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The Competitive Advantage of You

Every great team is built of individuals. Here’s the most important thing to know about them. (From a Build Conversation with Marcus Buckingham.)

You might have come across Marcus Buckingham’s name ten years ago, when he was working at the Gallup Organization, exploring the behaviors of the world’s best managers. Buckingham helped create Gallup’s StrengthsFinder, a popular business assessment tool for finding natural talents.

But, says Buckingham, “Gallup’s forte was measurement, and I was more interested in increasing the things we were measuring.” He struck out on his own, founding The Marcus Buckingham Company in 2007, and began rolling out best-selling motivation and self-improvement books, such as 2009’s Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently.

Buckingham has a new book and assessment tool out called StandOut (book buyers can access the online assessment using an electronic key found inside).

In an interview with Build partner George Gendron, Buckingham explains what StandOut is, and why the foundation of every strong management team is an understanding of what makes its members tick.


In your book First, Break All the Rules, you wrote about what concepts the best managers share. In your new book, you focus on what makes managers unique. Big change in direction.

Well, in First Break All The Rules we focused on what ‘concepts’ great managed shared, concepts such as focus on each person strengths, or define the right outcomes not the right steps.

But although the best managers share the same concepts they don’t all put them into practice in the same way. They excel using very different techniques and practices. Indeed we found this to be true for anyone excelling at any role: thought they share similar concepts, what they actually do is radically different. I’d interview a great manager or a great software engineer and hear them describe what they do. Then I’d hang up the phone and pick up somebody else and ask them to describe what they do. And they’re doing the same job in the same company and yet they’re describing something which seems so totally different.

Take, for instance, one of the large social media companies, and two of its best software engineers. One of them needs ten hours of solitude, and I called him a “massager,” because he just massaged and massaged and massaged the code until it looked so beautiful, people would come and read it just for the joy of reading it. The another guy, his best practice was being completely involved with everybody in these nightly codathons, going from one desk to another just picking people’s brains. He was playful about it, asking them where they were taking the code and then he’d piece it together, and he’d create something that none of them necessarily thought they were going to create.

Another guy. He’s shy, he’s introverted. And he’s like, “I don’t have any best practices, Marcus; I got nothing.” Eventually, after much pulling, he goes, “Oh, you know, I’ve got the lending library.” Huh? He went on to describe how he’d people to bring in a book and share it with their colleagues, and how he has created this lending library as a physical manifestation of the fact that everybody can learn from somebody else. I called him a “teacher.”

Those are just a few examples out of hundreds. And you realize two things. One, that people can excel in the same job in radically different ways, and two, that nobody could have defined those practices in advance. They’re too dynamic, they’re too small, they’re too idiosyncratic. And yet they’re really effective.

So summarize what’s the StandOut assessment tool is, and what the book covers.

For an individual the purpose is to be able to pinpoint where he or she has a comparative advantage. Let’s pinpoint your edge. And then, let’s not be descriptive; instead let’s be prescriptive. Let’s give you innovations and ideas and practices, derived from people who share your edge, so that you can sharpen that edge and therefore have a greater impact.

For the manager, the goal is to provide a one-page cheat sheet that enables a manager to know how to get the best out of each person. You go from the players to the plays, not the other way around, so StandOut should quickly help know who your players are and what plays they can run.

So you take the test, which is built around nine “strength” roles [see list], it and interprets an individual’s strongest combination of two of these roles.

Yes. For instance, for me, when I took it, my top 2 Role combo ended up being Stimulator/Creator, and when I clicked on the “Combine my top two strength roles,” out came the phrase, “You’re an enthusiast.” There’s then a fuller description that says, if you’re an enthusiast, you’re the sort of person that will bring drama and excitement and energy to ideas, and that’s what you’re put here to do. When you lead, that’s what you lead with. And then here are the specific techniques you can use to win as this very particular kind of leader.

A lot of assessment tools present to the leader information about the ideal leadership profile, and so the leader winds up focusing on the leadership competencies that he or she doesn’t have.

Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And I think you’re going to see a gradual shift over the next probably two or three years that will completely change the way in which all leadership and management development happens in business. We have been living at the moment in a world which I think you’d call the formulaic world, where somebody defines, “here’s what a leader should look like,” and then we rate people against that. It’s a static approach where someone has, a priori, defined what leadership should be. And then leadership content is delivered so that each leader can learn to become more like the perfect leader profile.

But you look outside of the regular world of work and you realize that that’s not the way in which content is being provided to people at all. If you look at Facebook, if you look at Slacker Radio, Pandora, Netflix, even The New York Times, the very first question that any content provider is asking is, “who are you?” Let’s start with the individual, the algorithm of the individual, and then let’s tailor the content to that individual. Through these technological advances and recommendation engines proliferating everywhere, we have a sea change in how content’s delivered and consumed.

Same thing with StandOut. We were like, let’s first of all figure out who the heck are you, and then let’s deliver to you only the information, ideas and techniques that fit you. Same is true for the team. There is no perfectly balanced team. There is the team you’ve got, and you’ve got to start with where your team is and how to make the best use of it.

It sounds like you are completely aware that what you are arguing is, on one level, really heretical.

Hmm. Well, I mean, I’m arguing that the individual and the uniqueness of the individual is the power of a company. That the power of human nature is that each human’s nature is unique. You can fight against that power by defining what leadership should be, you can do that, but it doesn’t solve a problem. It just makes you feel better. It solves absolutely no problem at all.

One of the challenges that you address in the book is that the practices people have are often not replicable.

Yes. I had dinner with Bill Mackay, who runs all the Four Seasons in Japan and China, and I asked him, ‘Where are you off to, Bill?’ He goes, ‘I’m off to Toronto, to another one of these best practice sessions.’ I said to him, ‘Oh, is that one of the reasons why Four Seasons is so good and excellent the world over?’ He goes, ‘No, we can’t seem to find any consistent best practices.’ I’m like, ‘But you’re the Four Seasons.’ He goes, ‘Yeah, but you know what? Excellence is local, it’s idiosyncratic.

That is a great phrase, “Excellence is local.”

That is, I think, both the problem and the power of innovation. The power of innovation is that it’s novelty applied. The problem is that tt’s something you do, as a person. And therefore I can’t teach you my practices unless you happen to share some of the same style or strengths that I have.

Here’s another example. Ralph Gonzalez, who works at Best Buy. He’s a Stimulator, energetic and energizing, and he’s got this whistle. And he’s like, every time you see somebody do something good, blow the whistle. He can pull that off. But some other dude, a quiet leader in North Carolina, who’s much more of an advisor kind of leader, pragmatic, thoughtful, who thinks in terms of sequence and steps, you give him a whistle and he’s like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” So often, as I wrote in the book, that’s the lifespan of innovation in a company. It begins as organic and dynamic and individualized, and it ends up as programmatic, lifeless and inauthentic.

Luckily, in these last few years, we don’t have to have that waste, because we’ve now got ways to gather all that wonderful innovation and ideas, and, through these recommendation engines and algorithms, we’ve got ways to deliver stuff to you that’s really relevant to you. We’ve got a ways to go to incorporate this kind of dynamism and this kind of customization. but it’s going to happen.

StandOut measures you on 9 strength Roles. Do the best teams have a balanced mix of all 9 roles?

Not necessarily, no. For instance, by far the most successful team in any sport today is the Barcelona soccer team. They are streets ahead of the No. 2 team in the world, which is Manchester United. In a different league. And yet, every single one of their players except for one is under five foot nine.

Now, as with leadership teams, according to conventional wisdom you’re supposed to have a balanced soccer team, with some really tall players and some really small players, and then some in between. Barcelona has decided that’s not true at all, that it will play a very fast style of game where there’s lots of passing, lots of movement, and that it wants the short, fast, players with deft feet and quickness.

The same is true for leadership teams. You may want to augment your team with somebody who thinks really differently from you, but you could also make the case that you get a whole bunch of people who are wired exactly the same way on a team, they communicate faster. They immediately and intuitively understand. There’s no translation that has to happen.

