Book Review: First, Break All the Rules

First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Gallup (2016). NY: Gallup Press.

First, Break All the Rules

First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently

The first thing you should know is that this is a re-release of a bestseller from 1999. As far as I could tell, the only thing different was an update of metadata at the end. So, if you have a copy of the first edition on your bookshelf, unless you’re a data wonk, there’s no reason to buy the new edition. If you haven’t read this book, it’s a worthwhile read.

Essentially, this book is about how to be a good manager. It is chock full of data-driven conclusions. After interviewing a million employees and 80,000 managers, Gallup discovered that twelve items describe the health of a workplace. The first six are most important. They are:

  • I know what is expected of me at work.
  • I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  • At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  • In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  • My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  • There is someone at work who encourages my development.

These items are positively linked to at least one of the four business outcomes: productivity, profitability, retention, and customer satisfaction, and most are linked to two or more. Employees who score high on the items are said to be engaged. Engagement is most closely linked to how satisfied the employee is with his or her immediate manager. People leave managers, not companies.

According to Gallup, the management role has four core activities. These are: select for talent, define the right outcomes, focus on strengths, and find the right fit for employees. Most of the book discusses these four core activities and how to excel at them. Discovering and working with people’s talents are at the heart of good management. The authors state that it’s more important to select for employees who have the right set of talents for the job than it is to select for either skills or knowledge. Both of these can be taught, but talents are inherent.

Gallup’s research describes 34 talent themes divided into four categories: executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic thinking. If you buy the book, you can take the Clifton Strengthsfinder Assessment and the Q12 Employee Engagement Survey for free, and discover your individual strengths, at least as defined by Gallup.

It’s important to slot people into jobs that reflect their talents rather than their resumes. One of the most touching sections, for me, was about hotel housekeepers. Gallup asked hotels to identify their best housekeepers, and they interviewed these outstanding workers. Now, cleaning hotel rooms isn’t most people’s idea of a good time. In fact, it’s considered to be an entry-level job that most people will choose to leave as soon as possible. But, exemplary housekeepers love the job and often stay in it for their entire careers. When asked how they know if a room is clean, one said that the last thing they did before leaving a room was to lie on the guest’s bed and turn on the ceiling fan.

“Why?”

“Because,” they explained, “that is the first thing that a guest will do after a long day out. They will walk into the room, flop down on the bed and turn on the fan. If dust comes off the top of the fan, then no matter how sparkling clean the rest of the room was, the guest might think it was as dirty as the top of the fan.”

Sweet. Others talked about making a show for their guests. “Unless the guests object, we will take the toys that the children leave on the bed, and every day, we will make a little scene for them. We will put Pooh and Piglet on the pillows together. Pooh will have his arm in a chocolate candy box. Piglet will have his on the remote control. When the children come back, they imagine that all day long, Pooh and Piglet hung out on the bed, snacking and watching TV.”

These great housekeepers had talent. Seen through their filters, cleaning a hotel room wasn’t just another chore for them to complete. It was a world, a guest’s world. Making each guest’s world just right brought them strength and satisfaction.

In the mind of great managers, every role performed at excellence deserves respect. Every role has its own nobility.

I wish there had been more inspiring stories like this in the book. Instead, there were lots of sections based on data, for example: Rules of Thumb, How to Manage Around a Weakness, The Art of Tough Love. Maybe these sections will be exactly what you need to read, or maybe, like me, you will skim through them. I found that the last section, called “Turning the Keys: A Practical Guide” really made me sit up and take an interest. For me, this section was, well, practical. For example, the section on performance management was extremely helpful. Gallup found four characteristics common to the performance management routines of great managers.

First, the routine is simple. Great managers don’t want to spend their time trying to decipher alien terms and filling out bureaucratic forms. Instead, they prefer a simple format that allows them to focus on the employee’s difficult work.

Second, the routine forces frequent interaction between the manager and the employee. It is no good meeting once a year. More frequent meetings are essential in order to capture the specifics of an employee’s talents.

Third, the routine is focused on the future. The good manager discusses what could be rather than focusing on postmortems.

Last, the routine asks the employee to keep track of his or her own performance and learnings. The purpose of self-assessment is to serve as a counterpoint or comparison with the assessment of the manager.

After discussing the aspects of the routine, the book lists questions the manager can ask in the first interview with the employee. These include such things as: What did you enjoy most about your previous work experience? What do you think your strengths are? What are your goals for your current role? How often would you like to meet with me to discuss your progress?
I found these questions to be very useful. In addition, there are questions to use in the performance planning meetings as well as career discovery questions. Every manager, I believe, would find these helpful.

One thing I found annoying in the book was how it set up its ideas of the “rules” for management, and described how people who excelled at Gallup’s definition of management did things differently. For example, according to the “rules” they describe, traditional managers believe their job is to help a person overcome weaknesses rather than focusing on developing strengths. The managers I know do help their team members overcome their most glaring weaknesses, but they also help them identify their strengths. It’s not an “either-or” proposition. Maybe the rules—accepted wisdom–have changed in the seventeen years since the first release of this book. Even though it’s a bit dated, it’s still a thought-provoking book, and one that managers should know.

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