A Summary and Review of First, Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman: A Guide for Thinking Executives – and Those Who Want to be One

This summary and review of the book, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, was prepared by Katelin Langley while a Business Administration major in the College of Business at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Cover via Amazon

Executive Summary

This book, with research and statistics collected and organized by the Gallup Organization’s Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, bucks everything your average manager (in any industry) has always been taught. All tricks of the trade and normal incentives used to decrease employee turnover, increase employee satisfaction, and find the right workers “…often miss the mark,” (Buckingham, 1999) the book summary reads. This book declares that managers- front-line managers- are the key to finding and keeping the right employees to keep the company running profitably and efficiently, not an attractive pay-scale, not the brand name the company champions, and not how many times the rules are reiterated.
“First” really does break all the rules. Buckingham and Coffman proceed to tear up and burn whatever tenets the typical managers in decades past have clung to for dear life, simply because it was the accepted formula for training good, obedient, pliable employees: “Treat everyone the same”, “Don’t play favorites”, “People can do anything they set their minds to”, “Subordinates should always be trying to improve their weaknesses”, “The goal of any employee should be to try to be promoted”, “Talent isn’t everything” (Buckingham, 1999) The list goes on, and it’s a list we have all heard our entire lives. Buckingham and Coffman not only negate the basic managerial codes, but they back up their rebellious declarations with the findings the Gallup polls have provided and examples from what the authors term “great managers”.
This book focuses on breaking these standards, challenges the norm that today’s managers have laxed into; every page is a veritable treasure chest of pithy and concise quips, valuable statistics, and at some points, moving stories of transformation and learning. “First” introduces and backs up a new way of thinking. Replace “Don’t play favorites” with “great managers invest in their best”. “People can make anything of themselves”, becomes “fixing yourself is actually about fruitless self-denial and wasted persistence”. “The goal is promotion” should be replaced with “rungs on the ladder don’t necessarily lead to each other”. Follow this thinking, and this is how Coffman and Buckingham, with the help of the Gallup Organization and the world’s “greatest” managers, illustrate the workplace’s flawed thinking, hurting the company and the very workers that they are trying to improve.
“First” attempts to encompass all the arenas of managerial support. They provide techniques for progress reports, to access employees and their progress on a more personal level. They provide questions and answers that a manager should both ask and look for during the course of an interview. It provides simple explanations that redefine the most basic managerial terminology: what is “talent” in the eyes of a great manager? What are “weaknesses” in the eyes of a great manager? What is “being fair” in the eyes of a great manager? You may start this book thinking that you know the answers to all of those questions, that you’ve always clung to them, that they are tried and true methods of great managing- but Buckingham and Coffman do a careful job of meticulously breaking and resetting every rule you thought you’d ever known.

The Ten Things Managers Need to Know from First, Break All the Rules

  1. Gallup discovered that the “strength of a workplace can be simplified to twelve questions”. They encompass not only the most information, but the most important information as well; they measure if the right ingredients are there to “attract and keep the most talented employees.” (Pg. 28, Buckingham, 1999) These twelve questions are:
  • Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  • Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  • At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  • In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  • At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  • Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  • Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  • Do I have a best friend at work?
  • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  • This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

2. How do “great” managers become great managers? Buckingham and Coffman  argue that the majority of managers are “digging in the wrong place” (Pg. 66, 1999). “Great” managers do four things:

  • They select for talent, not just experience, intelligence, or determination, as conventional wisdom says to do.
  • They define the right outcomes when setting expectations, instead of providing steps.
  • They focus on strengths for motivation, and not on weaknesses.
  • They help develop a worker by finding the right fit, not by promoting him to the “next rung” on the corporate ladder.

