The chain of events that leads to strong and sustained business results starts with great managers who defy common management practice at virtually every turn, says Curt Coffman, global practice leader for employee and customer engagement consulting at The Gallup Organization.
What is the defining contribution of great managers? They boost the engagement levels of the people who work for them. According to Gallup research, only 28% of U.S. employees are engaged, or are actively pursuing top performance on behalf of their organizations, and Gallup studies show that this has a direct impact on the bottom line. Engaged employees lead to engaged customers, who in turn drive a company’s growth, long term profitability, and stock price.
So what distinguishes managers who not only retain valuable employees but, by boosting engagement, also extract their full value? According to Coffman, coauthor with Marcus Buckingham of First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently(Simon & Schuster, 1999), the answer lies in rejecting conventional wisdom in four core areas of managing people: selection, expectation setting, motivation, and development.
Most managers select employees according to the skills needed for the role, but great managers select people for their talent. Coffman defines talent as a recurrent pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior and accounts for the different results produced by those with the same skills and training. Talent is abundant, Coffman observes, yet people whose natural talents fit their role are a rare and valuable commodity.
Consider what differentiates top performing customer service representatives, Coffman notes. All reps in a firm get the same training, but the best take one-third fewer calls than the average to resolve the same complaint. Why? Because they use the phone as a tool of intimacy—they can envision what the customer looks like, what room he is in; they smile and nod even though the customer cannot see what they are doing. Instinctively, their talent leads them to manage each customer relationship in the most effective manner.
Great managers resist the temptation to hire people whose skills are a good match for how a job is already configured; instead, they seek those whose talent will redefine how the job is done.
Conventional wisdom says managers should specify the steps that employees need to take to accomplish a specific task. But great managers define the outcomes they seek and let each person use her individual talent to achieve them. For example, while great managers do not usually mandate steps to be taken, they do provide specific direction when accuracy or safety is involved, or when a company or industry standard is at stake. But even then they don’t let the steps obscure the focus on the outcome.
Conventional wisdom says that “anybody can be anything they want to be,” and thus managers tend to focus on finding and fixing a person’s weaknesses. This leads to reviews and development plans that focus on negatives— where the emphasis is on “improving” a person into someone he is not.
In contrast, great managers emphasize the development of their subordinates’ unique strengths so as to help further their talent, while finding strategies to support their weaknesses. The key here is determining how to take greater advantage of what people already do well.
Conventional managers rate the person and develop the performance; great managers rate the performance and develop the person—they realize that every person is different and should be treated as such.
Most companies view promotion as the natural path of progression. But is that always the right course? No, says Coffman, because success in one role is not necessarily an indication of success in another.
Consider how many outstanding account representatives fail miserably when they are promoted to sales managers. The ability to sell is entirely distinct from the ability to manage. What’s more, promotion removes the high-performing salesperson from the position in which she has been producing substantial value for the company.
Great managers seek the right fit for a person’s talent, they work to see that he is rewarded for his performance, and they endeavor to ensure that his talent is developed through progressively more challenging and meaningful assignments.
This article appeared in the August 2004 issue of Harvard Management Update.