This Is How To Be A Great Manager: 4 Powerful Secrets From Research


What makes companies great? Gallup did research to find out — real research. They surveyed 24 companies in 12 different industries measuring productivity, profitability, employee retention and customer satisfaction. They ended up looking at over 2500 business units and interviewed 105,000 employees.

And what was the thing that made all the difference? Good managers.

Now we’ve all had bad managers. Working for them is like being in a real-life version of “The Office,” but without the comfort of a camera crew to share your pain with. There’s no “I” in team, but there’s definitely one in “unpaid overtime.” You don’t leave their department; you escape it.

But what makes great managers different? Yeah, there are a million articles and books that claim to know the secrets but those are usually anecdotal and unscientific. Nobody’s ever spoken to a huge sample of the best managers in the world and systematically compared them to average ones…

So that’s exactly what Gallup did. And they didn’t just look for typical insights. They looked for the contradictions. What did average managers believe that the best ones strongly disagreed with? That’s where the gold is.

And what they found was counterintuitive – shocking, even. It goes against the grain of standard advice: Great managers don’t believe everyone has unlimited potential. They don’t help people fix their weaknesses. They insist on breaking the Golden Rule with every employee. And they strongly believe in playing favorites.

The book we’ll be looking at is “First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.”

Let’s get to it…


What Do Great Managers Do?

Gallup found the top tier believed the role of the manager was to select the right people, set the right expectations, motivate people and then develop them.

Employees often think managers have all the control. Not true. Managers don’t have more control; they have less control. They have to operate through others. This is the corporate equivalent of trying to drive a car from the back seat. They’re less puppet masters and more… puppet suggestion givers. The only way for them to get things done is through others.

Great managers define outcomes and then focus everyone on performance. But what they don’t do is tell people exactly how to achieve those outcomes. That’s micro-managing. And if you’re doing that, you’re screwing up. It’s inefficient. It’s demeaning. You’re not utilizing the abilities and experience of good workers. And it prevents people from learning.

Telling workers the “One Best Way” to do things doesn’t just kill high performance; it throws it off a cliff, watches it fall, and then goes down to poke it with a stick.

A manager’s job is to unleash people’s unique talents to increase performance. And the best managers select people based primarily on talent – not knowledge or skills.

So what does “talent” mean then? Well, the best managers gave a very different definition of the term…



Running a good team is lot like making a good movie – a big part of it is casting. Pick the right people. If you do, it makes everything else much easier. This can’t be overstated.

When managers don’t focus on casting for talent they end up having to create tons of rules to make sure people do things the “right” way. This smothers them with step-by-step tyranny. Adds a nice Dickensian vibe to the place.

They’re trying to perfect employees, sanding down all the interesting, quirky edges. “You’re good at thinking outside the box? Great, but have you tried getting back in the box and never leaving? It’s cozy in there.” These managers become the human equivalent of “Reply All” — necessary, but universally loathed. Great management isn’t about creating a squadron of Stepford Workers, all shiny and identical.

Consistent poor performance isn’t the result of stupidity or incompetence – it’s usually bad casting. This person doesn’t belong in this role. Turning talent into performance means putting people in roles where they are doing what they are naturally wired to do.

Great managers, contrary to the painfully optimistic propaganda of corporate handbooks, do not subscribe to the myth of unlimited potential. They understand that suggesting everyone can do anything is like saying every dog can win at Westminster; it’s not only unrealistic, it’s cruel.

They know the truth: people have unique talents, and forcing a square peg into a round hole is not only futile but is likely to result in a lot of splinters and a very disgruntled peg.

So what is talent? It’s not skills or knowledge. Great managers define a talent as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.”

It’s an innate perspective. The mental filter people have on the world. Are you competitive or altruistic? Empathetic or strategic? Optimistic or cynical? These types of traits don’t change much and their unique combination gives people a perspective that can’t be taught. Talent is a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world that’s so ingrained in you it’s like trying to explain why you prefer a certain color.

Concretely: Dave is a whiz with computers but has the social skills of a hermit crab and the empathy of a parking ticket. Gonna put him in sales? No, try IT. He’s going to naturally develop well in that arena. But all the skills and knowledge in the world aren’t going to allow him to overcome his natural proclivities and reach the top tier of salespeople.

Now before the chorus of HR professionals starts warming up their vocal cords, nobody is suggesting only the top 1% are worth anything. This definition of talent as innate perspective has an interesting twist: it means talent isn’t rare. Everyone’s lens is useful – in a role that makes use of it.

Gallup interviewed housekeepers working at a major hotel chain. What made the great ones great? Again, it was talent – that unique perspective. They didn’t just clean better; they looked at the job differently. All of them emphasized how vital it was to really scrub that ceiling fan. Uhhhh, why?

It’s the first thing visitors see when they collapse on their backs in bed after a hard day. And cleaning up children’s toys? No, it’s not a matter of placing them together neatly. You take Pooh and Tigger and sit them at the table like they’re having tea. Great housekeepers don’t just have skills; they see the whole job differently.

And that uniqueness means talents are very, very hard to change. As a manager, if you hear yourself saying someone “needs a better attitude” – stop. That attitude is probably not going to change. They’re probably miscast. Being disagreeable doesn’t necessarily mean someone is awful; they just might be better as a litigator or an investigative journalist than as a customer service rep.

Great managers work hard to identify people’s talents and put them in the right role to utilize and develop them. And, yeah, that might mean transferring some people and getting other ones. A manager’s job isn’t to perfect people but to capitalize on their uniqueness. They’re trying to make people into more of who they already are.

Great managers understand that when people can be their authentic selves, they’re happier, vastly more productive, and less likely to steal all the good pens.

