What are the unspoken rules of management? The ones you follow because you feel you should, even when you may have an inkling that they no longer apply?

Stuff like, treat everyone the same, even when you know some of your people are amazing and can be trusted and others are terrible and likely shouldn’t even be in the organization.

Well, First Break All the Rules, is here to help. Through extensive research, the Gallup Group looked at what makes amazing employees. What makes them perform well, and stick with an organization. Then they put this research into the book First Break All The Rules.

A Note on First Break All the Rules

Coming from a psychology background, there were a few annoyances with the beginning of this book. They do a bunch of back-patting. As if they’re so amazing that they discovered ways to parse this information that no one else is privy too.

Take this sentence for instance:

…we had discovered a solution: meta-analysis

This is a solution to all the data across many studies that needed to be sorted. They “discovered” a regular process to analyze lots of data from different studies. It’s psych 101 stuff, at least learning what a meta-analysis is and how you do one in broad terms.

They didn’t discover it; they just used it. It’s like a carpenter going on about having these things called nails and boards, and she discovers a hammer and uses it to put the pieces together.

No, she just used the tools available, as anyone else would that had the same raw materials at hand.

This is just one example and one that would slip by many people that didn’t have a background in statistics and psychology. There are a few others in the first bit of the book which are used to build up the credibility of their methods, but they’re all regular things that any organization would do.

That doesn’t degrade the book, it’s just super annoying and in my mind does degrade their credibility because they’re essentially trying to fool the layman that may be reading this book.

Now, on with looking at what it means to break the rules of business so that you can be a better manager.

The first and most often cited rule of management that is likely controversial is that great managers:

They do not believe that a person can achieve anything he sets his mind to. They do not try to help a person overcome his weaknesses.

As we read further, we’ll find that what they’re saying is that as a manager you can’t force someone to change. They have to want to change themselves so don’t waste your energy on trying to force change.

Where I took exception to this at the beginning, with the deeper understanding provided reading later in the book, I can get on board with this statement. I’ve worked with a number of people who wanted to talk lots about change but never wanted to put the work in. Change never happened, and they’re still in the same stuck spot they were in.

Now, let’s get on to the meat of First Break All The Rules.

Chapter 1: The Measuring Stick

To start being a great manager, you need to know what makes your people happy and perform well. According to Gallup, there are twelve items that attract and retain talent.

  1. I know what is expected of me at work
  2. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right
  3. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day
  4. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work
  5. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person
  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development
  7. At work, my opinions seem to count
  8. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important
  9. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work
  10. I have a best friend at work
  11. In the last six months, someone at work as talked to me about my progress
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow

They divide these twelve items up into four different groups.

Basecamp: What do I get?
Basecamp covers questions 1 and 2 and is about making sure someone has the things to do their job.

Camp 1: What do I give?
Camp 1, is about questions three through six. These cover the contribution to your work. Do you get to do the things that you’re good at?

Camp 2: Do I belong here?
Camp 2 covers questions seven through ten. In the grand scheme of the organization, do I fit in with my colleagues? Are we on the same page?

Camp 3: How can we all grow?
Camp 3 involves the final two questions, 11 and 12. They only matter if you have all the other items dealt with. They are about how the company values you and helps you improve your work.

If you’ve read The Happiness Advantage1, you’ll see some similarities between some of the elements above and Principle Seven: Social Investment.

…the heart of Principle 7 — that when we encounter an unexpected challenge or threat, the only way to save ourselves is to hold on tight to the people around us and not let go – The Happiness Advantage

We’re looking for a place where we can have people to hang on to when things get tough. This idea is supported by the research done in both books.

It’s funny to read these things and then look at job ads for companies today. They’re talking about ping-pong tables and company video game nights. Neither of which register in the 12 questions. Sure these things might lead to someone that’s a good friend at work, but they don’t guarantee it.

Companies push these things that don’t matter as if they’re the perks that people are looking for.

It’s not. The key to attracting and retaining great talent is the manager they work for.

We had discovered that the manager — not pay, benefits, perks or a charismatic corporate leader — was the critical player in building a strong workplace. The manager was the key.

In fact, they found that you’re more likely to stick with an ‘old-school’ company that didn’t allow flexible schedules, remote work, and video game tournaments if you had a good manager.

