What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently


Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman

Simon & Schuster, 1999, 271 pp.   ISBN 0 684 85286 1


Based on 25 years of Gallup research, including surveys and in-depth interviews of thousands of employees and managers, the book explains how to keep your top performers.  It is specifically about management, as opposed to leadership.  The title reflects the discovery that most conventional wisdom about managing is wrong.  Simple outline.  Easy to understand.  Extremely insightful.  The “12 questions” are priceless.


The most insightful discovery from employees was that “talented employees need great managers.” (11) Surveys of managers led to a dozen very significant questions which measure the core elements of how best managers find, focus, and keep talented employees. 


“Many companies know that their ability to find and keep talented employees is vital to their sustained success, but they have no way of knowing whether or not they are effective at doing this.” (21)  “A great deal of a company’s value now lies ‘between the ears of its employees.’  And this means that when someone leaves a company, he takes his value with him….” (23)


Here are the 12 questions:

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 co-workers 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?


Each question is somehow linked to productivity, profitability, retention, or customer satisfaction. (32)


A person’s relationship with their immediate manager is the key factor in how long they stay and how productive they will be.  (36)


The first two questions are “base camp.”  These are basic.  If these needs are not addressed, then working on the others is almost irrelevant.


Questions 3 through 6 measure whether an employee feels valued, whether he is making a contribution. 


Questions 7 through 10 help an individual determine whether he belongs here.


Questions 11 and 12 indicate whether a person has the opportunity to learn, grow and innovate. 


Great managers work hard at the first six questions, which are the core of a strong and vibrant workplace. 


An insight echoed by thousands of great managers:

“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.” (57)


The manager role is the ‘catalyst’ role. (59)


“A manager must be able to do four activities extremely well: select a person, set expectations, motivate the person, develop the person.” (59) These are the four activities of the catalyst role and they are related to the questions.


The authors make important distinctions between talent, skills, and knowledge.


“The most important difference between a great manager and a great leader is one of focus.  Great managers look inward.  They look inside the company, into each individual, into the differences in style, goals, needs, and motivation of each individual person.”  “Great leaders, by contrast, look outward.”  Their core activities are different.  (63)


The four keys to the four catalytic manager activities:

  • When selecting someone, select for talent, not simply experience
  • When setting expectations, define the right outcomes, not the steps
  • When motivating someone, focus on their strengths, not eliminating weaknesses.
  • When developing someone, help him find the right fit, not just the next rung on the ladder.  (67)


There is a chapter devoted to each of these keys.


Talents are behaviors you find yourself doing often.  Any recurring patterns of behavior that can be productively applied are talents.  “The key to excellent performance, of course, is finding the match between your talents and your role.” (71)


You cannot teach talent.  Talents are the driving force behind an individual’s job performance.  (73)


You cannot develop new talents in people, but you can help them discover hidden talents and teach new skills and knowledge.  Skills are the ‘how-to’s of a role.  Knowledge is simply what you are aware of, either factual knowledge or experiential knowledge.  (83)


“Talents are the four-lane highways in your mind, those that carve your recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior.” (84)  Appendix C lists a number of different talents in the categories of Striving, Thinking, and Relating.


Competencies are part skills, part knowledge, and part talent.  Habits are usually talents.  Attitudes are all part of the person’s recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior, i.e. talents.  A person’s drive is not changeable.  His drives are his striving talents.  (89-91)


“A manger can never breathe motivational life into someone else.  All she can do is try to identify each employee’s striving four-lane highways and then, as far as is possible, cultivate these.” (92)


“The best way to help an employee cultivate his talents is to find him a role that plays to those talents.” (93)


As a manager you need to know exactly which talents you want. (101)  Study your best performers and see what talents they have and select for similar talents. (103)


“Great talents need great managers if they are to be turned into performance.” (105)


Standardizing the ends, the outcomes, avoids having to standardize the means, the steps.  (110)  “The most efficient way to turn someone’s talent into performance is to help him find his own path of least resistance toward the desired outcomes.” (111)  This also encourages employees to take responsibility. 


