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spike bullet October 2005 - Great Management and Leadership

Just One Thing: Unlocking the Key to Great Management and Leadership
Great managers
Great leaders
Resources (links, books, articles, the lighter side)

color bulletJust One Thing: Unlocking the Key to Great Management and Leadership

Our guest author this month is Marcus Buckingham, who has studied management, leadership and the key traits that make people successful.  After many years of research with thousands of people, his insights  have led him to write three best-selling books and travel the world sharing his wisdom.  This article offers a peek into his most recent book, The One Thing You Need to Know, which is a "must read" for those who seek to improve their business success.  


Marcus Buckingham has concluded that great managers are those that are able to identify the unique talents in each person and then leverage those talents.  Great managers treat each person differently based on understanding each individual’s personality and motivations.  Importantly, great managers don’t invest their time in remedying their people’s shortcomings. Instead they focus on maximizing their unique talents.  Great managers don’t see people as a means to an end; they see further developing a person’s unique talents as the end in itself.

In contrast, great leaders find what is shared among all members of a group and capitalize on it; they are optimists who rally people to a better future.  Most commonly what is shared by groups is a fear of the future.  Great leaders turn this anxiety into confidence by providing great clarity regarding who the organization serves, what its core strengths are, how the organization will keep score (with focus on one specific measure) and what actions can be taken immediately.  Great leaders don’t always have the right answers, but they are confident and decisive in rallying followers with a clear vision and direction.

Key Learnings

With enough research and focus, insights can usually be boiled down to "just one thing."

Because the world is so complex, it is valuable to distill information down to controlling insights that guide action.  This is the premise behind the concept of "just one thing."  However, to become a controlling insight, three tests must be passed:

  1. Generalizable
    The insight must apply across a broad range of situations.
  2. Transformative
    The insight must be powerful enough to elevate performance from merely good to truly great.
  3. Actionable
    A controlling insight must guide action.  It must point to precise actions to be taken, with specific effects.

color bulletGreat Managers

The chief responsibility of a manager is to turn a person’s talent into performance.

People join companies but leave managers.  A person’s manager influences how long the person stays at an organization and how effectively the person performs.  A manager is a catalyst for performance, speeding up talent and making that talent work harder.  (Talent is defined as a naturally recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior.  Being responsible or competitive or able to have empathy are all talents.)

The one thing you need to know about great managers: They find what is unique about each person and capitalize on it.

Great managers recognize that each person has unique talents and motivations and they seek to understand and leverage these uniquenesses.  They build their teams to maximize the unique talents and contributions of each person on the team.  In doing so, they are proponents of "individualization" where they treat each person differently based on that person’s talents and motivations.  Great managers may standardize the outcomes, but individualize how each person goes about achieving those outcomes.

Average managers play checkers while great managers play chess. In checkers all of the pieces move in the same homogenous way, but in chess, each piece moves differently.  Great managers understand the differences in each piece and coordinate the team to take advantage of the individual strengths.

Great managers think very differently about developing their people — focusing on the strengths.

At most companies, managers review their people by focusing primarily on a person’s weaknesses or "opportunities," and development emphasizes addressing shortcomings.  A typical one-hour performance discussion might spend 2 minutes focused on what a person does well and 58 minutes on what needs to be improved.  In most instances, this is not development; it is damage control and it is not a formula for greatness or winning.

In contrast, great managers spend 80% of their time working to grow an employee’s greatest strengths.  Investing to develop a person’s greatest talent is how breakthrough performance can be achieved.  This means not that great managers ignore shortcomings, but that they focus on the talent and work around the shortcomings.  Ways this can be achieved include changing people’s jobs, allowing them to spend most of their time where their talent fits best; partnering an employee with another individual with complementary talents; or helping a person get "just a little bit better" to avoid glaring weaknesses.

Even with this approach, there will be non-performers.  If after training is provided to develop skills there is no change in performance, the individual simply lacks the necessary talent.  Great managers recognize this as a casting error.  Instead of investing further to try to fix the person, they focus instead on fixing the problem.

"Great management is not about changing people.  Great managers take people •as is and then focus on releasing their talents.

- Marcus Buckingham

Truly great managers do not see peop4e merely as a means to an end; they see people as the end.  Great managers are personally motivated by being able to identify people's talents and then more fully develop them.

color bulletGreat Leaders

A leader’s chief responsibility is to rally people to a better future.

Rallying people requires that leaders have innate optimism.  Great leaders are not unrealistic; in fact they are grounded in reality.  However, they are spurred on by a core belief that things can be better in the future than they are today.  They are able to create a vision of this future and rally others to support it. In addition, great leaders have egos in that they believe they are the ones to make this better future come true.  (Ego gets bad press.  Ego does not mean arrogance; it is self-assurance and self-confidence.)  Importantly, great leaders channel their egos not to benefit themselves but to build their enterprise.

The one thing you need to know about great leaders: They find what is universal and capitalize on it.

While great managers find what is unique and leverage it, great leaders find what is shared.  The most relevant characteristic that is shared by all people is a fear of an unknown future.  (This fear has led people to rituals and gurus to help deal with it.)  Leaders deal in the unknown.  They have to turn legitimate anxiety into confidence.  The most effective way to do this is through clarity.

"Clarity is the answer to anxiety.  Effective leaders are clear."

