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The One Thing You Need To Know

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The One Thing You Need To Know

...About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success

by Marcus Buckingham


  • The chief responsibility of a great manager is not to enforce quality, or to ensure customer service, or to set standards, or to build high performance teams.
  • Great managers excel at turning one person's talent into performance.
  • Great managers are catalysts--they speed up the reaction between each employee's talents and the eompany's goals.


The Definition of Leadership

  • Great leaders rally people to a better future
    • Leaders have a vivid vision of what the future could be, and rally others to strive for it.
    • "You are a leader if, and only if, you are restless for change, impatient for progress, and deeply dissatisfied with the status quo."
  • The core talents underpinning all great leadership are optimism and ego
  • Leaders may be pessimists or even depressive (see Lincoln), but nothing, not their mood, not the reasoned arguments of others, not the bleak conditions of the present, can undermine their faith that things will get better.
  • "Properly defined, the opposite of a leader isn't a follower. The opposite of a leader is a pessimist."
  • "Despite their realistic assessment of the present challenges, they nonetheless believe that they have what it takes to overcome these challenges and forge ahead."
  • Ego: "The key thing about leading is not only that you envision a better future, but also that you believe, in every fiber of your being, that you are the one to make this future come true....You arethe one to assume the responsibility for transforming the present into something better."
  • "The difference between a leader with a powerful ego and an egomania is how the ego is channeled. The effective leader takes his self-belief, his self-assurance, his self-confidence, and presses them into the service of an enterprise bigger than himself. For the egomania, the self is the enterprise."
  • To help develop a budding leader, don't tell him to be humble; challenge him to be more inquisitive, more curious, and thereby more vivid in describing hs image of a better future, and then encourage him to channel his cravings and his claims towards making this image come true.


Great Managing

The 4 Skills of Management

  • 1) Select good people
  • 2) Set clear expectations
  • 3) Recognize excellence immediately and praise it
  • 4) Show care for your people


1) Select good people. Management is about casting--finding people whose patterns of typical behavior match up with the role you need filled.

2) Define clear expectations. Less than 50% of employees claim they know what is expected of them at work. The key is to work on defining expectations constantly, in virtually every meeting and conversation.

3) Recognize excellence immediately and praise it so that the consequences are certain, immediate, and positive. You should never worry about overpraising someone so long as the performance warrants it.

4) Show care for your people. Research shows that workers who feel cared about are less likely to miss workdays, less likely to have accidents on the job, less likely to quit, and more likely o advocate the company to friends and family. Be deliberate and explicit about forging bonds. Tell your people that you care about them. Tell them that you want them to succeed. Kep their confidences. Learn about their personal lives, and as far as you are able, be willing to accomodate the challenges of their personal lives into their work schedules. This doesn't mean being soft; the caring manager confronts poor performance early.


  • Mediocre managers play checkers with their people. Great managers play chess, using each person's unique talents.
  • The one thing all great manager know about great managing is this: "Discover what is unique about each person and capitalize on it."


The Three Levers:

What are the three things you need to know about a person in order to manage him or her effectively?


1) Strengths and weaknesses.

  • The mediocre manager believes that most things are learnable and therefore that the essence of management is to identify each person's weaker areas and eradicate them.
  • A great manager believes the opposite. He believes that the most influential qualities of a person are innate and therefore that the essence of management is to deploy these innate qualities as effectively as possible and so drive performance.
  • Self-awareness doesn't drive performance; self-assurance does. The overly optimistic tend to perform better than the accurately realistic.
  • To combat arrogance and carelessness, don't tear down the person. Instead, build up the size of the ehallenge. Emphasize their scope, their complexity, their "no one has ever pulled this off before" quality. THE STATE OF MIND YOU SHOULD TRY TO CREATE IS A FULLY REALISTIC ASSESSMENT OF THE DIFFICULTY OF THE CHALLENGE AND AN UNREALISTICALLY OPTIMISTIIC BELIEF IN HIS ABILITY TO OVERCOME IT.
  • If this person succeeds praise him for his unique strengths, not his hard work. This will reinforce the self-assurance he needs to be resolute and persistent when taking on the next challenge.
  • If the person fails, and it is not attributable to factors beyond his control, always explain failure as a lack of effort.
  • The person fails repeatedly, this may actually indicate a weakness. Start by trying to enhance his skills and knowledge. Next, try to find him a complementary partner. Third, try techniques or tricks that accomplish through discipline what the employee is unable to accomplish through instinct (e.g. imagining what an authoritative third party would do). If all else fails, rearrange the employee's workin world so that his weakness is no longer in play. And if the employee won't even try the new role? Then it is probably time to allow him to pursue career opportunities elsewhere.


