Review: First, Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham

First, Break All The Rules (Image Source:

A couple of years ago a close friend of mine told me about this book and praised it, maybe in person or on mail. His own blog is a popular one and a fine example of the out-of-the-ordinary. Back then I tried finding the book but couldn't until last week when I found it lying in my employer's library. I hungrily issued it wanting to read it for two reasons - his high words for it and I was about to join a new project in the firm. Though I am not a manager, thought if a manager is going to implement techniques (such as presented in the book) on me, why not implement them proactively, wherever possible, on myself?

The tiny book begins with encouraging paragraphs about how to become a great manager. It details a short interview with a manager, with a masked name Michael, of a restaurant. Michael outlines his philosophy of managing people and how he treats them differently as he knows them in and out, his refusal to improve their weaknesses and his readiness to fire people if they do not fit. The authors say that Michael's ideas are "revolutionary". This was going overboard. What is so new in treating people differently? Do we not in our personal relationships, for example, behave with people differently based on our role and standing in the relationship? Being impartial doesn't mean that you treat them the same. Michael's idea of firing people at the earliest was, to put it mildly, insane - does he considers himself so well equipped that he can within a short period of time judge who fits and who doesn't? That's a sign of a bloated ego. Any which way I tugged along.

Gallup International, as mentioned often in the book, conducted interviews and surveys with over 80,000 managers across the globe and more than a million employees! That's a commendable number for pulling out a detailed study. It then proceeds to give an example of a "strong, vibrant workplace - Lankford-Sysco" (by the way, Sysco, the parent firm is a $42 Billion giant). They describe how this is an inspiring organization with a "wall festooned with pictures of individual, smiling faces". Which organization doesn't put up happy pictures? The President of the firm adds that those pictures are of their delivery associates and by doing so they all "feel close to them, even though they're out with our customers every day". Well, any which way, I still tugged along.

Then they mention a list of twelve questions pulled out from their surveys and interviews, based on advanced statistics, which is an accurate way to measure the strength of a workplace. The questions seemed very simple but were definitely thought provoking. The first one still reverberates inside my mind - "Do I know what is expected of me at work?”. The answer to this plain question, I believe, lies at the core of satisfaction or the absence of it. Few questions focused on the bonding and relationship aspect while the others on the feeling of importance at work and the opportunities to learn and grow. Fairly grounded list but effective in driving home the point - that they form the basis in judging the effectiveness of a manager more so than the organization, for an employee works directly under a supervisor/manager and lot of the organizations' policies, though clearly worded, are interpreted and implemented, in spirit and otherwise, by supervisors and managers. The twelve points are then divided and allocated to a Base-Camp, Camp-1, Camp-2 and Camp-3 of a mountain signifying various stages of one's career with the ground rule that once you reach Camp-3, the highest, you don't stagnate - for the winds are much stronger up there and constantly force the business to change or you being promoted or offered a role-change resulting in you starting from Base-Camp again. This was interesting and now there was no turning back hence I marched along!

Then the author(s) preach that "you must know how to select a person", "must know how much of a person you can change", "must know the difference between talent, skills, and knowledge", "must know how to reveal a candidate's true talents" and a never ending barrage of must-knows. One agreeable point they talk of is when they distinguish between managers and leaders - the former being focused inward and the latter outward. Then the 'Four Keys' are introduced: "select for talent; define the right outcomes; focus on strengths; find the right fit". Personally, I have come to hate jargons and I hated that the term "keys" was introduced. Few such terms at the top of my mind which I detest: Strategy, Innovation, Leadership, Evangelize, Think, Leverage, Low Hanging Fruits, Big Picture and Pain Points. I don't dislike these terms in their originality but for their abuse and overuse. Every other meeting I am in, every other presentation I go through, every other Webinar I attend and every other conversation I hear has at least a few of these terms. When used and applied in the right context they are effective but only confuse and mask the lack of purpose rest of the time. The next four chapters describe each of the keys in detail and how to apply them giving ample real life examples.

From then onwards the book gives lot of good ideas which can be and should be implemented by a manager - but none of these are new as they have been known from various articles, books, talks and management guru's. It gives lot of advice which is theoretical - like, for example, that managers should give their employees what they want rather than what is best for them. I think managers are first for their companies, then for their employees (of course the circuitous argument can be raised here that happy employee results in better results, but not all what an employee wants is good for the company). Few examples of managers earning lesser than those who are managed by them are also good.

My takeaways from the book would be the important 12 questions and some advice from the last chapters where they coax those who are 'managed' to take charge if their managers are too busy. Apart from that, it’s a general management book which has boasted a little too much about its own achievements.

(My distrust of the authenticity of Amazon's ratings has increased after reading reviews about this one. A total of 315 ratings averaging 4.4! My disbelief has not limits)


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