Book Review: First, Break All the Rules

By Debra J. Dean

Buckingham and Coffman’s classic book First, Break All the Rules (1999) is inspiring, insightful, and encouraging, and their common sense approach to finding the answer to what makes a great manager is brilliant. Their findings confirmed that not all great managers use the same leadership style, nor do they all adhere to conventional wisdom. This book offers a real-life practical application that anyone can use, grounded in a scholarly approach that included “focus groups, factor analysis, regression analysis, concurrent validity studies, and follow-up interviews” (p. 27).

The research component of this book is massive; the Gallup Organization conducted two huge studies over a 25-year period. They surveyed more than one million employees and 80,000 managers from a variety of companies, countries, and industries, using reliable and validated measurements. The sheer volume of participants and span of time provides proof that this data is generalizable to any industry, country, or company.

Initially, the Gallup Organization examined the following question: What do the most talented employees need from their workplace? The findings indicated that “Talented employees need great managers” (p. 11). The second phase of the study then questioned: “How do the world’s greatest managers find focus, and keep talented employees” (p. 12). The mountains of data were categorized and sifted until twelve questions emerged from the dust. Buckingham and Coffman now call the twelve questions “The Measuring Stick;” they are the “core elements needed to attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees” (p. 28).

Basically, an image of a mountain is used as a metaphor with the Measuring Stick. The first two questions are considered the Base Camp. This is the core element where an employee wants to know what is expected of them and what will they get in return. Questions 3 – 6 are considered Camp 1 and begin to examine what other people think of how the employee is performing. This is the core element focused on self-esteem and worth. Camp 1 examines if the employee has confidence in their own expertise. Camp 2 includes questions 7 – 10 and focus on the core element of the job fit for the employee. This camp questions the reality of how the employee’s ideas and opinions will be accepted in the workplace. The last two questions are part of Camp 3, which is “the most advanced stage of the climb” and evaluates how everyone can continue to learn and grow (p. 45).

Once all twelve questions are answered positively, the employee reaches the summit. Buckingham and Coffman warn that “it is not easy to remain at the summit for long” (p. 45). As many in the workforce know, shifting ground and strong winds may come from organizational change, promotion, or some other disrupter that is all too common in the modern workplace. This Measuring Stick is a great tool to use personally to gauge one’s own career or administer to a team, department, or company to get a pulse on greatness.

Ultimately, the study has begun to reveal what great managers have in common and what employees will always need. The book tries to be timeless, answering the following questions in ways as relevant today as ten years ago—and ten years from now (p.17):

  • What will talented employees always need?
  • What will great managers always do to turn talent into performance?
  • What are the enduring secrets to finding, focusing, and keeping talented employees?
  • What are the constants?

The Measuring Stick provides a tool that anyone can use. I used this tool in my workplace with a department of 36 employees. The instruments were divided by managers in order to see how each team was doing and provide training opportunities. The tool was easy; the employees spent less than 20 minutes completing the survey and I used the results to coach my leadership team in their weekly meetings. The plan is to use this tool annually as a department to gauge our progress to the summit and assess if outside forces are causing any of the climbers to retreat back towards Base Camp.

Dr. Debra J. Dean is President and CEO of Dean Business Consulting and serves as an adjunct professor. She and her husband have six children and three grandchildren. They enjoy spending time outdoors and relishing the beauty of God’s creation.

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