It's the Manager, Stupid THE GREAT WORKPLACE "SECRET"
By Mark Borden; Marcus Buckingham; Curt Coffman

(FORTUNE Magazine) – What makes a company a great place to work? Good managers. And good managers, say Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their best-selling book, First, Break All The Rules (Simon & Schuster, $25), are leaders who ignore conventional niceties. Good managers play favorites, don't try to fix their employees' weaknesses, and don't believe in the power of positive thinking. Rather, they build on strengths and cast people in the right role. Based on interviews of more than 80,000 managers and a million employees, the Gallup Organization (yes, the poll people, but nearly all the company's revenue comes from management research and consulting) created a 12-question formula to determine the strength of a workplace. None of the 12 questions address issues like pay, benefits, perks, or what employees think of the CEO. Instead, questions like "Do my opinions seem to count?" and "Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?" were used to discover the keys to higher levels of productivity, profit, retention, and customer satisfaction. FORTUNE's Mark Borden discussed the book with its authors.

Your book's title should have been It's the Manager, Stupid. It's not the company that the employee quits--it's the manager.

Coffman: The relationship with the manager, we know, is just the pinnacle. Employees will tolerate a lot from a great manager. But employees are very quick to leave a manager. The manager is the way in which all broader initiatives are translated and filtered and make sense to individual employees.

Why are managers so important?

Coffman: When we go back and study some of the most productive business units, we find that great managers are the consistent variable in all those great work groups. The manager sets a tone for that work group. The average to mediocre manager can set a very destructive tone too. My description of a bad manager is, Be good, but don't be better than me.

So what's your succinct definition of a good manager?

Coffman: A great manager is someone who says, You come to work with me, and I'll help you be as successful as possible; I'll help you grow; I'll help you make sure you're in the right role; I'll provide the relationship for you to understand and know yourself. And I want you to be more successful than me.

Tell me about great managers concentrating on talents or strengths of their employees--not their weaknesses.

Buckingham: If you were to ask us the one thing that we learned from our study of great managers, it would be that people don't change that much. You should try to draw out what was left in, not try to put in what was left out. Great managers spend a ton of time trying to figure out the unique things that each person brings, and how [they] can make the most of that to get the greatest performance.

How do great managers define fairness?

Coffman: Great managers define fairness according to who the individual is. True equality is treating you according to who you are, not according to [how] I'd like to be treated or how I think you should be treated to be fair across a demographic group or a characteristic group.

Every individual is different. I think we've all checked into a hotel where the person read a script to us to try to make us feel welcome. That's where we try to treat everybody the same: Read this script--don't vary from the script. Whereas if I leave the individual in it, and that individual has a tremendous talent for making people feel comfortable and welcome, they do that in a very different way than the next person would. Let's define the outcomes we want to achieve, not the means.

One of your 12 questions is, "Do I have a best friend where I work?" What does that question reveal?

Coffman: All employees reach a point in their jobs where they have leaving moments. Somebody comes along and offers something, or we get called by a headhunter. The quality of the relationships you have with your manager and your co-workers helps some of the most productive people get through those leaving moments. If those relationships are not in existence, people leave.

Can you retrain managers?

Buckingham: You can teach people new knowledge. You can make them aware of something they weren't aware of and that will help change their behavior to some extent. One of the first things you can do is just hold up these 12 questions like a mirror. I don't care what your style is, but if people don't know what's expected, we have a problem with you as a manager. If people don't feel as if they have a chance to do what they do best every day, we have a problem with you as a manager. So it's a slap. It sort of wakes you up as a manager: "Oh, that's what being a manager is."

However, if you've got a bunch of [managers] that distrust people, don't value the uniqueness in people, and would rather be doing the job themselves than being responsible for having someone else do the work, then retraining won't help them. You have to honor what great managers tell us, which is if somebody is massively miscast, then retraining will just help them know "I'm massively miscast."

Is there a bottom line?

Coffman: That's the real acid test. If I were a CEO, I'd [say], That's fine. These work groups are in the 95th percentile [of the companies Gallup studied]. But are they more productive? Do they have lower turnover? Do they have better customer scores? Are they financially doing well? And we'll tend to show unbelievable metrics. For instance, there was one [company group] that was in the top 75th percentile [of companies studied] and was, on average, 13.68% above budget on earnings. The bottom quartile [group] were 30% below budget on earnings.

That would pop the CEO's eyes open.

Coffman: It did. It equated, for this organization, to $16 million of difference between that top and bottom group. These groups are obviously more engaged, but do they also have performance? That's where it stops being a number and starts being reality.