The team of Facebook, which we’ve had a chance to work with, is all very similar. Even Sheryl Sandberg, who came in more recently, she’s not an anomaly, she’s just as fast and in some sense wired in a way that’s very similar to Mark [Zuckerberg]. They have an ‘imbalanced’ team at the top there, and they just — they’re good, because they know each other, and they’re aware of how each other thinks. Very fast, very efficient.

StandOut makes distinction between a person’s strength and a person’s performance.

I’ve defined strength as an activity that strengthens you. It’s not necessarily something you’re good at. That’s performance.

Think about the activities you perform very well, but they drain you or bore you, drag you down. Those aren’t your strengths. You might be good at them, but I’d call them weaknesses. They weaken you, even if you’re good at them.

Strengths are things where you have positive anticipation before you do it, you lose yourself in the moment while you’re doing it, and after you’re done with it, you want to do it again. So we ask a series of open-ended questions around these signs of a strength, like, “When was the last time you got so involved in doing something, you lost track of time?”

There’s been a lot of stuff lately written about how deliberate practice leads to high performance. But the important thing is what on earth leads you to practice? Which activities are you drawn to?

Which of the nine strengths on your list surprised you the most, personally?

I was most intrigued by provider. Provider is a strength role combination that feels — doesn’t feel strong. When people get it, they’re always like, “Really? It sounds like I’m a caretaker.” You know? And yet when you look at why people are good leaders with that Provider role, it’s because it describes somebody whose first question is, “Are you okay? Are you holding up?” There’s an emotional sensitivity, not to improve your emotions, but to listen to them, to hold a space for them.

And if you play that out — and it took me a while to play that out — if you’re a Provider, then you’re the kind of person who creates safety. You create a safe space for your employees, so they can come to you with confidences they want to share, or with an idea that isn’t really ready yet, and they’re not going to worry you’re going to steal it or trample on it while it’s still fragile.

Same with salespeople. You might think that a salesperson is only going to have what we call influencer strength, which is constantly thinking of any interaction as the precursor to a close. Some people wired that way. And yet there’s a surprisingly large number of salespeople who lead with Provider. It works because these are people who leave space for the person to buy. It may be a slower sale, but the client walks away not going, “wow, look what someone sold me,”but going, “look what I chose to buy.”

I think sometimes we bite off more than we can chew with assessments, and we think there’s something powerful about keeping it clean and simple, pointing out a couple of peaks.

Well, as you know, simple is hard.

Simple is hard, yep.

It’s one of the most difficult things you learn in media. Writing long is easy; writing short is really difficult. So, let me ask you this: how do you use your own tools? Not just the StandOut assessment, but this body of knowledge, this framework. How do you use that in building your own organization?

I do use the tools that we’ve built. We’ve got an open-ended series of questions that allow people to tell us, without them necessarily knowing so, tell us what activities strengthen them. And then I give people StandOut. I don’t use it to make the decision of who to hire; this isn’t a selection instrument. But it’s a really good information-provider, to know whether I’m bringing on board an Influencer/Provider or if I’m bringing on board an Equalizer/Advisor.

I also get the impression that it gives you a common vocabulary.

Well, it certainly does that. Like, with my colleague here, Charlotte Jordan, she’s an Advisor/Equalizer, and Advisors like to be in the mix. They like to solve problems. Now, I’d worked with her for four years, and before she took StandOut I wouldn’t bring things to her because I thought, “she doesn’t want to be bothered by them, she’s already overloaded.”

But now that it’s clear she’s an Advisor/Equalizer, that means she wants me to come running to her with problems. It was a total flip. And now, it’s funny because I’ll go, “I need your advice.” And she’ll look at me sarcastically — if you can look sarcastically — and go, “Really? Are you going to really play that word on me?” She knows what I’m doing. But it still works. She still can’t help but have her interest piqued by that word ‘advice.’ It’s bizarre; even though we are both aware of what I’m doing it still works.