3. Buckingham and Coffman advise ignoring conventional wisdom which tells managers that, one: behaviors that are missing at the time of hiring, but which are needed, can be trained into a workers and/or that, two: these missing skills are relatively unimportant. Instead, the authors assert that one: you cannot teach talent; you have to find it and select it with purpose, and two: that certain talents are the “driving force” for an individual’s performance on the job (Pg. 73, Buckingham, 1999).
4. Finding talent is hard, but great managers know how to weed out the people who have what they need to fill a particular role and those who do not, using simple techniques. In short, it can be divided into two broad parts. The first part is to “know what talents you are looking for”: think about the culture of the company; think about the expectations that exist for that role; and think about the other people on the team. The second part is to “study your best”: you cannot study failure to understand excellent. The authors say to “learn the whys, the hows, and the whos of your best and then select for similar talents” (Pg. 103, Buckingham, 1999).
5. Great managers know that “they cannot force everyone…to do the job in exactly the same way” (Pg. 109, Buckingham, 1999). The authors advise the readers to instead, try this solution: “Define the right outcomes and then let each person find his own route toward those outcomes”; by standardizing the outcomes that are needed in order to fulfill higher managers’ expectations, fulfill a company goal, etc, it allows each employee to find their own way of getting there, which relieves pressure on both worker and manager and still achieves the right outcomes.

6. Don’t treat others how you would want to be treated. Each employee has his or her own way of working, of understanding, of interpreting goals, and therefore, each employee deserves his or her own methodology from his or her manager. “Everyone should be treated as an exception,” Buckingham and Coffman say, “…each employee will demand different things of you, his manager” (Pg. 151, 1999).
7. Great managers make a distinction between “non-talents” and “weaknesses” (Pg. 167, Buckingham, 1999). A non-talent is a skill or a behavior that is a struggle for us; it does not come naturally. It is a source of frustration and constant battle. A non-talent becomes a problem when it becomes a weakness, because that lack of talent is keeping you from excelling at your job. If you are a waiter, for instance, your non-talent for not remembering names becomes a weakness. Great managers have three alternative solutions for weaknesses. One: create a support system. Two: find a partner that complements you. Three: find an alternative role.
8. The conventional view of promotion is wrong. Employees want to climb the ladder as high and as fast as they can, but this will only lead them to a rung where they do not fit: they do not have the skills or talents to be there. They cannot go back down the ladder via “demotion” (this looks bad to supervisors) and they cannot go up because they don’t have the required skills. They’re stuck, and eventually get pushed off the ladder (fired) (Pg. 178, Buckingham, 1999).

9. Sometimes, it does become necessary for even great managers to give employee the bad news; even when firing a worker, however, great managers can do this with true love and caring and respect for the employee. “The most effective managers do genuinely care about each of their people” Buckingham and Coffman insist (Pg. 209, 1999). They show this care and concern by wanting each person to find the roles that they will be most happy in- even if it is not their current position.
10. There are five things to look for and/or ask when a great manager is interviewing a potential employee. “Make sure the talent interview stands alone”; the interview process in its entirety should be kept separate from the talent interview. “Ask a few open-ended questions and then try to keep quiet”; this approach gives the candidate more opportunities to show his or her real self. “Listen for specifics”; try to judge the response on whether it was truly specific and if the response came swiftly (with little coaxing or prompting). “The other clues to talent”; there are other skills to look for beyond listening for examples of past behavior. “Know what to listen for”; great managers only ask questions to which they know the answers they’re looking for (Pg. 219, Buckingham, 1999).

Full Summary of First, Break All the Rules

The Measuring Stick

  • Do I know what is expected of me at work?
  • Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  • At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  • In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  • At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  • Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  • Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  • Do I have a best friend at work?
  • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  • This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

Each of these questions could be answered with “1” to “5”, with 1 being “Strongly disagree”, and 5 being “Strongly agree.”
The Wisdom of Great Managers

  • Select for talent.
  • Define the right outcomes, not the right steps.
  • Focus on strengths, not on weaknesses.
  • Find the right fit for the employee, don’t just send them up the promotion ladder.

