Best Practice
May 7, 2012

Master chess, not checkers

 

The One Thing You Need To Know

Marcus Buckingham

Free Press, 289 pages, $43.50

 

Management and leadership are complicated. So it would be lovely if there was some secret ingredient, one thing that we needed to know to be successful. And there is, according to former Gallup researcher and consultant Marcus Buckingham.

Just one thing. Sort of.

Well, three things, actually. One thing for being a great manager, one thing for being a great leader, and one thing for achieving sustained individual success.

Not quite as simple as we might like, but still quite appealing.

Buckingham has always been attracted to the notion that beneath complex phenomena such as loyalty, productivity, career success, or even a happy marriage, lies a core concept. By finding that core concept, you can focus your attention, waste less time, and be more productive.

In The One Thing You Need To Know, he stresses that he isn’t so naive as to believe you can reduce all complex phenomena to a single cause: “In fact, as a social science researcher by training, I have been forced to become singularly suspicious of oversimplifications, the kind that lead to one-size-fits-all explanations and get-slim-quick-pill action plans. No matter how careful your analysis, the link between the effect you are trying to predict and the factor you thought was causing it never turns out to be quite as clear and direct as you had hoped.”

But he does believe there are “controlling insights,” which serve as the best explanation of the most events in a field. The controlling insights he seeks – the One Big Thing – must apply across a wide range of situations, serve as the multiplier – allowing you to get exponential improvement – and must guide action.

For marriages, he says the research shows the controlling insight – the one big thing you need to know (and do!) – is find the most generous explanation for each other’s behaviour, and believe it. In the best marriages, love is blind. Indeed, in the happiest couples, the husband rated the wife more positively than she did herself in every single quality.

But it’s management, leadership and personal success we’re concerned with here.

For management, the key is to remember that each of your direct reports is unique and that your chief responsibility is not to eradicate this uniqueness but rather to arrange roles, responsibilities and expectations so that you can capitalize on those strengths. “The more you perfect this skill, the more effectively you will turn talents into performance,” he advises.

Great managers, he observes, play chess, rather than checkers. In checkers, the pieces all move in the same way, whereas in chess the pieces all move differently. If you want to excel at chess, you have to learn how each piece moves and then incorporate those unique moves into your plan of attack.

“he same is true for the game of managing. Mediocre managers play checkers with their people. They assume (or hope) that their employees will be motivated by the same things, driven by the same goals, desire the same kind of relationships, and learn roughly in the same way,” he writes.

But your people are all different – unique. They differ in how they think, build relationships, how they learn, how altruistic they are, how patient, how much of an expert they want to be, what challenges them, and a host of other personality traits. Most of these differences are enduring and resistant to change, even if you think you are a transformational genius. And given that your most precious resource as a manager is time, the best way to invest your time is to identify exactly how each employee is different and then, like a chess master, figure out how to make the most of that in your action plan.

“The more one listens to the testimony of great managers, the clearer it becomes: Great managing is not about transformation – if you dedicate yourself to transforming each employee into some predetermined perfect version of the role, you will wind up frustrating yourself and annoying the employee. Great managing is about release. It is about constantly tweaking the world so the unique contribution, the unique needs, the unique style of each employee can be given free rein,” he states.

To manage someone effectively, Buckingham says you need to learn the individual’s strengths and weaknesses, his triggers and his unique style of learning. That’s the information that will help you to play chess – and for this chess coach, it’s important to stress that he believes your objective is to capitalize on strengths rather than try to change the weaknesses.

To excel as a leader requires the opposite approach from being a great manager. Instead of worrying about what is unique in everyone, you must take a more collective approach. Great leaders, he says, discover what is universal and capitalize on it.

Common needs include security, community, authority and respect. But the most powerful universal need, he stresses, is for clarity. “To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill grows, so will our confidence in you.”

There have been many attempts to define leadership. Buckingham says great leaders rally people to a better future. “What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. In his head, he carries a vivid image of what the future could be, and that image drives him on. This image, rather than, say, goals of outperforming competitors, or being individually productive, or helping others achieve success, is what motivates leaders,” he says.

Sure, a leader must be competitive, achievement-oriented and a good coach. But he is a leader if he rallies others to a better future. Indeed, Buckingham says leaders are fascinated by the future. And great leaders see the future optimistically. They are convinced things will get better.

Take Churchill, in Britain’s bleakest days: “What is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs – victory in spite of all terrors, victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival. I take up my task in buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men.”

Like Churchill, you need optimism. And you need to rally everyone to your universal cause.

As for achieving sustained individual success, here’s the one thing you need to know: discover what you don’t like, and stop doing it.

Your strengths – be it your love of problem solving, intuition, assertiveness, or ability to deal with people – are your natural appetites. When using them, you feel powerful, confident, authentic and challenged. But he notes that inevitably after you have employed your strengths and achieved some initial success you will be offered new opportunities, assignments or roles that may not use those strengths. “The secret to sustained success lies in knowing which engage your strengths and which do not, and in having the self-discipline to reject the latter,” he says.

You want to be a “twenty percenter.” That sounds negative, half-hearted, but it is actually the reverse. The term comes from the fact that Gallup research shows that only 20 percent of people are in a role where they have a chance to do what they do best every day. They choose wisely early in their careers, and manage to continue to flourish by finding work that engages their strengths fully. “No matter how tempting the offer, they refuse to get sucked into activities that, on some visceral level, they know they will not enjoy,” he notes. Their work is intense, but they are fulfilled.

So there it is. One thing – well,

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