What Great Managers Do Differently

Pursue Management Success by Practicing the Skills of Great Managers

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Great managers break every rule perceived as conventional wisdom when dealing with the selection, motivation, and development of staff. So state Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in First, Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, a book that presents the findings of Gallup Press' (Gallup, Inc.) interviews with over 80,000 successful managers.

The most impressive result of the findings on successful managers is that each great manager was identified based on the performance results they produced in their organization.

Additionally, the role of human resource management and development information from the book are expanded upon with specific examples and recommendations. Human resource professionals and managers can apply the research findings to jump-start their management career success.

A New Approach to Human Resource Development

The insight most commonly expressed during the interviews with 80,000 managers challenges traditional human resource management and development beliefs. Thousands of great managers stated variations on this belief:

“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.”

The implications of this insight for training and performance development are profound. It encourages building on what people can already do well instead of trying to develop their weaker skills and abilities.

The traditional performance improvement process identifies specific, average and below performance areas. Suggestions for improvement, either verbal or in a formal appraisal process, focus on developing these weaknesses.

What great managers do instead is assess each individual’s talents and skills. They then provide training, coaching, and development opportunities that will help the person increase these skills. They compensate for or manage around a person's weaknesses.

For example, if you employ a person who lacks people skills, but has a tremendous amount of product knowledge, a diverse group of staff members can form a customer service team that includes him. Other employees with excellent people skills make his weakness less evident. And, the organization is able to capitalize on his product knowledge when dealing with product quality issues.

Does this mean that great managers never help people improve their inadequate skills, knowledge, or methods? No, but they shift their emphasis toward the areas in which the employee already has talent, knowledge, and skills.

Four Vital Jobs for Great Managers

Buckingham and Coffman identify four twists on conventional approaches which further define the differences in tactics espoused by managers.

  • Select people based on talent.
  • When setting expectations for employees, establish the right outcomes.
  • When motivating an individual, focus on their strengths.
  • To develop an individual, and find the right job fit for the person.

Select People Based on Talent

During the Gallup interviews, managers stated that they selected staff members based on talent, rather than experience, education, or intelligence. Gallup defined talents by studying the proficiencies needed to achieve in 150 distinct roles. The talents they identified are:

  • Striving: a drive for achievement, need for expertise, a drive to put beliefs into action
  • Thinking: focused, disciplined, and personal responsibility
  • Relating: feel empathy, attentive to individual differences, the ability to persuade

Human resource professionals can support line managers more effectively if they recommend methods for identifying talents. Realistic testing and behavioral interviewing are a few methods that can be chosen. When checking background, look for patterns of talent application. If a candidate develops every new position she ever obtained from scratch, she has a high ability to apply her talent.

Establish the Right Outcomes For Employee Expectations

According to Buckingham and Coffman, great managers assist each individual to establish goals and objectives that are congruent with the needs of the organization.

Great managers help each employee define two items:

  • The expected outcome of goals and objectives
  • Their success upon completion; then they get out of the way

Most work is performed by people who are not under the constant supervision of a manager. Given this fact, it makes sense to let the employee determine the right path to walk to accomplish their objectives. They will undoubtedly choose paths that draw upon their unique talents and ability to contribute.

Human resource (HR) professionals can support this approach by coaching managers in more participative styles. Reward systems can be established that recognize managers who develop the abilities of others. HR should promote the establishment of organization-wide goals to drive performance.

When Motivating an Individual, Focus on Strengths

Managers should appreciate the diversity of the people in their workgroup, state Buckingham and Coffman. They recognize that “helping people become more of who they already are,” will best support their growth and success.

As an example, if a challenge is what an employee craves, make sure they always have a tough, challenging assignment. If your staff member prefers routine tasks, send more repetitive work in their direction. If they enjoy solving problems for people, they may excel in front-line service.

Find the Right Job Fit for Each Person

A manager’s job is not to help every individual they supervise grow. Their job is to improve performance. To do this, they have to identify whether each employee is in the right role.

Additionally, they need to work with each person to determine what it means to improve in a role and understand how their abilities contribute to performance within the organization.

For some people, this may mean reaching for a promotion; for others, it might mean expanding the current job. Traditionally, people felt that the only growth in the workplace was “up” the promotional ladder.

This method of thinking is outdated. Buckingham and Coffman state that you should “create heroes in every role.”

Managers do not need to guide an employee up the proverbial ladder, they only need to assist employees in building up the skills and abilities for lateral capacity—the capacity to move laterally across positions or take on more expert tasks in their current role.

The HR professional must maintain a thorough understanding of positions and needs across the organization, to help each individual experience the right job fit.

Familiarize yourself with the talents and capabilities of each person in your organization. Keep excellent documentation of testing, job applications, performance appraisals, and performance development plans.

Develop a promotion and hiring process which supports placing people in positions that fit. Establish career development opportunities and succession plans that emphasize being fit for the role, instead of experience and longevity in a role.

As an HR professional, if you can assist managers and supervisors in your organization to understand and apply these concepts, you'll help create a successful organization of strong and talented contributing people.