In Marcus Buckingham's recent research he found out that while there are as many styles of management as there are managers, there is one quality that sets truly great managers apart from the rest: They discover what is unique about each person and capitalise on it.
Great managers know and value the unique abilities and even the eccentricities of their employees, and know how best to integrate them into a co-ordinated plan of action.
This, unfortunately, is the exact opposite of what great leaders do. Great leaders discover what is universal and capitalise on it. Their job, purposively, is to rally people toward a better future. Leaders can succeed in this only when they can cut through differences of sex, age, and personality and using strategies tap into those needs we all share.
The job of the manager, meanwhile, is to turn one person's particular talent into performance. Managers will succeed only when they can identify and deploy the differences among people, challenging each employee to excel in his or her own way. This does not imply a leader cannot be a manager or vice-versa. But to excel at one or both, you must be aware of the very different skills each role requires.
Capitalising on each person's uniqueness is a tremendous tool. Why? First, identifying and capitalising on each person's uniqueness saves time. No employee, however talented is perfectly well-rounded. Second, capitalising on uniqueness makes each person more accountable.
Third, capitalising on what is unique about each person builds a stronger sense of team, because it creates inter-dependence.
It helps people to appreciate one anothers' particular skills and learn that their co-workers can fill in where they are lacking. In short, it makes people need one another. Finally, when you capitalise on what is unique about each person, you introduce a healthy degree of disruption into the organisation. You shuffle existing hierarchies, existing assumptions about who is allowed to do what and existing beliefs about where the true expertise lies.
The three levers
According to Buckingham, there are three things about employees one has to know to manage them well: Their strengths, the triggers that activate those strengths, and how the individual learns.
Make the most of strengths. It takes time and effort to gain a full appreciation of an employee's strength and weakness.
The great manager spends a good deal of time outside the office walking around, watching each person's reactions to events, listening and taking mental notes about what each individual is drawn to and what each person struggles with.
There is no substitute for this kind of observation, but you can obtain a lot of information about a person by asking a few simple, open-ended questions and listening carefully to the answers. Two such questions in particular have proven most revealing when it comes to identifying strengths and weaknesses.
To identify a person's strength, first ask, "What was the best day at work you have had in the past three months?" Find out what the person was doing and why he enjoyed it so much. It is advisable you remember that a strength is no merely something you are good at. In fact, it might be something you are not good at yet.
It may be just a preference, something you find so intrinsically satisfying and that you look forward to doing it again and again and getting better at it over time. This question will prompt your employees to start thinking about their interests and abilities from this perspective.
To identify a person's weakness, just invert the question: "What was the worst day you have had at work in the past three months?"
And then probe for details about what he was doing and why it irritated him so much. As with a strength, a weakness is not merely something you are bad at (in fact, you might be quite competent at it). It is something that drains your energy, an activity that you never look forward to doing and that when you are doing it; all you can think about is stopping.
Although, you are keeping an eye out for both the strengths and weaknesses of your employees, your focus should be on their strengths. Self-awareness is a good thing and it is the job of the manager to identify weaknesses and create a plan for overcoming them.
Trigger good performance. A person's strengths are not always on display. Sometimes, they require precise triggering to turn them on. Squeeze the right trigger, and a person will push himself harder and persevere in the face of resistance. Squeeze the wrong one, and the person may well shut down. This could be tricky, because according to Buckingham, triggers come in myriad and mysterious forms.
One employee's trigger might be tied to the time of the day. Another employee's trigger might be tied to time with you, the boss. Another worker's trigger might be just the opposite - independence.
The most powerful trigger by far is recognition, not money. Most managers are aware that employees respond well to recognition. Great managers refine and extend this insight. They realise that each employee plays to a slightly different audience. To excel as a manager, you must be able to match the employee to the audience he values most.
One employee's audience might be his peers; the best way to praise him would be to stand him up in front of his co-workers and publicly celebrate his achievement. Another's favourite audience might be you; the most powerful recognition would be a one-on-one conversation where you tell him quietly but vividly why he is such a valuable member of the team.
Still another employee might define himself by his expertise; his most prized form of recognition would be some type of professional or technical award. Yet another might value feedback only from customers, in which case a picture of the employee with her best customer or a letter to her from the customer would be the best form of recognition.
Given how much personal attention it requires, tailoring praise to fit the person is mostly a manager's responsibility. But organisations, including very large ones, can also learn from this individualised approach to recognition and apply it to every employee.
Tailor to learning styles
Although there are many learning styles, a careful review of adult learning theory reveals that three styles predominate. These three are not mutually exclusive; certain employees may rely on combination of two or perhaps all three. Nonetheless, staying attuned to each employee's style or styles will help focus your coaching.
First, there is analysing. The analyser understands a task by taking it apart, examining its elements, and reconstructing it piece by piece.
The best way to teach the analyser is to give her an ample time in the classroom. Break her performance down into its component parts so she can carefully build it back up. Always allow her time to prepare. The analyser hates mistakes. A commonly held view is that mistakes fuel learning, but for the analyser, this isn't true. In fact, the reason she prepares so diligently is to minimise the possibility of mistakes.
The opposite is true for the second dominant learning style, doing. While the most powerful learning moments for the analyser occur prior to the performance, the doer's most powerful moments occur during the performance. Trial and error are integral to this learning process. Inevitably, some mistakes may be made along the way, but for the doer, mistakes are the raw materials for learning.
Finally, there is watching. Watchers would not learn much through role-playing. They would not learn by doing, either. Since most formal training programmes incorporate both of these elements, watchers are often viewed as rather poor students.
That may be true, but they are not necessarily poor learners. Watchers can learn a great deal when they are given the chance to see the total performance.
Not very experienced managers assume (or hope) that their employees will all be motivated by the same things and driven by the same goals, that they will desire the same kinds of relationships and learn in roughly the same way.
They define the behaviours they expect from people and tell them to work on behaviours that do not come naturally. They praise those who can overcome their natural styles to conform to pre-set ideas. In short, they believe the manager's job is to mould, or transform, each employee into the perfect version of the role.
Great managers do not try to change a person's style. They know that their employees will differ in how they think, how they build relationships, how altruistic they are, how patient they can be, how much of an expert they need to be, how prepared they need to feel, what drives them, what challenges them, and what their goals are.
Buckingham opines that these differences of trait and talent are like blood types: They cut across, he emphasises, the superficial variations of race, sex, and age and capture the essential uniqueness of each individual.
Like blood types, the majority of these differences, are enduring and resistant to change. A manager's most precious resource is time, and great managers know that the most effective way to invest their time is to identify exactly how each employee is different and then to figure out how best to incorporate those enduring idiosyncrasies into the overall plan.