The First Key: Select for Talent
The Second Key: Define the Right Outcomes
The Third Key: Focus on Strengths

The Fourth Key: Find the Right Fit

Turning the Keys: A Practical Guide
Gathering Force (The conclusion)
Buckingham and Coffman end on a caveat: they never promised that this would be easy, even though some of the techniques they have introduced are mean to make the managerial role easier on both manager and employee. All that they can promise is that “these Four Keys are an extraordinarily powerful beginning”.

The authors use the example of the “Disaster off the Sicily Isles”, when, in 1707, Great Britain lost an entire fleet of ships at sea, simply because the admiral did not have the most accurate tool to measure speed or location (Pg. 21, Buckingham, 1999). The miscalculation was disastrous and the ships all ran aground and sank off the Sicily Isles, close to England’s coast. The situation is compared to the manner in which managers destroy their careers or the careers of others because there was no “measuring stick” by which to tell how well they are doing of finding and keeping people with the right talents within the company.

In order to create a measuring stick with which to assess the strength of a workplace, the Gallup organization polled thousands of managers and millions of employees and came up with these twelve questions that “measure the core elements needed to attract, focus, and keep the most talented employees” (Pg. 28, Buckingham, 1999):

Gallup sought the best, “greatest”, managers they could find in order to interview them for their methods of finding and keeping great employees. Gallup asked its clients to give them their “great managers to interview” (Pg. 54, Buckingham, 1999). The book lists this mantra as their core belief: “People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.” Considering that the world’s greatest managers all follow this line of thinking, the authors synthesized the “four keys” with which the managers “unlock” the potential of their employees. These four keys are:

The book first defines what talent is, to great managers. It is defined as each individual’s way of responding to the environment. Each person’s reaction to various stimuli- whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic, cool and collected or brash and risky- that filter through which you see the world is the “source of your talents” (Pg. 76, Buckingham, 1999).

There are two methods that great managers use to identify this talent, the first of which is to “know what talents you are looking for”: reflect on the culture of the business; think about what expectations will be set for this future employee and how they will be set; and lastly, think about the other people on the team that this employee will be working with. The second method is to “study your best”. The book challenges the convention that by studying failure and what was done wrong, that you can therefore infer what excellence is. Excellence is not the opposite of failure, Buckingham and Coffman insist- it’s just different. “Learn the whys, the hows, ad the who’s of your best”, and find candidates who mirror them.

Instead of trying to control everything it is your employees do in order to reach the goals that you set, the goals that the employees set for themselves, and the goals that the company has, it is easier and more practical to set the right outcomes and simply lend a guiding hand to your workers, instead of managing by “remote control”. “Define the right outcomes,” Buckingham and Coffman say, “and then let each person find his own route towards those outcomes” (Pg. 110, Buckingham, 1999).

How exactly do great managers help their employees grow and progress and become better performers? The answer is simple. “Focus on each person’s strengths and manage around his weaknesses…Help each person become more of who he already is” (Pg. 141, Buckingham, 1999). This book argues against the practice of standardizing the treatment of employees- instead, “Everyone should be treated as an exception”. It’s a simple idea. Everyone is different, so treat them accordingly.

Convention argues that it is easier and more “fair” for the employees to treat everyone the same, spend the same amount of time with everyone; don’t do this, say the authors, in fact, spend more time with your best workers. Invest your time and attention in them, learn from them, and help them expand and grow. This is the only way that you, as a manager, can learn what excellence is, and how to pass it on to your employees dealing with troubles at work– because, again, you cannot learn excellence from failure.

So how does a manager work around an employee’s weakness? Managers divide shortcomings into two categories. “Non-talents” are “mental wasteland[s]” (Pg. 167, Buckingham, 1999). It’s that skill that, no matter how many seminars the employee may attend, or how many sessions with the Human Resources officer are held, or how many incentives are offered, may never come. A non-talent can become a “weakness”. Non-talents are irrelevant until they become a weakness, because that’s when this lack of skill begins to affect job performance. A difficulty of remembering names may be a non-talent for an accountant, but it is a weakness for a bartender.  There are three ways that a manager can address a weakness that is affecting performance. One: come up with a support system. This can be as simple as buying a Rolodex for employees who have a hard time remembering names. Managing around a weakness (when possible) is like buying a shortsighted employee a pair of glasses.