Another key they found with the twelve items is that you need to start your focus at the bottom. Sure you can start with number 5, and that might attract some talent, but the lack of 1-4 will mean that you don’t retain talent.

With this foundational idea established, First Break All The Rules, spends the rest of the book helping you learn to build a workplace that supports the 12 items.

Chapter 2: The Wisdom of Great Managers

The big insight managers have

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.

That’s a hard one to read for many managers. They hire someone with skills and then try to build up the weaknesses they have. Sam isn’t very organized, so they send him to some training to help him be organized. He’s a great salesperson though, and his meetings with clients are always amazing, so we don’t send him on further training to refine and enhance that skill.

We let it ride and work on the worst thing about him.

In their book The ONE Thing2, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, spend the whole time talking to us about how we should stick with the things we do amazing because doing one thing with superhuman abilities will yield much better results than being average all around.

The manager role is to reach inside each employee and release his unique talents into performance.

The role of the manager isn’t to shore up the weaknesses. It’s not to follow some rote path dictated by the company. It’s to help people become the amazing people the can be.

To use their unique talents to provide value to the business.

Where companies fail, managers is when they try to force them all to act the same way.

A company should not force every manager to manage his people exactly the same way. Each manager will, and should, employ his own style. What a company can and should do is keep every manager focused on the four core activities of the catalyst role: select a person, set expectations, motivate the person and develop the person.

In forcing this homogenization of management companies lose sight of the fact that each manager is different. Each team is different, and all of these differences mean that they need to be dealt with differently.

In fact, in Linchpin3, Seth Godin, talks about this mindset coming out of factory work.

Organizing around the average means that the organization has exchanged the high productivity of exceptional performance for the ease and security of an endless parade of average performers – Linchpin

We need to stop going to the easily managed and measure and instead empower our people to do the work they are best suited to.

Chapter 3: The First Key: Select for Talent

I believe that everyone has some talent that they can use. There is something they do way better than I can. Talent is not rare, what is rare is being given the opportunity to use the talents we have to their maximum.

For most of us, talent seems like a rare and precious thing, bestowed on special, faraway people. They are different, these people with talent. They are “not us.”

According to Gallup, there are three groupings of talent.

Striving talents explain the why of a person. They explain why he gets out of bed every day and why he is motivated to push and push just a little bit harder.

Thinking talents explain the how of a person. They explain how she thinks, how she weighs alternatives and how she comes to her decisions.

Relating talents explain the who of a person. They explain whom he trusts, whom he builds relationships with, whom he confronts and whom he ignores.

Looking at these talents, they encourage us to stop trying to tell people to get a better attitude. We need to help them find a job where the attitude and talents they have are key elements to their success.

The best way to help an employee cultivate his talents is to find him a role that plays to those talents.

If someone is failing at their job, and is clearly talented, then you’ve got them in the wrong position in the organization.

As a manager, your job is not to teach people talent. Your job is to help them earn the accolade “talented” by matching their talent to the role. To do this well, like all great managers, you have to pay close attention to the subtle but significant differences between roles.

I encountered this when I worked at 10up. I’m a good developer, and they’re a company that needs good developers. I only lasted three months and was a poor employee. I didn’t like working there.

Am I a bad developer? No, looking back years later, I was sitting in a seat that didn’t fit with my strengths. They didn’t have a seat at the time that did fit my strengths so I really shouldn’t have been there4.

If you’ve done your hiring right, you’ve got a good person. If they’re not performing and you can’t figure out why it’s likely that you’ve got them in a role that doesn’t suit their strengths. Move them to a spot where the strengths they do have are the keys to success.

Chapter 4: The Second Key: Define the Right Outcomes

Are you familiar with what a ROWE business is? It’s a Results Only Work Environment. A place where the only thing that matters is that things get done.

They don’t care when you show up or if you show up at all5. Focusing on outcomes and nothing else is another key that Gallup found in businesses that were highly profitable and retained top talent.

Define the right outcomes and then let each person find his own route toward those outcomes.

Top talent doesn’t want to conform to a bunch of rules. They want to be able to do their job well. They see rules without purpose as silly so don’t be surprised if they get broken. In fact, a good way to look at it is, if your top people keep breaking a rule it’s likely the rule is not needed at all and inhibits them from doing their job effectively.