2) Triggers

Each person's strengths require precise triggering to switch them on.


  • The most powerful trigger is generally recognition. But the type of recognition will differ for each person. For some, it may be public praise. For another, a private conversation. For a third, a professional qualification. And for a fourth, a letter from a customer.
  • HSBC presents dream award each year--each year, each employee reports what non-cash prize (capped at a cost of $10,000) they would like to receive if they won. When the awards are given, HSBC shows a video explaining the award and the chosen prize.


3) Learning Style

The Three Dominant Learning Styles


1) Analyzing. Give an analyzer ample time in the classroom. Role-play. Post-mortem. Break down performance. Don't throw her into the middle of a new situation and tell her to wing it.

2) Doing. The best way to teach a Doer is to throw her into the middle of a new situation and tell her to wing it. The most powerful learning occurs during the performance. Pick a task within her role that is simple but real, give her a brief overview of the outcomes you want, and then get out of her way. Gradually increase the level of task complexity until she has has mastered every aspect of her role.

3) Watching (imitation). Watchers learn when they get a chance to see the total performance. Get her out of the classroom, take away her manuals, and make her ride shotgun with one of your most experienced performers.


5 Questions For Asessment


For Strengths

1) What was the best day at work you've had in the last three months?

  • What were you doing?
  • Why did you enjoy it so much?

For weaknesses

2) What was your worst day at work in the last three months?

  • What were you doing?
  • Why did it grate on you so much?

For triggers

3) What was the best relationship with a manager you've ever had?

  • What made it work so well?

4) What was the best praise or recognition you've ever received?

  • What made it so good?

And for unique style of learning:

5) When in your career do you think you were learning the most?

  • Why did you learn so much?
  • What's the best way for you to learn?


Great Leading

The ability to cut through individual differences and fasten upon those few emotions or needs that all of us share is at the core of great leadership. When a leader lacks extended empathy, when he loses sight of those things we all share, he loses the ability to lead.


The One Thing every great leader knows he must do is:

  • Discover What Is Universal and Capitalize on It.


Anthropologist Donald Brown found 327 human universals:

  • Joking
  • Tickling
  • Baby-talking
  • Sucking on cuts
  • Overestimating our own objectivity
  • Preferring sweets
  • Creating pithy but contradictory sayings
  • Every society has a word for string
  • Fear of snakes, but not flowers
  • Formal speech for special occasions
  • Toilet training
  • On average, husbands are older than wives
  • Every society has a word for pain
  • Weapons
  • Rape
  • Murder
  • Trade
  • Toys
  • Taking turns


For the full list of universals, see Brown's book, "Human Universals".


The five great universal fears and needs that are relevant to leadership


1) Fear of death (our own and our family's) / The need for security

2) Fear of the outsider / The need for community. We are herd animals, and we organize ourselves to keep the herd strong.

3) Fear of the future / The need for clarity. In every society, we give prestige to those who claim to be able to predict the future.

4) Fear of chaos / The need for authority. Every society has devised its own creation myth in which the world was created out of chaos. The need to classify things is universal. The reason creating democracy from autocracy is hard is that we dislike chaos and thus like strong leaders.

5) Fear of insignificance / The need for respect. Every society has a word for self-image and an accompanying concept that a positive self-image is better than a negative one. Throughout history, by far the most effective way to earn the respect of others was to show yourself ready to sacrifice virtually everthing for the sake of pure prestige. He who was prepared to die in the pursuit of his ideas became the master and the easygoing became the serfs. This generated a shortage of respect, which religions filled. The popular religions are successful because they offer a way (membership in the chosen people, an afterlife, reincarnation) for even people with the least earthly prestige to get respect.


Respect is the province of the manager. Authority explains the desire for leaders, but not what they should do.


Many leaders play to security, by providing an effective police presence, justifying foreign wars by citing national secrity, and by kissing babies.


Others play to community by seeking out enemies, be they the Axis of Evil, Coca Cola, or the War on Drugs.


Both security and community will win loyalty, but loyalty should only be a means to the end of rallying people to a better future. Only by tapping into the fear of the future and the need for clarity can a leader move beyond simply preserving the status quo.


Great leaders transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future. Being passionate is insufficient; passions are volatile and temporary. Consistency is also insufficient; we are aware that things change, and we expect our leaders to open-minded enough to change with them.