This section of the book discusses promotion, and how the idea of promotion and achievement fit- or do not fit- with how the world’s greatest managers acknowledge the successes of their employees. There are three fallacies that are focused on. The first fallacy is that each rung on the corporate ladder simply represents a more complex version of the rung below it. It’s a natural process for an employee to progress in this manner. The second problem is that with so many employees vying for just one rung, there are a lot of losers created and only a few winners. Great managers instead try to designate excellence and importance for every rung and every role on the ladder: “Why not create heroes in every role?” Buckingham and Coffman ask (Pg. 180, 1999).

The third downfall of the conventional ladder of success system is that it encourages employees to collect various skills and abilities in an attempt to make their resume stronger, to make them a better candidate for that promotion. In a great manager’s eyes, hunting for new skills and experiences for the purpose of promotion should not be the driving force behind an employee’s career: it should be the prospect of a new career altogether. “Acquiring varied experiences is important but peripheral to a healthy career,” the authors say. The real source of where energy should come from for an employee is should be looking in the mirror– which the manager holds up for them– and the employee experiences a self-discovery. The employee goes through a realization and discovers talents that had always been there, but were latent. A complete appreciation of your talents versus your non-talents should be your source of energy powering your career (Pg. 184, Buckingham, 1999).

However, as it is inevitable, every manager will someday need to either fire or reprimand an employee whose non-talents and weaknesses simply cannot be compensated for. The authors argue that truly great managers do this out of love and caring for the employee, out of a genuine desire for that employee to discover their talents in a role that fits them better– even if it means it’s not within the same company or under the same management. “[Managers] employ tough love…It is a mind-set that forces great managers to confront poor performance early and directly. Yet it allows them to keep their relationship with the employee intact” (Pg. 207, Buckingham, 1999).

Now that the four keys have been addressed and how the authors found them and developed them, this chapter discusses a more pragmatic approach for putting these keys into operation. The book had discussed finding talent; this section briefly discusses the “art of interviewing” for that talent. There are five questions or techniques that the chapter recommends you, the interviewer, ask of the candidate or employ during the interviewing process

The first idea is to “make sure the talent interview stands alone” (Pg. 215, Buckingham, 1999). The authors acknowledge that the interview process is long, convoluted, and important; however, they also say that the talent interview should be handled separately from all of the other pieces and parts that make up the job interview and eventually the job offer. “…set aside a defined amount of time where both you and the candidate know that the exclusive goal is to learn about his talents” (Pg. 215, Buckingham, 1999), and let the candidate know that this particular interview will be different from the others because its goal is different.

The second technique is to “ask a few open-ended questions and then try to keep quiet” (Pg. 215, Buckingham, 1999). Let the candidate do all the talking. Asking open-ended questions is the best way to find out a person’s methodology. Avoid “telegraphing” the direction you want the candidate you want to answer (aka “guided” questioning). With little to no clues to what you do or do not want to hear, “The direction he takes, spontaneously, will be most predictive of his future behaviors” (Pg. 216, Buckingham, 1999).

Method number three involves listening for specific responses. Do not trust a candidate that needs a fair amount of coaxing or coddling to come up with an open-ended answer; do not trust a candidate that gives a theoretical or generalized answer (aka “It happens all the time” versus a candidate that replies “It happened yesterday”). A lack of specificity or a need for prompting is a good indication that the behavior in question does not happen on a recurring basis.

Number four tells the manager to look for two clues to talent. What else should you be listening for besides indicators of past behavior? Two are specifically mentioned. The first is to assess their capacity for rapid learning: “Rapid learning is an important clue to a person’s talent,” the book says (Pg. 219, Buckingham, 1999). Asking what types of roles came easily in the past, and what activities come easily now, are clues to his or her types of talent.