Unless it’s some sort of regulatory requirement, cut it.

Again, back to Linchpin, it’s easier to measure when we give people a set of rules to follow. But don’t expect any breakthroughs. Expect average people, because they’re the ones that want a list of rules to follow so that they can just show up.

When faced with the challenge of turning talent into performance, why do so many managers choose, instead, to dictate how work should be done? Every manager has his own reasons, but in the end, it is probably because the allure of control is just too tempting.

Great managers realize that great talent will want to focus on outcomes and that they need to help define them, no matter how hard it is.

Just because some outcomes are difficult to define does not mean that they defy definition. It simply means that the outcomes aren’t obvious. Some thinking is required.

In fact, the stronger an employee is, the harder it will likely be to define the best outcomes they need to hit.

When I worked at Western Canoeing and Kayaking , the main outcome was that whoever bought a boat was in the right boat for them.

We had no expectations of hours spent with clients or a number of clients to see in a day. We were empowered to help people find the right product for them. I remember having someone come in that wanted to try out a number of canoes. I didn’t think twice about loading one on their car and one on a work truck and taking them out to a local lake to try out the two boats.

Gallup’s research confirms what great managers know instinctively. Forcing your employees to follow required steps only prevents customer dissatisfaction. If your goal is truly to satisfy, to create advocates, then the step-by-step approach alone cannot get you there. Instead, you must select employees who have the talent to listen and to teach, and then you must focus them toward simple emotional outcomes like partnership and advice.

The only concession that my boss wanted was to make sure that one of the other employees was off lunch so that they could watch the floor. I spent the afternoon on the lake with a client teaching them about solo paddling a canoe. On the face of it spending 3 hours doing that may not seem like a great business proposition. Certainly, that single sale was much less profitable than if I had pushed them into a boat in the store.

But by focusing on the outcome, getting someone into the right boat for them, we sold a boat. Then we sold a boat with much less investment to their father, brother, sister, and cousin.

We saw over and over again that giving this type of amazing service and focusing on the result, yielded customers that became our raving fans. Driving 12 hours to purchase a boat from us instead of the other five stores they passed on the way.

What are the results that matter in your organization? How can you focus only on those, and let your amazing employees fill in the details?

Chapter 5: The Third Key: Focus on Strengths

Chapter five is where First Break All The Rules, starts to get a bit repetitive. We’ve already been told that we need to focus on employee strengths and not weaknesses. But this is an entire chapter with more specific examples.

So you have selected for talent, and you have defined the right outcomes. You have your people, and they have their goals. What should you do now? What should you do to speed each person’s progress toward performance?
Great managers would offer you this advice: Focus on each person’s strengths, and manage around his weaknesses. Don’t try to fix the weaknesses. Don’t try to perfect each person. Instead, do everything you can to help each person cultivate his talents. Help each person become more of who he already is.

Some of the great additions are that you should have the ability to describe the unique talents of your people.

One of the signs of a great manager is the ability to describe, in detail, the unique talents of each of his or her people — what drives each one, how each one thinks and how each one builds relationships.

If you can’t do this off the top of your head, then stop right now and work through the people you’re in charge of. What are their unique talents and are you using them to their maximum?

It does add a bit in that it starts to discuss non-talents and the fact that you shouldn’t be focusing on them. It takes it from the point of view of the employee as well, encouraging them not to worry so much about their non-talents and to work to excel at the things they’re amazing at. But remember, we already talked about that in an earlier chapter when we discussed attitude and being in the right spot so that your weaknesses are strengths.

Persistence is useful if you are trying to learn a new skill or acquire particular knowledge. Persistence can even be appropriate if you are trying to cut a thin path through some of your mental wastelands so that, for example, your nontalent for empathy doesn’t permanently undermine your talents in other areas. But persistence directed primarily toward your nontalents is self-destructive. No amount of determination or good intentions will ever enable you to carve out a brand-new set of four-lane mental highways. You will reprimand yourself, berate yourself and put yourself through all manner of contortions in an attempt to achieve the impossible.

It also tells managers not to spend too much time on stragglers.

