What sets Great Managers apart?

Steve Carell is famous for his role as Michael Scott in The Office often seen holding his favorite mug proudly proclaiming himself the “World’s Best Boss”. Throughout the series, insane and unprofessional antics make Michael Scott the antithesis of a good boss. But what actually sets the great boss apart from the average boss? And what makes an amazing manager? 

Over 15 years ago, Marcus Buckingham started researching this exact question. He started with a survey of 80,000 managers and spent two years studying in-depth the top performers, the best managers, and the most successful companies. As the head of people and performing research at the ADP Research Institute, Buckingham discovered the key to the universe (or maybe just business) and published his findings in the Harvard Business Review. The following is a summary of his findings. The original article can be viewed here: https://hbr.org.

The One Thing:

If we cut to the chase and spill the beans, Buckingham discovered just one key difference that truly sets great managers apart from the rest. They discover what is unique about each person and then capitalize on it. 

Buckingham said, “Average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess. The difference? In checkers, all the pieces are uniform and move in the same way; they are interchangeable. You need to plan and coordinate their movements, certainly, but they all move at the same pace, on parallel paths. In chess, each type of piece moves in a different way, and you can’t play if you don’t know how each piece moves. More important, you won’t win if you don’t think carefully about how you move the pieces. Great managers know and value the unique abilities and even the eccentricities of their employees, and they learn how best to integrate them into a coordinated plan of attack.”

Buckingham goes on to describe the true job of a manager is to, “turn one person’s particular talent into performance.” This requires managers to know their people, identify and deploy differences, challenge each one, and match their skills to the skills required for different job roles. 

Playing Chess 

Playing business chess isn’t a job for the faint of heart. It’s about putting people into roles and shifts that will allow them to shine. It’s about avoiding putting clashing personalities together while finding ways for individuals to grow. Most of all, it requires thinking a couple of moves ahead to tweak roles to capitalize on the uniqueness of each person on your team. 

Tips to Get Started: 

  • Identifying and capitalize on each person’s uniqueness: No employee is perfectly well-rounded, your time is better spent carving out roles for the team you have rather than shaping your people into the roles you need. Endless hours of coaching, teaching, and training can only go so far. But if you can create roles that capitalize on the uniqueness of each individual, you’ll be far more successful very quickly. To do this, Buckingham says you need to know three things about each employee: strengths, triggers, and how he or she learns. Buckingham calls these the three levers. 
  • Identifying Strengths: Walk around, watch, observe reactions, take mental notes. Ask a few simple, open-ended questions and listen carefully. Buckingham recommends starting with the following questions to identify a person’s strengths: First, “What was the best day at work you’ve had in the past three months?” Listen for what they were doing and why they enjoyed it so much. This will teach a good manager about the interests and abilities of the employee. Next, as the exact inverse, “What was the worst day you’ve had at work in the past three months?” Again, listen for details about what he was doing and why it grated on him so much. Weaknesses aren’t something you’re inherently bad at, they are things that drain you of energy and areas you don’t look forward to doing. 
  • Identifying Triggers: Sometimes an individual requires a trigger to stimulate good performance. Find and squeeze the right trigger and you’ll get the result you’re looking for. Triggers can be in a myriad of forms and one trigger may work great for one employee while causing another to shut down. Here are a few common triggers Buckingham points out: 
  • Time of Day (Those who have the most energy in the morning/late night)
    • Attention (Those to value a daily check-in) 
    • Independence (Those who despise being micro-managed)
    • Audience (Those who thrive in front of people) 
    • Recognition (Nearly every employee responds positively to recognition) 

Buckingham said, “There’s no reason why a large company can’t take this individualized approach to recognition and apply it to every employee.” 

  • Identifying Learning Styles: Tradition adult learning theory spells out three major learning styles. Analyzing, Doing, and Watching. 
  • The Analyzer: The analyzer will pick something apart and reconstruct it again. They crave information and want to know all there is to know about a particular subject. The read a lot, attend class, and take good notes. 
    • Teaching an Analyzer: Allow her time to prepare, role-play scenarios, break down performance into bite-size pieces, don’t expect her to “wing it”.
  • The Doer: The doer learns through trial and error. They want to figure things out for themselves and preparing is boring. 
    • Teaching a Doer: Give minimal instruction, and get out of the way. Describe the outcome you want and let them figure out the rest. Increase the complexity of the task incrementally until they have mastered the entire role. Anticipate mistakes, but understand that’s how they learn – not a result of poor execution. 
  • The Watcher: Watchers thrive by seeing the total performance first. They aren’t interested in breaking things down, they want to see it as a whole first. They will mimic the actions of others once they see how it’s done. 
      • Teaching a Watcher: Get out of a classroom setting, just let him ride shotgun and watch one of your most experienced employees do the job.

At the end of the day, poor managers go to work and do their best. Mediocre managers set goals and try to motivate. Truly great managers play chess. Buckingham said, “They never try to push a knight to move in the same way as a bishop. They know that their employees will differ in how they think, how they build relationships, how altruistic they are, how patient they can be, how much of an expert they need to be, how prepared they need to feel, what drives them, what challenges them, and what their goals are. These differences of trait and talent are like blood types: They cut across the superficial variations of race, sex, and age and capture the essential uniqueness of each individual.”

Marcus Buckingham summed it up well when he stated, “Fine shadings of personality, though they may be invisible to some and frustrating to others, are crystal clear to and highly valued by great managers.

Source: https://hbr.org