This is the first book for my new Business Book Club, where we’ll be getting together once a month to read and discuss a book about leadership, management and excellence. Suggested questions are provided at the end.

If you work for a large company, the chances are you will have done an employee survey at some point which is based on the research presented in this book, which correlates business performance against employee perceptions based on thousands of surveys conducted by Gallup over the last 20 years. This research found that there are 12 key questions where positive answers strongly correlate with high performing teams within a company – and it’s all about your manager. The questions are organised in order of importance, and the basic task of management is therefore presented as making sure that all employees can answer the first 6 positively (with the remainder being how you motivate your best talent).

Level 1: What do I need to do this role? These two questions are the real essentials. Interestingly, this was illustrated to me last week in a workshop looking at employee engagement in my own company, where our focus was very quickly narrowed down to the working environment, with story after story of colleagues fed up with feeling unable to resolve niggles with tools, vehicles and workplaces which needed sorting out. 

1. Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?

Level 2: What do I give? What’s my individual contribution and how is that perceived and valued by others? 
3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

Level 3: Do I belong here? Do my values fit with the wider system and the role I’m trying to fulfil?

7. At work, do my opinions count?
8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
10. Do I have a best friend at work?

Level 4: How can we all grow, make things better, innovate? The earlier questions are essential to this, because you can only propose ideas which carry any weight if you are focused on the right expectations (Level 1); have confidence in your own expertise (Level 2); and are aware of how your new ideas will be received (Level 3). 
11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

What do great managers do differently?

Following the employee surveys, the researchers conducted thousands of interviews with managers who are considered excellent (based on their results) and those who are simply average to find out what great managers do differently. The key insight is that: People don’t change that much, so select for talent and potential. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out, but try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough. 

I really liked the definition of talent, which is not about skills or knowledge but about temperament, for example you can’t train people to work at Disneyland to smile all the time while wearing a Snow White costume. You have to choose people who love being around people and smile all the time anyway. I know a brilliant receptionist who illustrates this point perfectly: she welcomes people into the building or on the phone with a broad smile, is unfailingly polite and helpful and does everything she can to make things work well. But do we reward people for doing their own jobs excellently, or just push them up the hierarchy?

The basic tasks of management are then covered in the rest of the book:

  1. select for talent
  2. define the right outcomes
  3. focus on strengths
  4. encourage employees to find the right fit.

NB: This book was first published in 1999, which means that the authors don’t really have any excuse for the annoying tic of assuming that most managers are “he” while employees are usually “he” as well unless they are a nurse or a receptionist. Hopefully this will be corrected in later editions! 

Book Club questions:

How does your experience of managing or being managed fit with the themes of this book? Have you met a great manager? What was different about her/him?

If your company conducts surveys like this, what were the most recent results? Based on the four levels above, where should you focus your efforts to improve engagement?

What talents do you have? What could you do or change to become excellent in your current role?