Investing in stragglers appears shrewd. Yet the most effective managers do the opposite. When they join the names, their lines are horizontal. They spend the most time with their most productive employees. They invest in their best.

Where doubling the productivity of a “1” means you have a “2”, doubling the productivity of an “8” means you have a “16”. You get much more bang for your buck by focusing on those that are already performing well.

If a manager is preoccupied with the burden of transforming strugglers into survivors by helping them squeak above average, he will have little time left for the truly difficult work of guiding the good toward great.

Finally, it reminds us not to define what’s possible by what average people do. This is similar to it’s earlier exhortation that we should focus on outcomes and let the ‘rules’ go so that we can let our exceptional people be exceptional.

Don’t use average to estimate the limits of excellence. You will drastically underestimate what is possible. Focus on your best performers, and keep pushing them toward the right edge of the bell curve.

As I said, much of this chapter has been covered earlier in the book. It gets more specific with Chapter 5, which means you have more examples to draw on, but it is still mostly repeated information.

Chapter 6: The Fourth Key: Find the Right Fit

Regardless of what employees want, the manager’s responsibility is to steer employees toward roles where they have the greatest chance of success.

Again, chapter six starts to feel like a repeat of earlier information, but with more specifics and more guidance.

We still think that the most creative way to reward excellence in a role is to promote the person out of it. We still tie pay, perks and titles to a rung on the ladder. The higher the rung, the greater the pay, the better the perks and the grander the title.

The biggest difference here is that they start talking about the Peter Principle. This is the principle that people get promoted until they’re incompetent. The amazing software developer becomes the lead developer and then a manager. They were great developers and terrible managers.

They got promoted out of a job they were amazing at, into a job that they were incompetent at.

Often this happens because the person is looking for more money and the only way to get more money is being promoted. To combat this issue with promotions, they introduce the idea of broadbanded pay rates.

A programmer might be paid 60k – 250k, but a technical lead would be 80 – 500k. That means to move from a top programmer to a technical lead would mean a drop in wages. In theory, you only have the people that are the best fit moving up because they have to take a significant drop in wages to take the next position.

Even with things like broadband pay in place, people will get into the wrong job for themselves at some points. Fixing this starts by giving someone great feedback on how they’re doing.

That’s more than a yearly review. It’s constant feedback. It’s a review of past performance, and most importantly it’s a look towards the future goals. Finally, good employee feedback is intended to help not berate, so it should be given in private where a frank discussion can happen.

Despite lots of feedback and work, someone may just not measure up to the job requirements.

But great managers don’t have to hide their true feelings. They understand that a person’s talents and nontalents constitute an enduring pattern. They know that if, after pulling out all the stops to manage around his nontalents, an employee still underperforms, the most likely explanation is that his talents do not match his role. In the minds of great managers, consistent poor performance is not primarily a matter of weakness, stupidity, disobedience or disrespect. It is a matter of miscasting.

Not everyone can be made to fit into the job they’re currently sitting in. Sometimes you’ll have to remove a person from the organization or return them to their previous position, where they thrived.

Chapter 7: Turning the Keys: A practical guide

A person’s unaided response to an open-ended question is powerfully predictive. Trust it, no matter how hunch you might want to hear something else.

The final section is all about giving a manager some tools to open up the performance that is inside the people they manage. Specifically, it’s giving you tools to conduct those employee reviews so that you can get employees to operate at their maximum productive setting.

No manager can make an employee productive. Managers are catalysts. They can speed up the reaction between the talent of the employee and the needs of the customer and company. They can help the employee find his path of least resistance toward his goals.

Recommendation for First Break All The Rules

Putting aside the self-congratulations found at the beginning, this is a good book. It’s going to help you be a better manager, especially if you can overlay their 12 questions on your organization and make sure that you are hitting them out of the park for your team.

Get First Break All the Rules on Amazon

photo credit: wiredforsound cc

  1. You can see my look at The Happiness Advantage here
  2. Here is my look at The ONE Thing
  3. My look at Linchpin is forthcoming. 
  4. I can only realize this many years later with many books read and much learning about myself done. 
  5. A great example of this can be seen in the crazy things that they do with business in The Seven Day Weekend. It’s a book all about SEMCO, a business that throws off pretty much every standard business pratice, and thrives.