Breaking the rules: Marcus Buckingham on innovative leadership
Best-selling author and self-help guru Marcus Buckingham has not always been the smooth orator that he is known as today.
Born in the UK town of Radlett, an hour north of London, Buckingham struggled with a terrible stammer throughout his childhood.
He recalls how he even had difficulty saying his name without dragging the vowels, and that the stammer would be the first and last thing he thought about each day.
He eventually overcame his speech impediment, thanks to a class reading activity that forced him to confront his fears.
“I did discover that the solution to being able to speak was speaking in front of a group of people. I couldn’t speak one on one, but I could speak in front of a hundred people, which is really weird,” he shares.
Although Buckingham prefers to think of himself as a thought leader and researcher of best practices, his success as a professional speaker – which is somewhat surprising even to him – means he is continually inspiring the top minds in business, and has successfully overcome those early troubles.
The not-so-Golden Rule
Buckingham’s professional career began at research firm Gallup Organisation, where he spent 17 years interviewing over 80,000 managers, and honing his interpersonal and management consulting skills.
He would put that knowledge and expertise into his first book First, Break all the Rules, which he co-authored with fellow Gallup researcher Curt Coffman in 1999.
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The book was a smash, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 93 weeks. Time Magazine also named it as one of the “25 Most Influential Business Management Books” in 2011.
First, Break all the Rules aimed to shed light on what the world’s best managers do differently. Buckingham found that good leaders treat their employees as individuals; they don’t try to fix weaknesses, but instead focus on strengths and talent; and they find ways to measure, count, and reward outcomes.
Even what was once the golden rule – treat people as you would like to be treated – gets broken by the best leaders, Buckingham writes.
“This thinking is well-intended but overly simplistic. The best managers instead say, treat each person as they would like to be treated”.
Indeed, between First, Break All the Rules, and Buckingham’s plethora of other published works, the fundamentals have remained the same.
“What is still true today is that if you want to help a person contribute their very best, you have to find out what’s unique about them, and help them hone that,” he tells HRM Magazine Asia.
In StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution, Buckingham expounds on the strengths philosophy, introducing a strengths-based assessment tool called StandOut.
Over the years, StandOut, first published in 2011, has evolved into a cloud-based performance and talent management solution. It couples applications with coaching and education to give team leaders the tools, insights and data needed to turn talent into better employee performance.
A global revolution
Buckingham has always stayed true to this stance on strengths-based management. When he decided to strike out on his own in 2006 after 19 years at Gallup, setting up The Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC), he had one goal: To start a global “strengths” revolution.
Buckingham says that this was and still is a core component of his management philosophy. That’s because when people spend the majority of each day using their greatest talents and being engaged in their favourite tasks, basically doing exactly what they want to do, both they and their organisations will win.
This strengths-based approach, he stresses, will continue to be the instrument that helps to future-proof organisations in the fast-changing, complex world of tomorrow.
“Companies that focus on cultivating employees’ strengths rather than simply improving on people’s weaknesses stand to dramatically increase efficiency and productivity while allowing for maximum personal growth,” says Buckingham.
Individualisation is the most important thing companies can do to help develop their talent, he adds.
Most organisations, however, have a tendency to homogenise their people and use the same competency-based talent management model, which “eradicates people’s uniqueness”.
The best team leaders do the opposite of that. Buckingham believes the companies that “can build everything they do around the unique strengths of each person” will dominate in the future.
Like many other consultancies, TMBC started out as a training company. But Buckingham saw very early that using technology would give his concepts greater credibility. This led to the development of StandOut.
“Tools always trump training, and most of the human capital tools out there were designed by financial people.
“They are all enterprise resource planning systems. They are not really focused on helping team leaders activate their talent, and get the most out of them,” he explains.
Reliability, variation, and validity
While the world has undergone a lot of changes in the last 20 years, the fact also remains that for organisations to stay at the top, a sound management plan – in the areas of talent management, leadership development, employee engagement, and performance management – is still key.
But now there is new information to chew on: In the last few years, the use of HR analytics has become commonplace and essential for businesses to make informed decisions and take the right steps.
Here lies Buckingham’s challenge for HR: How much of the existing data you collect today is actually, “good data”? How much of that data is truly reliable?
“People are being promoted and fired because of faulty data. That has to stop,” Buckingham warns.
“Don’t be a casualty of bad data. Data fluency means knowing the difference between good and bad data.”
For example, he says all performance ratings and 99% of 360-degree HR tools produce “bad data” as they do not measure the competencies that they are supposed to measure. That’s because competencies are inherently unmeasurable.
In fact, Buckingham claims that all talent data is bad data. Because of this, most team leaders still do not reach for HR data willingly.
Just as in management, when it comes to data, patterns have to be challenged, and eventually broken.
Buckingham says to achieve this, there are three words all managers must know about data analytics: reliability, variation, and validity.
Most HR tools fall short of at least one of these criteria – and many fall short on all three, he says.
“The next time you are asked to participate in any sort of performance rating, opinion survey, 360-degree survey, or any other source of people data, ask yourself if it complies with these three standards,” Buckingham says. “Odds are, it won’t.”
He goes on to explain that there are really only three ways to measure things. “You can count it (that is, how many inches tall are you?). You can rate it (how tall do I think you are?). Or you can rank it (list the people from tallest to shortest).”
Buckingham says ranking is the least-helpful measurement tool, because rankings may explain something in one context, but will be irrelevant in any other group. HR data is all about interpersonal comparisons, and rankings can’t be compared between different sets of people.
The best and most reliable way to measure anything, according to Buckingham, is to count it. That’s because counting has “inter-rater reliability”. That means that no matter who is counting, the number will always be the same. Countable people data like payroll, time, and attendance, and length of service will always be good, reliable data.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to people data, many of the things we want to measure aren’t countable. We can’t count your performance or your leadership skills, your strategic thinking, or your engagement,” Buckingham explains. “So to measure these things, we have to rate them.”
Buckingham’s works and concepts have proved so popular that it scored him a full-hour special on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2008, alongside appearances on countless other talk shows and news programmes.
He singles out The Oprah Winfrey Show as one of his most memorable career experiences.
“Oprah had done shows on every subject that you can imagine, but she had never done a show on women at work,” Buckingham recalls.
“To have an entire show devoted to my work was really interesting, and will remain a highlight.”
On the back of the StandOut tool’s growing impact, HR software company ADP acquired TMBC for over US$100 million in January 2017. Today, the platform is offered as ADP StandOut.
Not too shabby for someone who once struggled to string a sentence together.
“I’m surprised by how everything has worked out. I have managed to use something that strengthened me to overcome something that once weakened me. That’s a pretty good prescription for life,” says Buckingham.