The most effective way to turn fear into confidence is to be clear; to define the future in such vivid terms, through your actions, words, images, pictures, heroes, and scores that we can all see where you, and thus we, are headed.


Adjustments along the way must be communicated with great vividness; clarity is the antidote to anxiety and therefore clarity is the preoccupation of the effective leader.


The Points of Clarity

  • Who do we serve?
  • What is our core strength?
  • What is our core score?
  • What actions can we take today?


1) Who do we serve?

There is no right answer to this question, but great leaders have a clear answer.

  • Tesco: "We focus on serving the working man and woman, the ordinary Joe."
  • Wal-Mart: "Everything we do, everything we buy is designed to serve those of us who live paycheck to paycheck."

It may be that every organization serves many masters, but to be brilliantly clear, you must choose one.

  • Best Buy: "We will serve the customer who is smart but confused by the products we sell."
  • Imlications? Reduce SKUs, take salespeople off commissions and tell them to focus on educating customers to make their own choices.
  • Best Buy then took it a step further by focusing on 5 customer types (e.g. moms, independent contractors) and then having each store focus on just one segment.


Note that a leader must not be clear on all points; he must be brilliantly clear on outcomes and focus, but give followers the lattitude to select the strategies and tactics.


2) What Is Our Core Strength?

To convert followers anxiety into confidence, you must tell us why we will win. Why will we beat our competiors? Why will we overcome the many obstacles? What advantags do we have? What is our edge? The more clearly the leader can answer these questons, the more confident we will be, and therefore the more resilient, persistent, and creative.

  • You don't have to be right, you just have to be clear. Make it clear what everyone needs to do, and give them the confidence that if they can just do this one thing, you will win.
  • Rio Tinto Borax: Deciding to focus on safety despite a mediocre historical record.
  • Beginning every meeting with a 5-minute discussion on safety.
  • In 1999, there were 26 serious injuries; in 2003, there were 4.


3) What is Our Core Score?

It is your responsibility as a leader to sort through all the many things that can be measured and identify the one score that we, your followers, should focus on. Followers don't care for balanced scorecards--they are too complex, which confuses us and makes us anxious. If you need a balanced scorecard, keep it to yourself and fellow executives. Give us a score that we can do something about, or that measures how well we are serving the people you have told us we should be serving, or that quantifies the strength you have assured us we possess. If you can identify the core scoree that can do some or all of these things, we will reward you with our confidence.

  • "A balanced scorecard is a device to help you manage, not lead. It will set expectations for one person, but won't bring clarity to many people."
  • Best Buy: Number of engaged employees.


4) What Actions Can We Take Today?

Actions are unambiguous and clear. Highlight a few carefully selected actions and your followers will happily latch on to them and use them to calm their fear of the unknown. Followers will no longer have to infer the future from theoretical pronouncements about "core values" or "mission statements."


Types of Action: Symbolic and Systematic

Identify the few actions that can either a) grab our attention or b) alter our routines.


Symbolic action

  • Rudy Giuliani
  • Getting rid of squeegee men (by prosecuting them for jaywalking)
  • Getting rid of graffiti on buses and subway cars
  • Requiring every cabbie to wear a collared shirt


Systematic action

Force people to change their comfortable routines and engage in unambiguously new behaviors.

  • Giuliani
  • 7 AM CompStat meetings Thursdays and Fridays


The Disciplines of Leadership

1. Take time to reflect

2. Select your heroes with great care

3. Practice


1) Take Time to Reflect

Take time to think and draw conclusions. It is this ability to draw conclusions that allows great leaders to project such clarity.

  • Think about success, which is not the opposite of failure. Understand why something succeeded, so you can repeat it.
  • Best Buy: After focusing stores, Brad Anderson noticed that 8 stores were doin much better than the rest. He visited them, the other stores, them again, and thought. Finally, he concluded that the difference was that the employees were not more talented, but rather better engaged. Or in other words, better managed.


2) Select Your Heroes with Great Care

Heroes are employees whose performance you choose to celebrate. To predict future behavior, look at the people and events the organization chooses to revere.

  • Britain
  • Charge of the Light Brigade, Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain
    • The Brits celebrate perseverance and effort, not winning
  • USA
  • The most competitive of nations, where winning isn't everything, it's the only thing
  • For example, British sports broadcasts do a horrible job of picking players of the game


3) Practice

Great leaders practice the words, images, and stories they will use to help us perceive the future more clearly.