And this is someone you had worked with for some time.

Oh, yeah. I just had never known that the way to get to Charlotte is to go, look, I need your help on making this distinction, I need your advice, I need to turn to you because I’m stuck. The moment I use those words with her, her ears perk up, her physiology changes, she is right there in the moment.

If I was talking with a Connector, I could say, “Hey, I just read this piece from this guy and I don’t know whether or not it’s relevant to what we’re doing, but I’m just fascinated by it; can you help me if this is connected or a total distraction?” And I don’t care how busy that person is; if he is a Connector, he’ll focus.

Drop everything to do that.

Even though we are explicit about it, and I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that I’m kind of trying to manipulate you, I’m actually manipulating you simply because I want to get the best out of you. I mean, this doesn’t work very well if you think I’m a jerk who would just as soon ditch you as work with you. If there’s no trust, then this whole thing falls apart. But if there’s trust that you think I want you to win, then it doesn’t matter that you know that I’m playing you, because I know that you’re playing me, and that’s okay.

What do you think the popular response to your work tells us about the culture at large?

I think it might come down to the notion that human uniqueness is valuable in and of itself. For most of the 20th century, there was this ongoing opposition between the needs of a company to create consistency of outcome and the annoying fact of human individuality.

As Henry Ford said, “Why whenever I want a pair of hands, do I get a human being as well.” He just wanted the pair of hands. And although that was back in the early part of the 20th century, I talk with executives today who go, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all this strength stuff and everything, but really, ideally, all of my managers would be the same. It’s just a heck of a lot easier.

I think what people are realizing is that if we want innovation and if we want creativity, then we have to figure out a way to channel innovation, channel creativity, channel human individuality toward creating these consistent outcomes. And all of those depend upon the individual person being authentic.

We’re just now beginning to realize that there is a way to do that. The needs of a company and the needs of an individual will not always align, but if we’re going to move into a world where innovation is increasingly important, judgment is increasingly important, relationships are increasingly important, then we’d better get to know those individual people really well.

And to me — and this may be the little Stimulator in me, trying to get excited about an idea —but that to me is exciting, the idea that we begin to see human variation as a powerful driving force that does in fact align with the needs of companies and organizations.

As you’ve described, it’s been one of the unresolved tensions in Western management.

Yeah. As a society we’ve tried to mess with it a bit, and tried to embrace diversity, but when we said “diversity” we meant racial or gender diversity, or people with disabilities, when really we have to embrace a diversity in how people lead. If you manage 2,000 stores, and you want to make sure that a person can get the same experience in every store, if you’re not careful, you’ll resolve that tension by saying to each store manager, “I do not care that you are unique, I just need you to deliver this set of outcomes, so I’m going to legislate style. I will legislate how you do this job.”

I think that we can resolve that tension. The companies that are most successful at embracing and channeling human uniqueness will be more innovative, will be more creative, and thereby will be more resilient. And they will be more attractive to the best talent.

There are lots of videos of Buckingham online, including a 2-minute book trailer of him talking about StandOut and a 3:41 excerpt of a speech on putting your strengths to work. The StandOut Tool, separate from the book, can be purchased for $15 at Buckingham’s website....Buckingham got a master’s degree in political science from Cambridge University, where he wrote a thesis on “The Social and Psychological Issues of Entrepreneurship.”...For a period in 2009, Buckingham was a blogger at the Huffington Post, where he generated heated reaction and both fans and foes for his columns about the supposed deterioration in women’s happiness. “Using a single statistic as a peg for your pet theory is a game we all can play,” wrote Katha Pollitt in The Nation. “It's an old story,” echoed Barbara Ehrenreich in a blog post: “If you want to sell something, first find the terrible affliction that it cures.”...Buckingham’s blog, called Strengths Campus, includes conversation and video with over 5,000 members. For more compact conversation, follow Buckingham on Twitter at twitter.com/mwbuckingham....Buckingham’s wife, Jane Buckingham, also is a self-help author, most recently of The Modern Girl's Guide to Sticky Situations [Avon; 2010].

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