First, Break All the Rules Book Review

All data geeks love the premise of First Break All the Rules. It is based on 25 years of Gallup studies surveying 80,000 managers across 400 companies. This book provides uncommon sense about how the best managers engage with workers.

Bad manager

First, let’s describe what a bad manager looks like. A bad manager is: (1) isolated; (2) fails to support; (3) is disrespectful; (4) gives confusing priorities; (5) offers no growth opportunities; or (6) gives no feedback. That’s the manager nobody wants.

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Yeah… If you could not be like this guy… It would be GREAT.

Leaders are not managers

Leaders and managers have different roles at a company. Leaders look outward, casting a vision. Managers should look inward. They should reach inside each worker and encourage exceptional performance. A manager needs a servant’s heart because that manager must facilitate the best from employees. A good manager does not seek to control or intimidate. A manager works for his people.

Twelve Questions Show Best Practices

The book begins by culling together Gallup’s massive data. It finds that workers evaluate their workplace based on twelve questions. Managers are the key to the answers. These twelve questions show the elements of a strong workplace. Companies with workers who answered these questions positively were also the most profitable.

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 coworkers 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 to learn and grow?”

Some of these questions make me queasy as a manager. Other questions make me confident in my management style. But no matter what, it is good to review these questions often so that you can be a better boss.

Hire for Talent, Not Experience

Managers should hire based on talent instead of experience in an industry. A talented person can learn any industry. Just because someone has decades of experience in your industry doesn’t mean that she has any experience doing it right. You either have talent or you don’t. Experience is acquired.

Interviewing Talent


Focus your interviews on the candidate’s recurring patterns of thought. Start by asking open-ended questions. And then take long pauses to see if the candidate fills in the gap. Believe the answers. Ask about a time when the candidate overcame resistance to an idea. That answer will show the problem solving process of the candidate.

Myth # 1: Talents are rare

Talent isn’t special. Everyone has it. The best managers help employees cultivate their talent. Take the housekeeper at a motel. The best housekeepers see themselves as the frontline staff critical to the customer experience. They sit on the bed and imagine the room from the customer’s perspective. There is a hero hiding in every role.

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Myth # 2: Some roles are so easy, they don’t require talent

All roles require talent. Managers who assume anyone could do a particular job or that everyone doing that job wants out of it as soon as possible are seeing the position through their own filters.

Define Outcomes, Not Next Steps

When assigning a task to an employee, define the outcome instead of the step. Let the worker decide how to reach the goal. Creating autonomy optimizes the talent of the individual. It is the opposite of micro-managing.

Focus on Strength, Not Weaknesses

It is harder to fix weaknesses than it is to improve strengths. So the most effective managers focus on the strengths of employees. Focusing on worker’s weaknesses creates a cycle of constant improvement plans that have no end. It undermines morale and fails to improve performance.

“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.”

Managing Weakness


This doesn’t mean that you should ignore poor performance. You must immediately confront it. Don’t procrastinate when faced with poor performance. Manage around a weakness by first searching to determine if the worker has the right support and equipment. Next, determine whether there is a personal problem. If that is the case, be patient. Every employee that you will ever have will also have a personal problem. And if the problem is more complicated, determine whether additional training would help the worker.

Manage by Exception

The best managers treat everyone as unique. Don’t treat people the way you want to be treated. Instead, treat people the way that the worker wants to be treated. Everyone is different. Some want public praise. Some want it in private. To know what your workers want, ask them the following.

  1. What are you shooting for in your current role?
  2. Where do you see your career heading?
  3. What personal goals do you feel comfortable sharing with me?
  4. How often do you want to meet to discuss your progress?
  5. Do you like praise in public or private? Written or verbal? Who is your best audience?
  6. Please tell me about the most meaningful recognition you have received and what made it so meaningful.
  7. How do you learn? (Visual, Verbal, Experiential, etc).
  8. Have you had any mentors that have helped you? How did they help?

Knowing these answers can help you draw out the best in your employees. It’s something that I ask my direct reports so that I can understand how to bring out their best.

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Create Heroes in Every Role

The next position for a worker may not be higher on the corporate ladder. That promotes people to their level of incompetence. Instead, create heroes in every role. Promotion to the next level is not inevitable. Create upper-level jobs that use the worker’s talent, without switching to another role. Lawyers have been doing this for years. Attorneys start as associates. They remain good technicians of their craft. And then they develop their area of expertise as they move up through the ranks to partner. You can do this in any role. Talented workers gradually get more refined work and a title change. They can focus on their craft. Promoting to a level of incompetence helps no one.

Every Day Management

Simple. Great managers don’t use complicated systems. Instead, they concentrate on how to manage each employee according to that worker’s desires.

Frequency. Interact with your workers often. At a minimum, you should meet once a quarter to discuss performance. It doesn’t have to last long. But it must focus on performance. This avoids a “bombshell” discussion at the annual review. Frequent contact allows for negative feedback to be quickly addressed.

Future. Great managers should ask employees to identify where they want to grow and how to get there.

Self-tracking. Great managers also ask employees to track their own performance and write down successes, goals, and discoveries throughout the review period.

Hammer Time

This book delivers tremendous insight. The questions are powerful ways to manage employees. And the use of data to identify best practices is a significant achievement. I give it five out of five hammers.

Five Hammers Hamilton Lindley

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