First, Break All the Rules – Book Excerpts

Breaking The Status Quo

First Break All the Rules asserts that the status quo is counter productive, and encourages management to adopt innovative approaches to employee engagement.

There are four keys for unlocking potential in your employees: select for talents, suggest outcomes rather than direct control of process, focus on employees strengths and work around weaknesses, and finally find the right fit for your employees.

Workplace Strength: The 12 Questions

  • Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  • Do I have the equipment I need to do my work right?
  • Do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  • Have I received recognition for good work?
  • Does anyone care about me as a person?
  • Does anyone encourage my development?
  • Do my opinions matter?
  • Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my work is important?
  • Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  • Do I have a best friend at work?
  • Have I talked to someone about my progress recently?
  • Have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

A Yes To All 12 Questions

As a manager, it is your responsibility that your employees reply with an emphatic “yes” to the 12 questions. Positive responses to these questions were strongly correlated to profitability, productivity, employee retention, and customer satisfaction.

If you can generate positive responses to these questions then you have the ability to attract and retain quality employees. The importance of influential perks, pay, or a charismatic CEO was not established in the author’s research.

Identifying and Understanding Talent

Normally we associate talent with celebrated excellence. Great managers disagree with this definition of talent. It is too narrow and too specialized.

Instead they define talent as a recurring pattern of thought, feeling or behavior than can be productively applied. The emphasis here is on the word recurring. Your talents, they say, are the behaviors you find yourself doing often

Empathy And EQ Over Experience

Great managers know that every role in a workplace requires talent because there are recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Managers that are able to select for these patters will have more harmonious results on their team.

One of the biggest mistakes managers make is selecting for other factors like experience or intelligence, and ignore required talents (for example, empathy is a required trait for nurses).

The Three Types Of Talent

  • Striving talents explain the ‘why’ of a person: what motivates them, do they want to stand out, and is ‘good enough,’ good enough for them?
  • Thinking talents explain the ‘how’ of a person: how they think, their decision making processes, are they focused, disciplined, strategic or non-linear in thinking?
  • Relating talents the ‘who’ of a person: who do they trust, who they build relationships with, do they avoid confrontation or have a desire to win people over? Do they love or hate surprises?

The Intangible Talents That Cannot Be Taught

We all possess talents within the contexts of these categories. It is important to recognize that talents can’t be taught, they can only be cultivated and encouraged within the work roles assigned to that person. Skills, on the other hand, can be taught (i.e. typing speed, surgical techniques, software etc.).

This does not mean entirely that people can’t change over time, but as managers, we need to be aware of underlying talents and work with them rather than against them.

Helping And Empowering

High performing managers understand that trying to achieve direct control of employees is futile and that trying to change people’s natural talents will not work. The solution is both simple and elegant: define a required outcome and then let the employee find their own way forward, through a path of least resistance.

The most efficient way to turn someone’s talents into performance is to help him find his own path of least resistance towards the desired outcome.

The Four Temptations That Hinder Growth

  • Create “perfect people”  by imposing a “best way” attitude and that you have the right answers. This is disempowering, demeaning and prevents self-exploration and learning.
  • Believe that employees don’t have enough talent, which can be true, but not if your hiring criteria is critically based on talents rather than selecting for other strengths.
  • Believe that “trust is precious it must be earned.” Great managers must reject the concept of earning trust.
  • Believe that “some outcomes defy definition” such as abstracts like employee satisfaction and customer feedback.

What Great Managers Do

  • Select people. Differentiate between talent, skills and knowledge
  • Set accurate performance expectations
  • Motivate (recognition and care)
  • Develop the employee

Managers look inward, leaders look outward. 

The Four Keys

  • Select for talent (not simply for the experience, intelligence, determination)
  • Define the right outcomes (not the right steps)
  • Focus on strengths (not on weaknesses)
  • Find the right fit

Defining The Right Outcome: The Rules

Employees must follow certain required steps for all aspects of their role that deal with accuracy and safety

Employees must follow steps when they are part of a company or industry standard

Required steps are useful only if they do not obscure the desired outcome.

Interview For Finding Talent

  • Talent interview should stand alone
  • Ask open-ended questions and keep quiet
  • Listen for specifics and top of minds

Clues to talent:

  1. Rapid learning: which roles have you been able to learn quickly? What comes easy now?
  2. What do you find fulfilling?

Know what to listen for. Know what the top answer is (e.g. top salespeople hate to be doubted, top teachers love it) 

Managing Performance

Develop a performance management routine to keep focused on the progress of each person’s performance.

Routines are:


  • Frequent (not all criticism at once; recent examples; results and problems fresh in memory).
  • Focused on the future.

Ask the employee to keep track of his own performance and learnings in a private document.

Basic Routine Questions

  • What did you enjoy most about your previous work experience?
  • What brought you here? what keeps you here?
  • What do you think your strengths are? Your weaknesses?
  • What about your goals for your current role?
  • Do you have any personal goals or commitments you would like to tell me about?
  • What is the best praise you have ever received? what made it so good?
  • Have you had any really productive partnerships or mentors? why do you think these relationships worked so well for you?

Career Check Discovery Questions

  • How would you describe success in your current role? can you measure it?
  • What do you actually do that makes you as good as you are? what does this tell you about your skills, knowledge and talents?
  • Which part of your current role do you enjoy the most?
  • Which part of your current role are you struggling with? what does this tell…? what can we do to manage around this? (training? positioning? support system? partnering?)

From the book:-
First Break All the Rules By Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

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