Yes, all your people are not going to be great. So you should spend time trying to bring the stragglers up to snuff, right? Wrong…


Spend The Most Time With Your Top People

The primary goal of time spent with employees is to turn talent into performance. That’s the job. So spend the most time with the people that produce the most results.

This may sound ruthless but time is always limited. We act like it’s not, but the issue of opportunity cost is always there: every minute you’re doing X is a minute you’re not doing Y. If you’re spending time trying to bring up the bottom, you’re not getting the most out of the top.

Spending more time with your best employees instead of the stragglers isn’t cruel; it’s just common sense, like not touching a hot stove or avoiding eye contact with the weird guy on the subway. Trying to motivate the “I’m just here for the health insurance” crowd is unlikely to produce gains while another hour with your best people moves the needle.

So double down on supporting your stars. Counterintuitive as it might sound, the employees who are already performing above average have the greatest room for growth.

And when you are spending time with people you should follow the Golden Rule, right? Wrong again…


Treat People Differently

The popular mantra is “Treat everyone the same.” This is great until you realize that Derek needs constant praise to function, while Susan interprets a friendly “good morning” as a sign of impending doom.

Do not treat others as you want to be treated. Great managers chuck this idea out the nearest window. Why? Because it assumes everyone wants to be treated like you. Treat everyone the way they want to be treated.

Great managers reject the one-size-fits-all approach in favor of a bespoke management style. They’re more like gardeners, expertly pruning the shrubs of workplace tension, gently nurturing each plant, understanding that the cactus doesn’t need the same care as the orchid, and that the office fern probably just wants to be left alone, thank you very much. Variety is the spice of life, and great managers are making curry.

Some will reply, “How can I know what each employee needs?” It’s simple: ask. You’re spending more time with your top people, right? Good. Now get to know them to provide the specific support they need. Some want minimal contact to execute at their best. Others need regular encouragement. “Great use of the stapler, Kevin. Stellar pressure on that downstroke.” Operating through others is what managers do and knowing how to best do that is key to the role.

So you want to make all of your people well-rounded, right? Nope…


Focus On Strength. Manage Around Weakness.

Strength is not the absence of weakness. A focus on fixing weaknesses leads to mediocrity. Strange as it may sound on the surface, excellence and weakness often have more in common than either do with “average.”

Managerial wizards focus on improving what workers are actually good at, rather than trying to fix what they’re hilariously bad at. You don’t help Usain Bolt improve his marathon performance; you try to make his sprinting even better. Otherwise, you end up with a team that is “pretty good” at everything vs a team where each person is an expert at something.

You succeed by finding ways to capitalize on who people are, not by trying to fix who they aren’t.

Some might worry this will lead to employees who are difficult to manage. And it absolutely will. Expect it. But Gallup found the best managers did better wrangling difficult A-players than dealing with nice team players… who can’t get the job done.

But what about when someone with “the gift” has glaring weaknesses? Address that with partnership. If your top salesperson outperforms everyone else by 400% but is a disorganized mess, you’re better off getting them an assistant than trying to change them into something they’re not or having them spend less time on sales to fill out TPS reports.

Unless someone has truly toxic issues, it’s smarter to partner them with someone who has what they lack than trying to make them “well-rounded.” Some of the greatest businesses have been created by partnerships: Walt and Roy Disney, William Hewlett and David Packard, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. They didn’t have redundant skillsets; they had abilities that complemented each other.

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up – and learn the #1 secret to finding those vital, “talented” people…


Sum Up

Here’s how to be a great manager:

  • What Do Great Managers Do?: Being a manager is like being the parent of a very large, very dysfunctional family where everyone is going through puberty at the same time. But people are the job. A manager’s role is to unleash an employee’s unique talents to increase performance.
  • Talent: Great managers select for talent: a personal perspective beyond knowledge and skills that makes someone a natural fit for their job. You will never turn the office sloth into a racehorse. You can’t teach a fish to climb a tree, and you can’t teach me to care about sports.
  • Spend The Most Time With Your Top People: “What’s that, Sarah? You’ve streamlined the entire workflow process? That’s nice, but I have to go help Bob reset his password for the seventeenth time this week.” So Sarah, bewildered, nods politely while mentally drafting her resignation letter.
  • Treat People Differently: Treating everyone the same is like giving everyone the same prescription glasses and wondering why they keep bumping into things. Get to know your employees and treat them how they want to be treated.
  • Focus On Strength, Manage Around Weakness: Strength isn’t about not having weaknesses, it’s about ignoring those weaknesses so hard they develop abandonment issues. In your heist crew you don’t care if the safecracker is any good at driving the getaway car. Make each the best at their role.

So talent is vital and casting is key… but how the heck do you find great people?

Remember, talent is a lens on life. It’s not reflected in bullet points on a resume. You have to be able to spot it. And how do you do that?

You’re spending more of your time with your top performers, right? Great. Study them. Learn more about that perspective and those traits that make them great. Become as articulate about describing excellence as you are about describing failure.

Great salespeople all have perspective X. The best programmers all possess Y and Z. When you can fill in those blanks you’ll be able to spot diamonds in the rough. You’ll be better able to look past skills and knowledge and see potential. “That intern doesn’t have much experience and shows up 10 minutes late for everything — but she has the ability to size up what’s great about a product, generate ideas, and relentlessly execute. Those are the traits I’ve seen in all my best marketers. Make her an offer.”

When you can spot talent and cast well, everything gets easier. In this nirvana, employees glide through their tasks with ease, buoyed by the knowledge that their strengths are recognized and their quirks accommodated. That’s great leadership.

You may even find the office printer seems to jam less. It, too, is trying to live up to your expectations.


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