  • MLK: The "I have a dream" speech wasn't the planned speech. He had written a new one, but when it started to bomb, reverted to the speech he had practicee so many times before.
  • Do not worry about being repetitive--just when you are bored by the sound of our own voice may be when you finally reach your audience.


"Efective leaders don't have to passionate. They don't have to charming. They don't have to be brilliant. They don't have to be great speakers. What they must be is clear. Above all else, they must never forget the tryth that of all the human universals--our need for security, for community, for clarity, for authority, and for respect--our need for clarity, when met, is the most likely to engender in us confidence, persistence, resilience, and creativity.


Show us clearly whom we should seek to serve, show us where our core strength lies, show us which score we should focus on and which actions must be taken today, and we will reward you by working our hearts out to make our better future come true."


Sustained Individual Success


The Twenty Percenters

Only 20% of people report that they are in a role where they have a chance to do what they do best every day.

  • Buckingham reports that he has three 20 percenters in his life.


Dave Koepp, screenwriter

Despite the many travails of being a screenwriter in Hollywood, he has still found a way to sustain passion, spirit, and superior performance despite life's imperfections.


Myrtle Potter, President of Genentech

Turned Prilosec, a Merck/Astra JV that was floundering, into the top selling drug in the world ($4B/yr). Talked to the doctors and discovered that they were only prescribing Prilosec when Pepcid, Zantac, and Tagamet failed. She made sure doctors were informed of two facts: 1) Prilosec was the only drug that went beyond alleviating symptoms to curing the underlying condition. 2) Certain patients would never respond to the other drugs, and thus would always end up on Prilosec.


Tim Tassopoulos, Chick-fil-A

Wondered if he would be happier in politics, which he was passionate about. Did his MBA at Georgetown, where he was George Stephanopoulos' roommate, and discovered that he found actual politics boring--it didn't have immediate feedback and direct impact on people.

  • "How could I possibly find a better situation than the one I am in now? In Chick-fil-A I have a company that believes in me, that challenges me to give of my best every single day, and that puts me in direct contact with wonderful people who expect me to help them and guide them and coach them every day. In so many ways, I am blessed."


The difference between the twenty percenters and the rest of us can be found less in what they choose to do and more in what they choose not to do. Twenty percenters are rigorously discriminating about how they choose to invest their time. No matter how tempting the ofer, they refuse to get sueked into activities that, on some visceral level, they know they will not enjoy

  • David rejected the offer to write buddy movies. Myrtle rejected promotions. Tim turned away from politics.


The One thing we all need to know to sustain our success:

Discover What You Don't Like Doing and Stop Doing It.


Know what opportunities engage your strengths and which do not and have the self-discipline to reject the latter.


"Sustained success is caused not by what you add on, but by what you have the discipline to cut away."


Virtually all personality traits can be boiled down to the Big Five:

1) Openness to experience

2) Extroversion

3) Neuroticism

4) Agreeableness

5) Conscientiousness


Personality traits do not explain sustained success.


To have a great impact over a long period of time requires 2 things.

  • 1) First, you must take your natural talents and enthusiasm and apply yourself to learning enough role-specific skills and knowledge to be deemed good at something where you possess some kind of comparative advantage over everyone else.
  • 2) You must stay good and more likely, get better. You must be resilient, flexible, open to learning, innovative, confident, optimistic, and pace yourself for the long term.


The 3 Main Contenders (runners up)

  • 1) Find the right tactics and employ them.
  • 2) Find your flaws and fix them.
  • 3) Discover your strengths and cultivate them.


1. Find the right tactics and employ them.

  • "The Power of Full Engagement (Tony Schwartz, Jim Loehr)
  • The best tennis players were more effective between points--they could slow their breathing and heart rate to recover energy and focus for the subsequent point.
  • The best way to succeed is through a disciplined process of stress and recovery.
  • Impose on your life a series of routines that allow you to stress yourself, then recover, stress, then recover, and you will find that, over time, your capacity, your resilience, and your energy will all expand.
    • Since the human body is designed to work in 90-minute increments, you should discipline yourself to get up after an hour and a half's work and take a break.
  • "The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers" (James Citrin, Richard Smith)
  • Build your personal brand
  • Go blue-chip early
  • Avoid the "permission paradox"
    • Seek out special projects and one-off assignments because they will allow you to claim that you have skills and experiences not supplied by your current job
  • "Career Warfare" (David D'Alesandro)
  • Proactively manage you boss by providing the three things she really wants:
    • 1) Loyalty
    • 2) God advice
    • 3) A subordinate who will never make himself look good at her expense
  • Make friends in high places; you may need them it you have to circumvent a self-serving boss
  • "It is always showtime." However trivial or boring a transaction might be, you are still making an impression.


