with? What does this tell you about your skills, knowledge and talents? What can we do to manage this better? Training? Positioning? Support system? Mentoring?
  • Q5 What would be the perfect role for you? Imagine you’re in that role. It’s 3pm on a Thursday. What are you doing? Why would you like that so much? Here’s what I think (add your own comments)

The aim is to get the employee to think about his career. Does he want to grow within his current role? Move to a new role? If so, what strength and satisfaction would he derive from it? Questions like these will help you to explore the area of career progression in a way that doesn’t simply focus on moving up to the next rung on the ladder.

Managing Your Own Career : growing stronger every day

  • Look in the mirror any chance you get. Use any feedback tools the company provides that increase your understanding of who you are and how others perceive you.
  • Muse. Sit down for 20 or 30 minutes watch month and review how things have gone. What did you accomplish? What did you learn? What did you hate? What did you love? What does all of this say about your talents?
  • Discover yourself. Become more and more detailed in your description of yours kills, knowledge and talents. Use this to volunteer for the right tasks and roles, to be a better partner, to guide your training and development choices.
  • Build relationships. Figure out which relationships work well for you and seek them out. Cultivate relationships that help you to succeed.
  • Keep track. Build your own record of your learnings and discoveries.
  • Catch your peers doing something right. Look for positive things in those around you and get a better sense of your workplace and you colleagues.

Managing your Manager

  1. If your manager is too busy to schedule performance or career development meetings, make it easy for her; tell her you’ll plan the meeting in advance, make sure she has all the information she needs, book the room – all she has to do is turn up.
  2. If your manager forces you to do things her way, she’s probably focusing on process too much. In a performance meeting, tell her you’d prefer to define your role more in terms of outcomes than steps and that this will allow her to work according to your preferred style and to focus on your strengths.
  3. If your manager criticises you in public, fails to praise you or even praises you in a way you find embarrassing, raise this at a quiet, opportune moment when you both have some privacy.
  4. If your manager is intrusive and constantly asks how you’re doing, what you’re doing, explain that you’re hoping to function a little more independently andcheck in with him less frequently.
  5. If the above just don’t work and you find yourself managed by an unsympathetic, awkward character, who makes every day a bind, choose a direction and move on as soon as you can.

Read about soft skills (part one and part two), emotional intelligence and meaningfulness

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