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FIRST, BREAK ALL THE RULES BY MARCUS BUCKINGHAM & CURT COFFMAN

Updated: Jul 5



First published in 1999, this book was an instant success. Updates have helped keep the book current. But it is its underlying premise that seems to make it more relevant than ever for today’s changing world of work.


No matter what your business is, ‘Intellectual Capital’ – your people – is the most valuable asset it has. Once upon a time, a company’s value was based on its assets, profit, and liabilities. In 1999, when this book was published, just 60% of a company’s value was based on these metrics. That number has been shrinking steadily. More and more, intangibles such as research and development, customer satisfaction, innovation, and employee satisfaction are becoming the measure of value. As we proceed into the coming decades, this will ring true with increasing strength. Healthy, vibrant workplaces are the ones that will adapt and innovate to become part of the future. These are the companies comprised of engaged employees, teams that are excited about the business, managers that can unlock the potential in every worker. Managers are a critical conduit for this. Far from becoming endangered, companies need these professionals to attract the right talent; to transform them into loyal and engaged employees who are excited about helping the business achieve its goals and surge forward to further successes. These emotionally invested workers have firm ties to the organization and love what they do. These firm ties are threaded through their direct supervisors and managers. Great managers help employees at all levels of an organization reach excellence. In doing so, they lift the business where they work to new heights. Poor managers can’t do this; average managers may occasionally, accidentally, cause this to happen; great managers do this consciously, consistently, and with ease. The demand for great managers will only increase.


This book is based on 25 years of research by Gallup, interviews with over a million employees, and 80 thousand managers of all kinds in multiple verticals. The data has been sifted and sorted to create a measuring stick for valuing organizations. More importantly, it provides a blueprint to help any manager, in any business, up their game. Not offered as a checklist of do’s and don’ts but rather a map to get the best from each individual. This book is essential reading for any manager interested in driving their business beyond tomorrow.


Helpfully broken into multiple sections that include the four keys great managers use and a practical guide for turning each of those keys, this book turns common beliefs about managers and managing on their heads. It describes in detail the four main functions of great managers: selecting the right talent, setting clear expectations, motivating people, and developing each individual to build upon their strengths. Myths such as ‘talent can be taught’ and ‘weaknesses can be trained out’ are soundly debunked. Instead, the methods of management that have been proven to work are picked apart, analyzed, and served to the reader in a way that they can be easily adopted and added to any manager’s arsenal.

Talent is correctly described as a recurring pattern of behavior that forces individuals to focus on some stimuli and ignore others. These particular ways of sensing the world around us and sorting the many types of information we receive daily is what makes each person unique. These talents, predispositions, and personal qualities are helpfully placed into three categories – Striving, Thinking, and Relating. Understanding where a person’s predilections lie for each of these categories enables great managers to select the right person for the right role, matching not only skills and knowledge but talents too. In doing so, managers put themselves in a winning position. A great fit is half the battle when motivating employees to succeed in their work roles. For those wondering how to draw out the information needed to spot these talents through the selection process, interview questions and techniques are provided.


Defining outcomes is separated from defining steps in a process. The book explains how clear and measurable outcomes allow for employee empowerment without allowing it to run riot and devalue the business. It shows through multiple examples how industry standards and defined structures can drive employee creativity while allowing for a sense of autonomy and empowerment, all while pushing value forward rather than killing it dead.


While each position across the scope of all employment has its unique parameters, none are beyond definable outcomes – if they were, the business would not need for the position. Defining the desired outcomes of each role within an organization frees individuals from the details of processes that, more often than not, inhibitive their success.



The book acknowledges that the outcomes of some roles are harder to define than others. Helpfully, simple guidelines to overcome this challenge are provided. It goes on to show and explain how great outcomes elicit positive emotional responses from customers. It explains how they are in line with the company’s strategy, and, most of all, play to an employee’s strengths, fitting neatly into the next key used by great managers – the focus on strengths.


Individuals come with a bundle of different strengths and weaknesses likes and dislikes, yet all of us thrive on the right kind of attention. Constantly focusing on what people lack ruins relationships, and the primary role of a manager is to build and nurture a relationship with each member of their team. This relationship helps them encourage individuals towards bettering themselves, as when employees improve themselves, they also improve the company they work within.


For this reason, great managers invest the majority of their time with the highest performers; it allows them to coax them toward continual improvement. The old rhyme ‘Good, better, best, never let it rest, until your good is better, and your better best.’ is one that great managers live by when engaging with their top performers. This is the best way to drive better performance from the entire team – it keeps the achievers motivated.


While focusing on strengths is part of the third key to great management, it doesn’t end there. Nor does it mean poor performance can be ignored. If performance becomes an issue, a great manager’s first step is to ask why. If personal circumstances or lack of knowledge are not at the root of the cause, two further questions need to be answered; is the poor performance trainable? And, is the non-performance caused by the manager? If the answer is negative to these questions, also, a great manager recognizes they have three options: devise a support system for the employee, find a complementary partner to mitigate the performance issue, or find a new role for the poor performer.


Questions and supporting strategies like these are scattered throughout the book, helping the reader to take a look into their management style and gain a better understanding of how they can build on their talents.



In the fourth and final key of great management, the flaws in businesses of the past are laid bare. Companies of the future must understand and avoid these flaws if they wish to build and retain a workforce that is committed, talented, and loyal: Finding the right fit. Not every employee should climb the conventional career ladder. Not every individual holds the talents or inclination to lead. Promoting employees to their level of incompetence will frustrate the organization. Instead, new ways must be developed with a system that allows employees to attain prestige and feelings of accomplishment. The authors explain how conventional career paths are stifling talent and pushing employees towards career decisions that are not based on their talents. This is leaving them dissatisfied and in positions that don’t allow them to do the things they love each day. It drives down employee satisfaction and ultimately causes companies to drive away their greatest assets – their top-performing people.


Once again, questions, strategies, and case studies are provided to support this unconventional truth and help managers retain talent while guiding people to be their best at work. The many case studies and examples provided throughout each section of the book illustrate the concepts detailed and help the reader to internalize each lesson. These examples provide a touchstone, anchoring the sometimes academic explanations of techniques in real-life stories, making them easier to digest and integrate into a management arsenal.


The book finishes, rather helpfully, with detailed explanations and examples of how managers can apply each key to each member of their team. Groups of questions support the strategies, suggested routines, and helpful hints for employees at all levels of an organization. If you are a manager, or an aspiring manager, looking to up your game and boost your company’s profitability by helping people become the best versions of themselves, this is a book that will help.

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