The second clue is to ask where the candidate finds satisfaction. Finding out what makes a person tick will “help you know what he will be able to keep doing week after week after week” (Pg. 219, Buckingham, 1999).

Technique number five tells us to “know what to listen for” (Pg. 219, Buckingham, 1999). It is common practice, the authors tell us, for managers to have a list of favorite or standard questions to ask during interviews. Great managers have a list as well, however, “they only ask questions where they know how top performers respond. In their mind, the questions is not nearly as important as knowing how the best answer” (Pg. 219, Buckingham, 1999).

After all of these “keys” have been turned, the process is not over- it continues to evolve. This final chapter where the authors attempt to tie all of their groundbreaking rules into a realizable pattern discusses the importance of “performance planning meetings”, where you as the manager remain true to the point of managing: to encourage self-discovery, through engaging personally in an employee’s progress, failures, achievements, and hopes for the future (and it is encouraged that these meetings take place frequently- the authors suggest every three months). There are six facets to this interview: three for the employee to prepare his or herself before the discussion, and three more that direct the conversation towards the future.

The three questions which are the employee’s responsibility are as follows: What actions have you taken? These are details over the last several months including numbers, scores, and rankings. What discoveries have you made? This might include information or revelations found during training classes, seminars, or maybe even a book. What partnerships have you built? These could be professional or personal, within or without the company.

The three questions that then address the question of the future to set the stage for your next meeting are: What is your main focus? The employee should have goals for the future. What new discoveries are you planning? (What discoveries, specifically, would you like to make?) What new partnerships are you hoping to build? This addresses how the employee is planning on expanding his or her interpersonal relationships.

The Video Lounge

The first video is simply a brief synthesis of what “First” is all about:

The second video is a brief video of one of the authors, Marcus Buckingham, discussing on of the theories introduced in the book: focusing on strengths, instead of your weaknesses.

He gives an example that is easily relatable. What happens when your weaknesses show through, like on a report card? This child is obviously better in some subjects than he or she is in others. This is acknowledged. But instead of focusing solely on the failures, Buckingham says, praise and strengthen those abilities.

Personal Insights

  • The authors are two of the most brilliant people around because:

In my opinion, Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman are well-articulated, intelligent writers and I agree with about 98% of the assertions in their book. I think that their information that they have gathered is well-synthesized and well-summarized (for the most part). Their ideas are revolutionary, yes, but they are far from impossible to attain. Their ideas and techniques are accessible and user-friendly. Buckingham and Coffman have taken what is purely statistical data and woven it into an easy to digest format, suitable for any manager (or employee), whether they be new to the game or veterans.

  • If I were the author of the book, I would have done these three things differently:

1. I think that I would have liked to see the authors tie their ideas together better. This book was jam packed with information– good information– but not a lot on how to employ the techniques introduced.

2. As someone who is interested in Human Resources management, in particular, I would have liked to see more in the HR department from this book. In my opinion, I think that HR is fundamentally important to any company. Perhaps they should have added more to the interviewing techniques section.

3. Lastly, I wish that they had divided this book differently. It was a massive amount of information and I did agree with the majority of the changes and reformations the authors advised, but I was constantly referring back to the table of contents and the chapter headings to remember what section I was in, and what the “bigger picture” was that they were addressing.

  • Reading this book made me think differently about the topic in these ways:

1. There were many rules that were broken in this book. One of my favorites was that studying failure does NOT mean that you are learning what success is. Focusing on failure does teach you what went wrong, but all too often we forget to acknowledge our accomplishments as well– and those are far more important.

2. Focusing on strengths and improving what is innate in an employee, instead of putting in what was left out, seemed to be a core value of this book. I loved this idea. It is true- we have far more weaknesses than strengths. Why not exploit what we’re already good at instead of obsessing over what we lack? That seemed very practical from a management perspective.

