What Do Great Managers do?

Being a great boss means recognizing that each employee needs something different from you. Marcus Buckingham examined Gallup surveys of 80,000 managers and found that the top performers discover and capitalize on what is unique about each employee.

What Do Great Managers do

What great managers do.

Great managers think carefully about people’s strengths and quirks, and figure out ways to translate everyone’s talents into performance.

Think of it like this: average managers play checkers while great managers play chess. In checkers, all the pieces are alike, and they all move the same way. In chess, there are many kinds of pieces, and you can’t win unless you put the differences to good use.

Capitalizing on each person’s uniqueness

Tailoring roles to individual employees might sound like an awful work, but capitalizing on each person’s uniqueness is well worth the effort, this is what the great managers do because:

  • It saves time for both managers and employees,
  • makes workers more accountable,
  • builds stronger teams
  • And challenges the status quo.

Saving time

First, let’s talk about why this method saves time. No one, however talented, is perfectly well-rounded. And making people do tasks that don’t suit them rarely gets good results.

  • Employees are far more efficient and effective when doing things that draw on their strengths.

Example: Consider the story of Michelle, a manager at the drugstore chain Walgreens. She tailored the tasks of her employee, Jeffrey because he wasn’t much of a people person, but he excelled at arranging new merchandise.

So instead of cajoling him into smiling more at customers, she made organizing the storage Jeffrey’s entire job. Standard practice was to put each employee in charge of a single aisle, but letting Jeffrey stock every single shelf let his gift for precision shine through.

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Making workers more accountable

The second benefit of capitalizing on uniqueness is that employees become more accountable.

 Example: Michelle challenged Jeffrey to make his organizing skill the cornerstone of his contribution to the store, to take ownership of this ability, practice it, and refine it. As he got better and better, the store looked better and better.

Building strong team

(What the great managers do): Capitalizing on people’s uniqueness also builds stronger teams. Employees begin to appreciate one another’s skills and see that coworkers can fill in where they themselves are lacking.

Example: With Jeffrey in charge of keeping the shelves stocked, other employees were freed up to do what they loved best (serve customers).

Challenging the status quo

And here’s the fourth benefit of (Capitalizing on each person’s uniqueness): Challenging old assumptions. As a result of customizing rolls, companies become more inquisitive, intelligent, and agile.

Example: When Michelle started recasting job descriptions to fit her employees, performance improved across the store. Soon they were selling more and getting higher customer satisfaction scores. It paid off for the team and the company as a whole.

Before you can put people’s qualities to their best use, you need to learn things about each employee:

  • What his strengths are
  • What triggers activate those strengths
  • And how he learns best.

3 things to know about each employee

Figuring out strengths

First, to figure out employees’ strengths, great managers spend time observing people in action and seeing how they respond to events. Try asking your employees:

  • “What was the best day you’ve had at work recently, and why?”
  • “What was the worst day?”
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The answers will help you to see what people are drawn to, and what they struggle with. As you’re learning about your employees, remember that strength isn’t always something a person is good at. It might simply be something she enjoys and will work to improve.  By the same token, weakness isn’t always something a person is bad at. It might be something she dislikes and finds draining.

Although you’re looking at both qualities, this article is based on believes you should focus on strengths. The research he and the Gallup organization have done suggests you will get more out of your employees by amplifying their strengths than by attending to their weaknesses.


Once you have determined your employees’ strengths, you may need to trigger them and keep in mind that people’s gifts aren’t always on display, and everybody’s triggers are different.

Example: Lisa might relate to the time of day — maybe she is a night owl. Jamal might crave attention from you, and Kate might want independence.

No matter who you are, one of the most powerful triggers is recognition. Each person cares about winning recognition from a particular audience, and it’s your job to discover who that audience is and design recognition accordingly.

Here is a case in point: Manjit, another Walgreens employee, was an exceptional salesperson. But that wasn’t always so. Manjit’s boss, Jim, knew that as a former athlete, she loved competition and public acclaim. So he covered the walls in his office with graphs showing employee performance.  Soon her scores topped all the charts. Other employees fed off Manjit’s success, and their scores rose too. Before long the store was number 1 in the company’s suggestive selling program.

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learning style

The third thing you need to discover is how each employee learns best. There are many different approaches, but research shows that the most common styles are analyzing, doing, and watching.

Example1: Claudia a merchandising manager at clothing store Ann Taylor, in an analyzer. She understands a task by taking it apart, examining its elements, and reconstructing it piece by piece. To teach someone like Claudia, you should roleplay, do post-mortem exercises, break the performance down into its parts, and give her time to prepare.

Example2: Jeffrey, the employee who excelled at merchandise displays, learns best by doing. He figures things out as he goes along. To teach someone like Jeffrey, you should assign specific tasks and let him tackle the job himself, gradually increasing the complexity of the tasks until he has mastered every aspect of the role. Allow him to make mistakes, too – they’re one of his best learning tools.

Example3: Watchers need to see the whole picture. For them, studying the individual parts of a task would be about as meaningful as looking and individual pixels of a digital photo. The best way to teach a watcher is to have him ride a shotgun with a top performer.

Everyone has his own way to succeed. The key to being a great manager is to take advantage of those individual styles. By asking the right questions, squeezing the right triggers, and understanding their learning styles, you will discover what motivates employees to excel.