Even In The Office, Casting Is Everything

How do great managers cultivate excellent performances so consistently? Sometimes it's about moving a star into a supporting role. We continue our Leadership Hall of Fame series, a year-long look at the top business books and authors, with an excerpt from First, Break All the Rules (1999) by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

First, Break All the RulesEveryone has talents--recurring patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that can be applied productively. Simply put, everyone can probably do at least one thing better than ten thousand other people. However, each person is not necessarily in a position to use her talents. Even though she might initially have been selected for her talents, after a couple of reshuffles and lateral moves, she may now be miscast.

If you want to turn talent into performance, you have to position each person so that you are paying her to do what she is naturally wired to do. You have to cast her in the right role.

In sports this is relatively straightforward. Given his physical strength and combative personality, it's obvious that Rodman should be paid to crash the boards, not run the floor. In the performing arts, it is almost as clear cut. The original casting of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had Paul Newman playing Sundance and Robert Redford as Butch. After a few rehearsals it became apparent that the roles did not elicit the actors' strengths. The switch was made, and almost immediately both characters materialized. Newman reveled in the glib, self-confident persona of Butch Cassidy, while Redford captured perfectly the more brooding, almost deferential Sundance Kid. The strength of these performances gave this classic film an appeal it might otherwise have lacked.

In the working world casting becomes a little more challenging. First, what matters is what is inside the person, not physical prowess or appearance. Some managers find it hard to see beyond the physical to each person's true talents. Second, managers are often preoccupied with the person's skills or knowledge. Thus people with marketing degrees are inevitably cast into the marketing department and people with accounting backgrounds are siphoned off into the finance department. There is nothing wrong with including a person's skills and knowledge on your casting checklist. But if you do not place a person's talent at the top of that list, you will always run the risk of mediocre performance. Casting for talent is one of the unwritten secrets to the success of great managers. On occasion it can be as simple as knowing that your aggressive, ego-driven salesperson should take on the territory that requires a fire to be lit beneath it. And, by contrast, your patient, relationship- building salesperson should be offered the territory that requires careful nurturing. However, most of the time casting for talent demands a subtler eye.

For example, imagine you have just been promoted to manage a team of people. You have no idea whether these people have talent or not. You didn't select them. But they have now been handed to you. Their performance is your responsibility. Some managers quickly split the team members into two groups: "losers" and "keepers." They keep the "keepers," clear the house of "losers," and recruit their "own people" to fill the gaps.

The best managers are more deliberate. They talk with each individual, asking about strengths, weaknesses, goals, and dreams. They work closely with each employee, taking note of the choices each makes, the way they all interact, who supports who, and why. They notice things. They take their time, because they know that the surest way to identify each person's talents is to watch his or her behavior over time.

And then, yes, they separate the team into those who should stay and those who should be encouraged to find other roles. But, significantly, they add a third category: "movers." These are individuals who have revealed some valuable talents but who, for whatever reason, are not in a position to use them. They are miscast. By repositioning each in a redesigned role, great managers are able to focus on each person's strengths and turn talent into performance.

Mandy M., the manager of the design team whom we met earlier, tells this story. Recently promoted to head up her company's design division, Mandy inherited an employee called John. He was positioned in a strategic role where he was being paid to offer conceptual advice to the client. The environment was intense and individualistic, with associates competing with each other to devise the cleverest solution for the client. And John was struggling. Everyone knew that John was smart enough to do the job. But the performance just wasn't there. He was emotionally disengaged and, according to most company sources, on his way out the door. If he didn't jump, he would soon be pushed.

But Mandy had seen something in John. A couple of months before being promoted, she had noticed that the only time he really blossomed was when he was working for a supervisor who paid attention to him. They developed a relationship, these two, and John began to shine. But then the supervisor moved on to a new role, and John's light dimmed.

Guided by that one glimpse, Mandy put John into the "movers" category. She guessed that he was a person who needed connections the way some people need recognition. So she took his thirst for relationships and applied it where it could be of great value to the company: business development.

John became a sales machine. He was naturally wired to reach out to people, to learn their names, to remember special things about them. He built genuine relationships with hundreds of individuals scattered among his company's clients and prospects. Bonded by these relationships, the clients stayed clients, and the prospects soon joined them. John was in his element, using his natural strengths to everyone's advantage.

When Mandy tells this story you can hear a little catch in her throat. Like many fine managers, she is overjoyed at the thought of someone using his talents to the fullest. She knows that it is a rare thing to be able to find a role that gives you a chance to express the specialness inside you, a role where what makes you You is also what makes you good. It is rare, not because there aren't enough interesting roles--virtually every role performed at excellence has the potential to interest somebody-- but because so few individuals ever come to know their true talent and so many managers fail to notice the clues. Mandy knows that on another day, in another company, she might have missed that brief glimpse of John's talent. He would have failed, and he would have had little to learn from his failure.

But she didn't miss it. She noticed the sign of a latent strength. And through careful recasting she was able to focus on that strength and so turn John's talents into performance.

Everyone has the talent to be exceptional at something. The trick is to find that "something." The trick is in the casting.

Reprinted from First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. Copyright © 1999 by The Gallup Organization. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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1 Comments

  • Cedricj

    The emphasis on managers being great 'casting directors' makes for good choices for the team as well as maximizing individual performance. However, the responsibility is also on the individual to have a strong individual leadership brand. The next step is marketing that brand and matching it with the chief business goals of his/her group. I explore personal leadership branding on my blog at cedricj.wordpress.com