Marcus Buckingham, leadership guru and co-author of “Now, Discover Your Strengths” says it’s time that managers – and companies – stop wasting their time on outdated leadership practices and start embracing what will have the greatest payoff for teams and the bottom line.
It’s quite a statement from a man who is billed as a leadership expert when being interviewed by Oprah or being quoted in numerous national publications. If leadership goes away, won’t Buckingham be out of a job?
Buckingham stands solidly behind his contention.
“I think we’ll see the word ‘leadership’ retired quite soon. It’s like the word ‘beauty’ that is used in women’s magazines. It’s just an ideal,” he says. “There’s no leadership. There are leaders. So please stop writing books and articles on what it takes to have the qualities of leadership. There’s no such thing. It just makes everyone a bit ridiculous.”
Buckingham, who co-wrote the best-selling “Now, Discover Your Strengths” in 2001, says that the leaders and organizations that embrace a strengths-based workplace are the ones that will be successful and will be the key to employee engagement and learning.
But while no one will dispute that team leaders are key to all of this, “the bizarre irony is that the tools we’ve built for learning and engagement aren’t for the team leader at all,” he says. “Our performance management systems and our employee engagement systems are built for HR and the organization.”
Fortunately, Buckingham says, employers are starting to realize that team leaders need tools geared to what they do every day and technology will soon be delivering the necessary help.
“The team leader has been burdened by a whole bunch of stuff that inhibits them from doing the very few things they should be doing,” Buckingham says.
In fact, Buckingham says a team leader’s most important task boils down to only two key questions a week that he or she should ask every team member:
“You’re not checking up on your team members, you’re checking in with them,” he explains. “You don’t write their priorities for them. You let them tell you what they think is important. Don’t give them feedback. Everyone hates feedback.”
No feedback? How can the employee improve without feedback?
“Give coaching,” he says. “Feedback only works in a coaching context. Don’t tell your people where they stand – no one wants to know that. They want to know how to get better."
These 5-minute check-ins (“Not 25 minutes – just 5 minutes,”) lets a team leader pay individualized attention to team members “little by little,” he says, without having to devote a lot of time to employee development – an attractive thought for time-strapped managers.
It even works for remote teams, Buckingham says.
"It’s irrelevant where employees are,” he says. “All teams are moving in the direction of no walls. Face-to -face doesn’t matter. Frequency matters. Whether you’re talking on the phone or through video, it’s not important. What’s important is individualized, frequent attention about the work. That’s the secret to performance, engagement, learning, collaboration, creativity, innovation and resilience."
Leaders and followers
As for developing leaders who can excel at engaging workers, Buckingham argues that it’s time organizations move away from believing they can produce a list of competencies and then find the leader that best meets that criteria.
"When you look at a bunch of high-quality leaders who have really engaged their people, what you see is different. You see a lot of different kinds of leaders doing it in different ways,” he says. “So these leadership academies and classes and books are all going to go away because they posit homogeneity and sameness. Because when you look at great leaders, they’re all really, really different."
Buckingham says it’s “in-the-moment” coaching and development that must be embraced if companies want to keep their young talent. Using traditional once-a-year performance reviews is “so antiquated” and “makes the organization look so out of touch,” he says.
“My son posts pictures on Instagram and if he’s not getting feedback in 20 seconds, he’s like, ‘This is boring,’” Buckingham says. “Younger generations want immediate measures. Using once-a-year surveys? Really? You’re going to take a picture of (employee) engagement in January and look at it in June? I think we’re absolutely going to have to see a shift.”
While he’s optimistic because technology will help team leaders do their jobs better, he stresses that technology “will never replace a really good relationship, but it can add insight.”
“If you’re a crappy leader and hate your people then an app won’t solve that. But if you’re someone who is well-intended, who wants to do right by your people but just can’t keep it all in your head, then tech can help with that,” he says.
Buckingham says team leaders – and companies – will be the most effective when they realize that sticking people in classrooms or expecting them to conform to a certain set of ideals for a position is not the best way to get desirable results. He says “one-size-fits-one” coaching is the future, where individuals get the advice and tools they need on demand.
Much like the health craze that is providing up-to-the-minute feedback and advice from fitness coaches, individuals will benefit the most from career coaches who know their strengths and can provide “very opinionated strengths-based advice on what you need to do in this moment,” he says.
As Millennials move into leadership ranks and build their own companies, Buckingham predicts there will be more technology linked with “intimacy” to improve performance and results.
“This generation is going to go, “That’s the way you learn how to lead in the real world with real people in the moment,” he says.