3. Lastly, I appreciated how this book stressed a level of personal caring and accountability for managers. Instead of treating your employees like numbers, care about them. Use the periodic meetings to check in with them; and even when you fire them, it’s tough love.

  • I’ll apply what I’ve learned in this book in my career by:

1. If I ever become a manager, I hope to be in Human Resources. I plan on using the interviewing questions they provide in order to draw forth the talents of my candidates and thusly place them where they are most apt.

2. If I become a manager, I would have meetings every three to four months with my employees (as the book advises). This is a great idea. Most managers do no employ this idea (in my opinion) because it is time consuming and requires a level of confidence and trust between manager and employee. If I am under a manager who does employ this method, I plan to heartily engage and participate so that I can become a better employee.

3. After reading the interview techniques, as a candidate (which I will be in just a matter of weeks), I know what great managers are looking for and what they expect of me. I feel better prepared. Although I cannot prepare precisely for open-ended questions like the authors recommend, I now know how managers process the answers to those questions: what they are looking for, clues to my talents.

  • Here is a sampling of what others have said about the book and its author:

I found that in general, the reviews of “First” were very constructive.

“This book is a fairly easy read, full of information on management do’s and don’ts… Some of the results may seem unusual, but the conclusions are based on official data from Gallup, which one of the best- known and most respected research institutions in America” (Carey, 2000).

“I thought back on one particularly quiet employee. His great strength was in getting the job done, thoroughly and completely. However, I had been working with him to develop his public speaking ability and trying to help him be more outgoing.

Now, instead of putting him in roles where he must be outgoing and enthusiastic, I’m going to help find more projects where his strengths can be further developed and better-utilized. Focusing on strengths, not weaknesses. What a great idea!” (User “diverpam”, 2000).

But as always, there were a few dissenters with less than positive.

“Buckingham and Coffman have written a book that is at least a hundred pages too long. They are mind-numbingly repetitive. The book is poorly structured and spends too much time elaborating what has become obvious.

I think it was worth reading, but I found myself wishing that I had chosen the audio-cassette version instead: abridgment would have improved the book greatly” (Knight, 2000).

And finally, this reviewer summarized how I usually feel about “business theory” books (although I was somewhat leery of the choice of user-name): “Most of the time, I get through maybe a chapter (maybe) and put the book down out of complete and utter boredom. This one was different. I actually read the entire book, which for me, when it comes to business-oriented books, is nothing short of monumental” (User “crankybeer”, 2001). “There is some repetition in the book, but not annoyingly so, and I found it very easy and logical to read. It’s only 242 pages, and frankly, I plan to keep it handy to remind myself of what I have learned.”

The last reviewer plans on keeping this book close at hand– and I plan to do the same!


Buckingham, Marcus, & Coffman, Curt. (1999). First, break all the rules: what the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Carey, Bryan. (2000, December 20). What makes a great manager? [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://tiny.cc/ytkmc

Username “crankybeer”. (2001, April 26). Great manager? read this. [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://tiny.cc/wxs5l

Username “diverpam”. (2000, December 26). I broke one of my rules when i bought this book [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://tiny.cc/6ecdw

Knight, F. Douglas. (2000, December 26). First break all the rules (1999) [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://tiny.cc/12poq


Contact Info

To contact the author of this article, “A Summary and Review of First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman for Thinking Executives – and Those Who Want to be One,” please email Katelin at Katelin.Langley@selu.edu.


David C. Wyld (dwyld.kwu@gmail.com) is the Robert Maurin Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, and executive educator. His blog, Wyld About Business, can be viewed at http://wyld-business.blogspot.com/. He also serves as the Director of the Reverse Auction Research Center (http://reverseauctionresearch.com/), a hub of research and news in the expanding world of competitive bidding. Dr. Wyld also maintains compilations of works he has helped his students to turn into editorially-reviewed publications at the following sites:



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