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.

LUNBERGH hamilton lindley blog
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 healthy 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. A hero is hiding in every role.

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

All positions require skill. 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 significant.
  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 position. 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

40 Comments

  1. Karl McMurray

    It is amazing that people had the stamina to study managers for 25 years of 80,000 managers across 400 companies. I’ve never done anything that big. With all that data, it sure makes it seem like we can really learn something from it. I don’t think that I would be as willing to listen if they said all these things without that background. It definitely makes it hard to argue with, kind of like that old saying of 10,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” I’m still not sure that they really “broke all the rules.” They just don’t follow the conventional way of thinking about management. I thought it was interesting that the best managers avoided correcting weaknesses and instead focused on strengths. That resonates with me. When someone tries to fix my weaknesses, that I already know about, it feels like a personal attack. But if someone is trying to grow my strengths, my weaknesses get smaller as a result. That’s a really interesting perspective.

  2. Marcus

    I’ve always dreaded the yearly performance review for the reasons said by this book. I fear the surprise bomb. Meeting at least once per month on a one-on-one basis avoids that surprise. And it creates an open communication relationship which should make the team better. I am going to suggest this to my boss.

  3. Meghan

    I’ve often heard that people are “promoted to a level of incompetence.” This article really brought that point home to me. Being a good technician is important. So developing heroes in every role is critical to an organization. Otherwise, you will lose all your good technicians and they probably won’t be happy as a manager.

  4. Lonnie

    What struck me was that managers should spend their time with their best employees instead of their low performers. This seems counter-intuitive and I’m not sure it would really work. I understand that top performers move a company forward. But if you have employees that are underperforming, shouldn’t you invest more time in them so that they become better performers? I will try it. But I suspect that it won’t work.

  5. Jamie Quinn

    Micromanaging is hard on the manager and the employee. That’s why I like the advice that “employees should be guided by outcomes instead of next steps.” I am happier when I have personal autonomy over my work and judged on my results. I’m also a much better worker that way. Micromanaging is exhausting and demoralizing.

  6. Anonymous

    I agree that employees should be hired for talent instead of experience. Looking for an indication of a candidate’s character and how they behave in the workplace is powerful. And it is more important than them having experience. After all, the may have decades of experience. But they may not have been doing it right for decades. Unteaching them all those bad habits will offset the experience that they bring to the table.

  7. Margaret Lanier

    Great managers look inward, while great managers look outward. I thought that was interesting. I’m not sure if it is true though. I understand that leaders don’t have the time to determine individual needs because they are focused on the big picture. But can’t a person be both? After all, how would a leader have any influence if he didn’t understand the styles of the people he was influencing?

  8. Robert Whitworth

    I thought it was interesting that great managers do not follow the Golden Rule. Treating others as they want to be treated is obviously the intent behind it. But it’s harder because it requires us to get to know other people.

  9. Alena Kortig

    Wow! What an amazing undertaking that this must have been for the authors. I’ve learned so much from this article that I really need to buy this book. I didn’t know that it existed until I read your blog article. Thanks for summarizing it in such a fun, unique way.

  10. HiteshKumar Vaghasiya

    I really enjoyed it’s scientific approach, and it’s hands on explanations and tips.

    As a fairly junior manager and leader, the book has made me retrace my steps a bit, especially on what my priorities should be, and as part of that, how I evaluate myself. It’s also lead me to put effort into reflecting how I’m coloured by what the author describes as ‘conventional wisdom about management’, which while not necessary is always wrong, is worth questioning. Such things are treating everyone equally, or spending more time with high-performers than with low-performers.

  11. Over the course of my career I’ve worked with several companies and only a few of them, in my opinion, were with good managers. My main complaint is managers that had no idea of how to motivate employees. Some thought that being tough and criticizing would keep us in line. But, all this really did was frustrate us and keep us from trying new things. If you’re always wrong no matter what you do, then what’s the use of trying?

    My best managers made my job easier. They gave advice, not demands, and were always ready to help if needed. They were quick to praise and encourage and didn’t complain if something I tried didn’t work out. I was motivated to do my best to make them happy.

    Thanks for the interesting article!

  12. Daniel Cammack

    You have made some decent points here. I checked on the web for more information about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this website.

  13. Jeff Rittner

    Hey Hamilton. I like this article. If my memory serves me correctly, I read this book a few years ago. This was a good synopsis of that book and reminded me of what I learned from it. I probably should have written down my notes. But they wouldn’t have been as funny as yours.

  14. Peter Christiansen

    It’s great to read something that confirms many of the things that I do and then adds some more. I’m more willing to listen that way! For example, I do treat others the way that they want to be treated. But I do focus too much on trying to make someone perfect by getting rid of their faults instead of emphasizing their strengths as this book suggests. It sounds like this is worth reading.

    • Peter: At my child’s school, they say that “practice makes progress” instead of “perfect.” That’s a better way to look at it. I used to be proud of my perfectionism. But now I understand all the ridiculous pain that I inflicted on myself in pursuit of that unattainable goal. Practice makes progress. Perfectionism is impossible.

      Sincerely,
      Hamilton Lindley

  15. Eric Hurst

    My cousin recommended your site to me because I was struggling in my new management job. Your advice was very helpful. It’s interesting that the best managers spend the most time with their best performers instead of the low performers.

  16. Mark Walsh

    Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog, like yours Hamilton Lindley. Is it hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very technical but I can figure things out pretty quick. I’m thinking about creating my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any points or suggestions? Thank you.

  17. Jack Anderson

    I am glad that Buckingham and Coffman’s book First, Break all the Rules confirmed that not all great managers use the same leadership style. I often lamented that I didn’t see very many leaders like me–people who were introverted and detail oriented. But this book gave me hope that I could be a great manager one day. It is full of practical advice that many people will benefit from and has a scholarly approach.

  18. Charlotte Vanderwoude

    I plan to use this in our department annually so that we are nearing the summit of positively answering all those 12 questions instead of backsliding into the base camp. This book was informative and makes me act differently in the way that I manage.

  19. Isabell

    Have you ever considered writing an ebook or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same ideas you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my audience would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to
    shoot me an email.

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