Book Review: First, Break All the Rules, by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman

I’m not usually one for reading books about management and the business world. While business is a sphere of society that needs missionaries (and many missionaries delve into the world of business specifically so they can minister in the countries to which they feel called), I’ve always thought of business-related books as being geared towards the climb-the-corporate-ladder set. While First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman would certainly be a valuable read for such a group, I found it had me thinking deeply about the setting in which I work, despite the fact that YWAM Turner Valley is not a traditional “workplace.”


First, Break All the Rules was recommended to me by the founder of Titus Project, Amy Stevens. While Michael and I were in Taiwan in late April/early May for a worldwide Titus Project consultation, this book was mentioned as being an excellent resource, specifically with regards to the question of how to retain Titus Project staff. Buckingham & Coffman’s work was built on in-depth interviews by the Gallup organization – interviews of over 80,000 managers in more than 400 companies. The premise of the book is that the greatest managers in the world have little in common, but they are not afraid to veer from conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom encourages managers to try to help people overcome their weaknesses. Great managers do not try to do this, but instead focus on building off of the strengths of their people. Conventional wisdom states that managers should treat all employees as they would like to be treated (the “Golden Rule”). Great managers know that not all their people want to be treated in the same way – they will want to be rewarded, encouraged, and recognized in ways that are particular to them. Conventional wisdom assumes that all people should be promoted as they excel in their current roles. Great managers know that the “next rung on the ladder” may be a poor fit for even their best employees, and strive to make sure their people are in the most appropriate jobs, regardless of where on “the ladder” that job falls.

While not everything in this book directly pertained to me as a Titus Project co-leader and to leadership in my context, I found the most valuable part of First, Break All the Rules to be in the description of the “measuring stick” Gallup used to measure the strength of work environments. According to Gallup, the following questions “measure the core elements needed to attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees” (p. 28):

  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?
  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?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to 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?
  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?

Later in First, Break All the Rules, the authors compare these questions to summiting a mountain. While it may be tempting to “fly in” to a camp further up the mountain, reducing the time and energy needed to ascend, experienced climbers know better than to skip the necessary work of “base camp” and camps at lower altitudes. If these steps are skipped, altitude sickness is inevitable. In the same way, if managers focus too heavily on the later questions without making sure their people know what is expected of them at work and that they have the necessary materials and equipment to do that work, their people will not last. For some time they may get by on believing in the mission/purpose of their company (question #8), but before long, they will be frustrated that they do not understand their job description, or that they have not received recognition for their work (question #4) (p. 42-49).

As I think about these questions, and as Michael and I think about developing an environment within Titus Project at YWAM Turner Valley that will attract and retain staff, I am challenged to define some of these questions for myself, and ask these questions of our ministry work. I certainly recommend First, Break All the Rules to anyone in ministry or in the business world (or in both!), who aims to create a healthy work environment which retains and honours its people.


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