- Marcus Buckingham

Specifically, followers are begging for and great leaders provide, clear answers to the following four key questions:

  1. Who do we serve? 
    Great leaders focus their followers on serving one specific core group.  By serving this core group, the organization can better serve other groups as well.  For example, an executive from Wal-Mart recently told an audience that Wal-Mart serves those who live from paycheck to paycheck; others are invited to shop at Wal-Mart and may be satisfied in doing so, but Wal-Mart is focused on serving those who are struggling to get by.
  2. What is our core strength? 
    Followers want to know what the advantages are and why the team will win.  They want one clear and specific reason and not something vague such as "our culture" or "our people."  People want to know exactly what about their culture or people will enable success.  At Best Buy, the CEO has stated that the strength of the company and the reason that Best Buy will succeed is the ability of the front-line employees to answer questions and assist customers.
  3. What is our core score? 
    Employees need one key metric to use in measuring progress.  Deciding the one specific measure to use in keeping score results in driving the actions that are taken.  For example, previously Britain’s jails focused on the key metric of "number of escapees."  This score was based on serving society and led to a focus on security.  A new director of the prison system believed that society would be better off by focusing on serving the prisoners; he changed the core score to track the rate of recidivism.  Another example: when Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York City he stated that reducing crime was the paramount goal.  It turned out that by achieving this goal tourism increased and new businesses opened.  But, this one clear goal provided a way for everyone to keep score.  Tools such as balanced scorecards with multiple measures may be good analytical tools used for management, but leaders need one, simple, clear metric to rally the organization around.
  4. What actions can we take today? 
    Great leaders provide a few very specific and unambiguous actions that can be taken immediately.  For example, Giuliani immediately moved to get rid of graffiti on the subways, require cab drivers to wear collared shirts and rid street corners of kids with squeegees.

Most importantly, great leaders do not necessarily have the right answers to these questions — in many cases there are no "right answers."  But, they provide answers that are clear, specific and vivid.  Their followers know exactly who they serve, how they will win, how to keep score to know if they are winning and what they can go do today.

Great leaders develop three important disciplines:

  1. They muse. 
    Great leaders build in time to think and reflect.  In particular, they reflect on what causes success and they think about excellence.
  2. They pick their heroes with great care. 
    When leaders give awards and praise in front of others they send important signals to the organization.  Praising is a form of leadership, but it needs to be used carefully.  When they praise and select individuals that will be viewed as heroes by others, great leaders explain why these individuals were selected — who they served, how they scored and what actions they took. In doing so, they embed these behaviors in the organization.
  3. They practice their words, phrases and stories. 
    Great leaders are able to communicate in ways that resonate with others.  This doesn’t happen by accident.  They practice the words that they use to help others see the better future that they imagine.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous "I Have a Dream" speech is viewed by many as original, but it used phrases and images that King had carefully honed over years of practice.  In practicing their words, great leaders don’t worry about repetition.

Other Important Points

Human universals  

An anthropologist studied all cultures in the history of the world to find those elements that are universally shared.  The result is a list of more than 300 characteristics that all cultures possess.  These include loving one’s family, fearing outsiders and enemies, taking turns, joking with others and even tickling.


During his 17 years with The Gallup Organization, Marcus Buckingham helped lead their research into the world’s best managers, leaders and workplaces.  Buckingham has taken his broad experience in management practices and employee retention and put it into two best-selling books: First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Best Managers Do Differently (Simon and Schuster) and Now, Discover Your Strengths (The Free Press).  His new book, The One Thing You Need To Know (The Free Press) was published in March 2005.

Buckingham’s presentations take the key points of these books, combined with plenty of great examples from a wide variety of organizations, to show audiences how they can learn from the world’s best managers and leaders.  A wonderful resource for leaders, managers and educators, Buckingham challenges conventional wisdom and shows the link between engaged employees and productivity, profit, customer satisfaction and the rate of turnover. Buckingham graduated from Cambridge University in 1987 with a master’s degree in Social and Political Science.

Copyright © 2005, Marcus Buckingham, all rights reserved.  Article used with permission of the author.  Thanks, Marcus!

World Wide Web graphic  Internet Resources

book graphic  Books   -  Disclosure: We get a small commission for purchases made via links to Amazon.

  • The One Thing You Need to Know:  About Great Managing, Great Leading and Sustained Individual Success, Marcus Buckingham.  Free Press, 2005.  ISBN 0743261658
  • Now, Discover Your Strengths,  Marcus Buckingham and Donald  Clifton.  Free Press, 2001.  ISBN: 0743201140
  • First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman Simon & Schuster, 1999.  ISBN: 0684852861

world wide web - articles  Articles

Related newsletter articles:
    August 1999 - It's the Manager ... 
    November 2001 - The Essence of Leadership
    October 1996 - Management Styles

smiley graphic  The Lighter Side  

When you're able to poke gentle fun at the corporate cosmos without being offensive, it provides a pleasant release. 
    Nancy A. Adams, Indianapolis Life Insurance 

Leadership has a harder job to do than just choose sides.  It must bring sides together.
     Jesse Jackson

Somebody's Law of Management Decision Making, which states "Knowledge replaces confidence" and its corollaries:
1)  Ignorance begets confidence.
2)  Any idiot can make a decision given enough data, but a really good manager operates decisively in a state of perfect ignorance.  [sent to us by reader, R. Woodward]

About our resource links:  We do not endorse or agree with all the beliefs in these links.   We do keep an open mind about different viewpoints and respect the ability of our readers to decide for themselves what is useful.

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