Buckingham was a Senior Researcher at The Gallup Organization who set out to break through the preconceptions about achievement and get to the core of what drives success. The result of his persistence, and arguably the definitive answer to the strengths question, can be found in Buckingham’s trio of best-selling books: First, Break All the Rules (co-authored with Curt Coffman, 1999); Now, Discover Your Strengths (co-authored with Donald O. Clifton in 2001); and The One Thing You Need to Know (2005), in which Buckingham shares important insights with regard to maximizing strengths, understanding the crucial differences between leadership and management, and fulfilling the quest for long-lasting personal success
Morris: What prompted you and Curt Coffman to write First, Break All the Rules?
Buckingham: We already had a wealth of research information to begin with (more than 80,000 interviews conducted by Gallup during a 25-year period) and eventually decided to seek answers to three separate but related questions: What is a great manager? What is a great leader? How do they differ? Over time, we conducted additional interviews which helped us to answer those questions. For example, we concluded that there are “four keys” to becoming an excellent manager: finding the right fit for employees, focusing on strengths of employees, defining the right results, and hiring for talent — not just knowledge and skills.
Too many companies waste time trying to eliminate their employees’ weaknesses when, in fact, they should concentrate on developing their strengths. Also, as a general rule, people tend to do best what they enjoy doing most. People should be hired “as is” and their managers then help them to develop their individual strengths while completing tasks for which they have the greatest aptitude and in which they have the greatest interest.
Morris: What about job descriptions?
Buckingham: Obviously, you have to know what you need now and what you will soon need, then hire or promote from within to meet those needs. My point is, people really don’t change very much. Jim Collins talks about “getting the right people on the bus” in Good to Great. I agree if they are in the right “seats” and the bus is headed in the right direction. Managers are, and should be, totally responsible for recognizing individual strengths (both natural talents and skills), getting those strengths in proper alignment (i.e. in the right “seats”), and then leveraging them.
Morris: Let’s shift our attention to Now, Discover Your Strengths. In it, you and Donald Clifton make a number of assertions. For example, that the work we do need not be boring.
Buckingham: Quite right. I’ll grant you 25% of your day, let’s say from 9 AM until 11 AM each day, to fill with activities that bore you or frustrate you or leave you cold — the grumpy guy down the hall who insists on sharing his grumpiness with you, the e-mails you don’t want to deal with, the expense reports that have to be completed. But even if I acknowledge the inevitability of this kind of drudgery, I point out that you still have a large block of time during your day at work, 75% of your day at work that could be filled, deliberately filled, with other, more positive stuff. The sad truth is that, currently, less than two out of ten of us fill this time with activities that play to our strengths.
Morris: What if managers won’t allow that?
Buckingham: Oh sure, we can always blame them but the fact remains that we have an obligation to discover what we really, really, really want to do (which is probably what we do best) and then do it even better…much better. Most of the time, our limitations are self-imposed. If the manager really is the problem, try to get reassigned elsewhere in the organization or start looking for one in which you can play to your strengths.
Morris: In a more recent book, The One Thing You Need to Know, you seem to develop in much greater depth several of the ideas you examined in the two earlier books. Is that a fair assessment?
Buckingham: Yes. Frankly, by the time I wrote this book, I was surprised and saddened to learn that, although the two earlier books had been widely read and lavishly praised, nothing much had changed. They seem to have had very little impact. Apparently many of those who read them really didn’t “get it.” They still had all manner of misconceptions about great managers, about great leaders, and – worst of all – about why they are quite different. So in The One Thing You Need to Know, I set out to try again, to focus on “basics” and challenge my readers to understand that all the great organizations have great managers at all levels who recognize where their culture is getting stronger and where it is getting weaker. There are always reasons why.
Morris: Back to Collins’ metaphor about getting the right people on the “bus”?
Buckingham: Yes but, again, only if they are in the right “seats” and the bus is headed in the right direction. It’s true that there are some recurrent themes in all three books. Also some key points. In The One Thing You Need to Know, I again stress the importance of understanding what great management and great leadership are, and, how they differ. It remains true that great managers recognize individualities and focus on developing strengths rather than weaknesses. Great leaders, in sharp contrast, recognize what is (or could be) shared in common – a vision, a dream, a mission, whatever – and inspire others to join them in the given enterprise.
Morris: How can an organization’s strengths and weaknesses be accurately measured?
Buckingham: There are several ways. In First, Break All the Rules, Curt and I offer a set of 12 quite specific questions to ask of everyone. Their answers are invariably revealing. For example, they will indicate whether or not they understand what is expected of them, whether or not they feel appreciated, whether or not they consistently receive constructive criticism…all of these are key issues indeed. We also offer several specific techniques for helping people perform better on the job. For instance, how to structure a trial period for a new worker and how to create a pay plan that rewards people for their expertise instead of how fast they climb the company ladder. There is no shortage of mechanisms by which to measure almost anything
The first step is to recognize what you need to know and why you need to know it. What are the pressing questions? For example, do you have a problem attracting and then retaining the people you need? Do your people have a clear understanding of what is expected of them? Do they understand how their performance will be measured…and rewarded? How well do your people communicate, cooperate, and collaborate with those in other departments? Too many of the organizations I have observed resemble a farm in Kansas. They have lots of fences and silos as well as a storm cellar.
All three books offer lots of measurement suggestions, techniques, and tools. Those who are interested are encouraged to read the books, of course, and invited to visit www.marcusbuckingham.com. Also, I helped to develop with Gallup the StrengthsFinder exam (StrengthsFinder.com) which identifies signature themes that help employees quantify their personal strengths in the workplace and at home. That may also be a helpful source of advice on measurement.
Morris: What’s next for Marcus Buckingham?
Buckingham: I need to reach out to people who work for small to mid-sized companies, and help them identify and apply their strengths at work. To this end, I finished shooting six short films earlier this year which address the many different challenges of building your life around your strengths — everything from “Who is better at identifying your strengths? You or your boss?” to “How can you talk to people about your strengths without bragging and about your weaknesses without whining?” Those who have any interest in learning more about them are also invited to visit www.marcusbuckingham.com.
CEOs the world over are fond of pointing to their workforce and saying “Our people are our greatest asset.” And yet today, only two out of ten people think their assets are being well used at work. There are many possible reasons for this–they might be delusional about their own strengths, they might work for a rotten manager, they might have been “Peter Principled.” But you should know that what wakes me up at night, what gets me running fast in the morning, and, frankly, what prompts me to lose any semblance of my habitual reserve is the conviction that work doesn’t have to be this grim. We can do better. We all want the chance to express the very best of ourselves and to be challenged to keep reaching for more. Our time at work affords us this chance–not the only chance, to be sure, but, given that we’re there forty or fifty hours a week, it’s one of the best.
I just can’t stand the idea that only two out of ten of us get this chance. And so I’m dedicating the next couple of decades and beyond — if I’m so blessed — to teaching people how to seize this chance. Whether in the form of books or films or training programs or speeches, getting after this terrible, avoidable waste of human potentiality is what gets me out of bed every morning.