#SHRM15: The Marcus Buckingham Interview

We sat around a plain round table in a non-descript room marked N215 in the Las Vegas Convention Center during the second day of the SHRM 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition. We sat next to each other while three other team members listened in and caught up on work. About 20 minutes in, he used the word “doolally.”

“No one goes, ‘Oh that’s a crazy piece of HR doolally.’ Everyone goes, ‘Yeah, that.’ That’s real world.”

“What’s a doolally?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” he said. He smiled and shrugged.

“I like that. There you go.”

“Rubbish, I guess,” he added.

“That’s all right,” I said.

And it was all right. More than all right in fact, since I again was a SHRM blogger and had the opportunity to conduct an insightful and personable interview with the likes of Marcus Buckingham, Founder & Chairman of The Marcus Buckingham Company, renowned speaker and author of the business classic First, Break All the Rules and 20-year veteran of Gallup. Marcus was one of the inspiring keynotes at this year’s SHRM Conference.

His latest book, StandOut, reveals a new strengths assessment and productivity platform based on new research methodology – the StandOut Global Engagement Index – that shows how team leaders should perform to get the best from each member of their team, and the differences and similarities around the globe.

According to the TMBC press release, the Index leverages eight predictor statements from TMBC’s Engagement Pulse. The eight statement survey, which TMBC is making available for all teams globally to take at no cost, are the result of decades of research with a focus on reducing both measurement and psychometric error.

Based on responses of employees across the 13 countries included in the Index, the U.S. and China reported the highest percentage of “fully engaged” employees (19% each), while Argentina and Spain show the lowest occurrence of such employees (13% each). “Fully engaged” employees constitute those who strongly agree with the eight engagement-related statements posed in the Index.

Backing up from the HR doolally, we talked about workplace trends that are very important to both of us – employee engagement and empowering team leaders one individual contributor and data point at a time. Diverging from my standard article “storytelling,” I thought I’d share a few excerpts from my interview with Marcus. It’s the next best thing to being there (or being on the TalentCulture #TChat Show live at #SHRM15 of course).

KWG: What do global organizations today and what do they get right and wrong when it comes to employee engagement? It’s a big question, but are there any differences with smaller, localized organizations? Are there universals or is it all of the above?

MB: My first response would be, there are more interesting differences within countries than between countries – more variation within countries than between countries. When somebody says, the Google way, I’ll just use Google as an obvious example. Google’s culture is so different from Chic-fil-A’s. That’s such a bogus thing to say, because there’s so much range within Google. The range within Google is really interesting.

KWG: Dynamic too and continuously changing. Especially within those organizations.

MB: Yes, the thing that geeks me out too is that, although the strengths questions are the foundation [the new assessment and data platform from TMBC], I’m fascinated by the fact that the next brick or two on the engagement wall in countries are so different. Right now in France, they’ve been burning tires and cars of Uber drivers because the taxi drivers are up in arms that these Uber drivers are taking their business away from them. They’re blocking all the airports and they’re blocking all the train stations. The police are standing around and going, “Yeah, we’re not going to anything, because you know what? We sympathize with the taxi drivers.” You look at which question is the second most powerful drive for engagement in France. It’s the question, “My teammates have my back.” Engagement in France is defensive, instinctive, and you got my back.

Now you go to America, and it has the same pattern as China, which is interesting and different than in France. The second most powerful brick on engagement is not that my teammates got my back. In the U.S. and China it’s about “strength and service of mission, purpose, grand visions, and believing in a better future,” even though when you look at China and the U.S., they’re different in a million ways.

You begin to see patterns that are different country by country that are reflective, perhaps of the socio-political environment and economic environment that the countries find themselves in. These kinds of differences are interesting and quite curious.

KWG: They are. They have to be addressed locally as well.

MB: Completely. If you’re an American expat, coming in to run a company or a team, in a city in Scotland, then please don’t come in and go on about our mission statement. Whereas if you can talk to them about, “Look, our definition of quality is this and we are all into this definition of quality in this factory.” Now suddenly, now you have got everyone’s attention. I’m generalizing, but the patterns are there in the data, and the important distinctions in what drives engagement, country by country.

KWG: Now, what I’m going to say next is completely anecdotally, not based on any hard data at all that I’m familiar with, but I’ve always believed that the loyalty of the work that we love to do first, the type of work that we love to do. Then we’re loyal to those that we do it within and around and for, and then potentially the mothership as I call it.

MB: No, the data is actually clarifying on your point. People join the mothership and then they leave the work. They say, “Oh, I’m going to join Google. Oh, I’m going to join Goldman Sachs. I’m going to join Procter and Gamble.”

But how long you are going to stay and how productive you are while you’re there depends massively on what you end up within the job, the actual work that you’re doing actually fits the best of who you are. So much of that is mediated to the team leader. That’s why you leave the team leader. Because we think, “This guy doesn’t get this.” The way I can know that the leader doesn’t get it or me is because he or she has got me doing a ton of work that doesn’t fit.

You’re exactly right. I don’t think we talk about that nearly enough. That’s why we don’t have those frequent cadence check-ins, because that’s where it all happens. It’s hard to do, but that’s the right hard thing to solve.

KWG: Absolutely. Along those lines, change is very difficult. Especially for established organizations, business in general, people, for that matter. Change is a painful process for us. It can be a painfully pleasurable process, but either way, change management initiatives in organizations take a lot of influencers and stakeholders and executive ownership and letting the fire from the inside out.

What are you seeing? Especially with some of the organizations that you’re working with today that you referenced earlier, what’s the tipping point for them? What are the first steps that they take to get to that team leader mentality?

MB: How it’s begun is, on one level it’s the crushing glimpse of the obvious. When you walk in and you show them that one slide, the one that shows the teams at the top and the teams at the bottom. Every company has that slide. They’ve got range. When you walk in and you say it’s the team leader that makes the difference. No one goes, “Oh that’s a crazy piece of HR doolally.” Everyone goes, “Yeah, that.” That’s real world.

“No one goes, ‘Oh that’s a crazy piece of HR doolally.’ Everyone goes, ‘Yeah, that.’ That’s real world.”

“What’s a doolally?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” he said. He smiled and shrugged.

“I like that. There you go.”

“Rubbish, I guess,” he added.

“That’s all right,” I said.

We went on to discuss how HR processes and systems today aren’t designed to serve the team leader, that the internal people data is rubbish, completely removed from the real people doing the real work, and that our rating systems and engagement systems are like HR Kabuki, seemingly elaborate theater that’s over-dramatic and stylized. It was clear to me that the StandOut Global Engagement Index could be the answer.

After we wrapped the interview, I had asked him if he had kids, and when he said yes, he was kind enough to indulge me in taking a picture with Otter, the latest stuffed animal my girls picked out for me to take on my trip to SHRM, something they do for me every time I go on a business trip.

And there’s certainly no crazy piece of HR doolally in that.

Otter and Marcus

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