The Leadership Book That Changed My Life: Douglas Karr on Breaking the Rules

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December 17, 2013

LinkedIn has a great channel to follow where folks are sharing the book that changed them. For me, starting my career in leadership with the United States Navy was both a blessing and a curse. As a leader in the Navy, those who follow you are required to follow orders; this is not so in the civilian world. But in the Navy, I also learned that those who gathered the most respect by their sailors got the most in return.

Respect was gathered through trust and honesty. It helped that your folks would see you suffer when they did, and when leaders encouraged celebration when it was most needed. When I was honorably discharged from the Navy, I eventually found myself leading a team of incredible technicians, electricians, machinists, and mechanics at the production facility at a newspaper. I was younger than each of those that reported to me, and I knew I needed to gain their respect.

Pushing, Pulling, and Producing

I flopped at first. Rules that were passed down were enforced and I started trying to build a process whereby productivity would increase and I’d be a superstar. It didn’t work. Every time I pushed an idea, the pushback was quick and severe. I had a team that fought and argued, wasn’t paid well compared to their counterparts on other shifts, and that out-produced everyone already. Thankfully, I was under great leadership at the time. Both the CEO of the company and our Production Director believed that every employee supervising someone had to go through training.

In my mid-20s, I was certified in across the board from the schools and classes they sent me to – from executive leadership, to accounting, to supervision, to hiring, to behavioral training… even a body language course. The first book the company bought me to read was First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. From the description:

“The greatest managers in the world seem to have little in common. They differ in sex, age, and race. They employ vastly different styles and focus on different goals. Yet despite their differences, great managers share one common trait: They do not hesitate to break virtually every rule held sacred by conventional wisdom. They do not believe that, with enough training, a person can achieve anything he sets his mind to. They do not try to help people overcome their weaknesses. They consistently disregard the golden rule. And, yes, they even play favorites. This amazing book explains why.”

The Opposite of Equality

Twenty years later and lessons from this book are still with me in virtually everything I do. After reading the book, I began getting to know each of my employees to find out what motivated them, what their goals and aspirations were, and what they enjoyed. It flipped the team on its head. Some of them wanted to come into work later, some of them wanted bonuses, some of them wanted to be left alone… and one of them just wanted time to fix his stock car so he could race the next weekend. I began implementing what might be the opposite of equality. No one was treated the same and no one cared — they all enjoyed working harder, smarter, and getting the appreciation they deserved. And the race car? One time we brought it into the shop and rebuilt the rear-end! It was awesome.

With marketing, the lessons of that book apply directly. What we’re finding with social media and big data is that our customers want that same independent treatment. Some want fantastic customer service, some want discounts, some want news and updates, and some simply want to just be appreciated. They want to be communicated to on the platform of their choosing, at a frequency that meets their expectations, and they want us to respect the data we have and use it responsibly. Each individual has different expectations and it’s up to us to develop the strategies that can meet those expectations.

The Art of Demotivation

Even today, I reject the notion of rules and equality. The best managers, agencies, and companies don’t fall back on rules to disregard their employee, customer, and product issues. They treat and appreciate every relationship independently — trying to exceed the potential of that relationship, not trying to dumb it out to an average. I’ll add an element of humor to the conversation: if you’ve never checked out these fantastic demotivational sayings, I believe there’s an element of truth in each one:

  • Marketing. Because making it look good now is more important than providing adequate support later.
  • Meetings. None of us is as dumb as all of us.
  • Teamwork. Ensuring that your hard work can always be ruined by someone else’s incompetence.
  • Consulting. If you’re not a part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.

So, break all the rules. We do it with our customers, we do it with our clients, we do it with our projects, we do it with our marketing, and I do it with my co-workers.

NOTE: My opinions aren’t necessarily the driving thesis behind Mr. Buckingham’s book. I’m a bit of a loose cannon, so reading the book simply strengthened my already twisted beliefs. Read it for yourself to find out. 

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  • Pej

    Douglas – While I agree with the idea and have used similar approaches, I think this would be hard to scale after a certain point due to the amount of time and effort required for a manager to define each employee’s preferences and motivators, adapt approaches and processes, and continuously manage and improve the approaches. I suspect there is a tipping point in terms of the number of employees or, in my case, the frequency the team or direct reports change, that decreases the effectiveness or relevance of the ‘customized management’ approach.

    • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

      Thanks for the response. A few years later at that paper, we managed over 300 employees with a similar approach. While our management team didn’t have a 1:1 relationship with each and every employee, we had different incentive packages that individuals could choose from. I’m not sure what the threshold is for managing employees independently, but I do believe the closer you can get to it, the better the investment!

  • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

    Thanks so much for providing the opportunity to share! I’m hoping to spur some disagreement and conversation.