The reason this contender isn't the One Thing is because it doesn't tell you how to avoid becoming a commodity.


2. Find your flaws and fix them.

Despite its seemingly logical appeal, few successful individuals subject themselves to it. Few successful managers subject their people to it. And few successful teachers subject their students to it.

  • You learn less when focusing on areas of weakness (biologically)
  • You will feel less energized and challenged when fixing your flaws (emotionally)
  • Self-efficacy is not the same as self-esteem; self-esteem relates to your general feeling of worthiness, while self-efficacy is tied to a specific activity.
    • An APS study shows that high self-esteem does not predict anything, no resilience, not persistence, not goal-setting, and not achievement.
    • In contrast, the level of self-efficacy for an activity does an excellent job of predictint subsequent performance.
    • Bandura's research shows that how well you face new challenges is determined by your ability to transfer your self-efficacy from one activity to another.
      • The best way to transfer self-efficacy is to look deliberately for similarities between the new challenge and previous challenges where you have succeeded in the past.


3) Discover your strengths and cultivate them.

  • This is important, but it is rare that a person can find a single career track that plays to her strengths. What usually happens is career-creep, where success results in promotions and responsibilities until one day you realize that the majority of your job bores you, leaves you unfulfilled, frustrates you, drains you, or all of the above.
  • In Buckingham's own career, a major engagement with a large entertainment company resulted in the majority of his job consisting of activities that weren't a fit with his strengths (though he was still calling upon his strengths daily). "My problem wass't that I was so far off my strengths' path that I couldn't find any success. My problem was that, having found success, I didn't have the discipline to stay focused when faced with the increased complexity and opportunity that success brings.


To keep track of your success at following the One Thing, every three months, write down your answer to this question: What percentage of your day do you experience a feeling of self-efficacy, that optimistic, positive, challenged-yet-confident, authentic feeling? What percentage of your day do you spend doing those things you really like to do?

  • At Best Buy, their 10 most successful managers answered 70-95% of the time.


Discover what you don't like doing

Most dislikes are caused by one of four distinct emotions


1) You're bored

  • When the content of your job becomes deeply uninteresting to you, you must change your job


2) You're unfulfilled

  • If your values are disengaged from or actively compromised by your work, you must do the same. To stay in it for the money or security is, in the long run, a bad bargain. It will rob you of the best of you


3) You're frustrated

  • Find a tiny stream in which your strengths can flow, and carve it into the Mississippi


4) You're drained

  • Find someone else to do what you hate to do (e.g. Jefferson and Madison)
  • Jobs and Wozniak; Case and Kimsey; Clark and Andreessen; Elison and Miner; Gates and Ballmer
  • Gates is a serial partner-finder. It began with his friend Kent Evans, who was tragically killed in rock-climbing accident in 1972. Only then did he partner with Paul Allen. And of course, he brought in Steve Ballmer.
  • Find an aspect of the activity that brings you strength and always keep this aspect at the top of your mind.


The four tactics are: Quit the role; tweak the role, seek out the right partners, or find an aspect of the role that brings you strength.



To excel as a manager, you must never forget 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 upon it. The more you perfect this skill, the more effectively you will turn talents into performance.


To excel as a leader requires the opposite skill. You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need 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 in this grows, so will our confidence in you.


And last, you must remember that your sustained success depends on your ability to cut out of your working life those activities or people that pull you off your strengths' path. Your leader can show you clearly your better future. Your manager can draft you onto the team and cast you into the right role on the team. However, it will always be your responsibility to make the small but significant course corrections that allow you to sustain your highest and best contribution to this team, and to the better future it is charged with creating. The more skilled you are at this, the more valued, and fulfilled, and successful you will become.


As we've seen in each of these roles, the critical skill is not balance, but its inverse, intentional imbalance. The great manager bets that he will prevail by magnifying, emphasizing, and then capitalizing on each employee's uniqueness. The great leader comes to a conclusion about his core customer, his organization's strength, its core score, and the actions he will commit to right now, and then, in the service of clarity, banishes from his thought and conversation almost everything else. The sustainably effective individual, by rigorously removing the irritants from his working life, engages with the world in an equally imbalanced fashion.








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