By Marcus Buckingham and Curt CoffmanPublished by Simon & Schuster, May 1999Hardcover, 242 pp. plus appendices and indexISBN: 0-684-85286-1
Price: $20.00 at
Do not try to help people overcome their weaknesses. Don’t believe the theory that people can accomplish anything if they just try hard enough. And don’t worry if you play favorites at work.

Those words of advice are some of the ways the world’s best managers defy conventional wisdom, according to a massive study by the Gallup Organization involving in-depth interviews of over 80,000 managers in more than 400 companies. The results of the study form the foundation of the book, First, Break All the Rules. You might expect it to be a dry read full of statistics and tedious descriptions of methodologies, but First, Break All the Rules is full of lively and lucid prose, abundant real-life examples, and insightful metaphors that guide you through the challenges managers face today. The methodologies are explained in an appendix, in case you are interested.

Twelve questions to help retain employees
Authors Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, who lecture and consult on management topics for the Gallup Organization, provide several key take-aways in their book.

One valuable section that may be especially helpful for IT managers is a list of 12 questions that can help you measure the core elements inherent in your workplace. It’s intended to assist in recruiting and retaining talented employees:

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

“These 12 questions don’t capture everything you may want to know about your workplace,” the authors write, “but they do capture the most information and the most important information….If you can create the kind of environment where employees answer positively to all 12 questions, then you will have built a great place to work.”

The importance of the manager’s role in creating such an environment cannot be overstated, according to Buckingham and Coffman.

“It is better to work for a great manager in an old-fashioned company than for a terrible manager in a company offering an enlightened, employee-focused culture.”

Four keys to management
Buckingham and Coffman also explain the “four keys” to becoming an excellent manager:

  • Select for talent: Talent is more important than experience, brainpower, and willpower, according to the authors. They define talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.”
  • Define the right outcomes: Define outcomes and then let each person find his or her own route to reach them. “Defining the right outcomes does expect a lot of employees, but there is probably no better way to nurture self-awareness and self-reliance in your people.”
  • Focus on strengths: Then manage around weaknesses. “Help each person become more of who he already is.”
  • Find the right fit: “Help each person find roles that ask him to do more and more of what he is naturally wired to do. Help each person find roles where her unique combination of strengths—her skills, knowledge, and talents—match the distinct demands of the role.”

The authors provide a separate chapter for each of the four keys. The final chapter is a practical guide to using the keys in day-to-day work. In fact, practical advice and specific techniques are plentiful throughout the book, and they cover most major management tasks. You’ll get advice on everything from structuring a trial period for a new hire to developing a “tough love” mindset when you have to fire someone. (The authors quote an entrepreneur who terminated an employee like this: “Come in, sit down, I love you; you’re fired; I still love you. Now, get a drink and let’s talk this through.”)

The book does not encourage you to mimic the style of the world’s best managers. Indeed, “great managers do not share a ‘standardized style,’” the authors note. Instead, the goal of the book is to “help you capitalize on your own style by showing you how to incorporate the revolutionary insights shared by great managers everywhere.” First, Break All the Rules does a superb job of meeting that goal.
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