Attempts to impose one best way are doomed to fail.  It is demeaning and it kills learning.  “The hardest thing about being a manager is realizing that your people will not do things the way that you would.  But get used to it.” (115)


Innate mistrust is deadly for a manager. (117)


“The manager’s challenge is not to perfect people, but to capitalize on each person’s uniqueness.” (121)


“The most advanced level of customer expectation is advice.  Customers feel the closest bond to organizations that have helped them learn.”  “Learning breeds loyalty.” (131)


How can you define the right outcomes?  The first question is, “What is right for your customers?”  The second question is, “What is right for your company?”  The third question is, “What is right for the individual employee?”  What plays to their strengths?  Find a way to count, rate, or rank those outcomes and then let the person run.  Go from the players to the plays.  (131-137)


To release a person’s potential, focus on their strengths and manage around their weaknesses.  Talents are enduring and resistant to change.  (141)  “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, how each builds relationships.”  This shows respect for each person. (142) 


Great managers try to identify each person’s talents and help them to cultivate those talents.  “They manage by exception.  And they spend the most time with their best people.” (147)


“If you want to turn talent into performance, you have to position each person so that you are paying her to do what she is naturally wired to do.  You have to cast her in the right role.” (148)  “The surest way to identify each person’s talents is to watch his or her behavior over time.” (149)


“Each employee has his own filter, his own way of interpreting the world around him, and therefore each employee will demand different things of you, his manager.” (151)  Treat each person as he would like to be treated (not as you would like to be treated).  (152) 


The less attention a manager pays to productive behaviors, the less of those behaviors they will get.  Human beings are wired to need attention.  If they are not getting attention they will alter their behavior until they do.  “When you see your stars acting up, it is a sure sign that you have been paying attention to the wrong people and the wrong behaviors.” (155)  Spend most of your time with your best people!


A nontalent is weakness only when someone is in a role where success requires that talent.  (167)  Three routes to overcoming such a weakness: “Devise a support system.  Find a complementary partner.  Or fin an alternative role.” (168)


“Help each person 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.” (177)


Don’t automatically promote your best performers.  “One rung doesn’t necessarily lead to another.”  “Why not create heroes in every role?”  (180)  Find ways to encourage some employees to stay focused on developing their expertise in their roles, to become world class.  (185)


“In most cases, no matter what it is, if you measure it and reward it, people will try to excel at it.” (187)


“Acquiring varied experiences is important but peripheral to a healthy career.  It is an accessory, not the driving force.” (193)  “Self-discovery is the driving, guiding force for a healthy career.” (194) 


Great managers excel at giving performance feedback.  One manager meets with her 22 direct reports once every quarter.  They review the last three months and then review plans, goals, and measurements for the next three months.  “We talk about what they enjoy doing and how we can structure things so that they get to do more of that.”  Another manager has 16 direct reports and spends about 20 minutes a week talking with each one about their performance.  (200)


Feedback should be constant, in private, and include a brief review of past performance followed by a focus on the future and how the employee could use her style to be productive. (201-202)


There is a helpful chapter on interviewing for talent, pp. 215 ff.


Great managers have their own routine for interacting with their employees.  The routines are individual, simple, frequent, and focused on the future.  They ask the employee to keep track of his own performance and learnings. (222-23)


Career Discovery Questions – see p. 228


“In the world according to great managers, the employee is the star.  The manager is the agent.  And, as in the world of performing arts, the agent expects a great deal form his stars.” (230)


“Keep the focus on the outcomes: The role of the company is to identify the desired end.  The role of the individual is to find the best means possible to achieve that end.  Therefore strong companies become experts in the destination and give the individual the thrill of the journey.” (236)


Also by Marcus Buckingham, Now, Discover Your Strengths.