Thought Leadership Series
Lifting Employee Performance: A Conversation with Marcus Buckingham
School Administrator, May 2021

Marcus Buckingham says measuring employees’ performance based on the number of goals they achieve is misguided and unproductive. PHOTO BY SUNNY THOMAS

In this sixth installment of the School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series, we hear from Marcus Buckingham, renowned business consultant, best-selling author and distinguished researcher on employee performance. Buckingham today leads ADP Research Institute and is widely recognized for his work through the Gallup Organization in understanding what the world’s greatest leaders and managers do differently.

The author of Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World and First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, Buckingham also is known for his work on cultivating employees’ strengths rather than improving their weaknesses as the key to personal and organizational success.

Buckingham recently was interviewed by Howard Carlson, a former superintendent in Arizona, Minnesota and Washington. Now working in leadership with the Greater Phoenix Educational Management Council, he is the author of two books, So Now You’re the Superintendent! and Accelerated Wisdom: 50 Practical Insights for Today’s Superintendent. Carlson maintains a leadership blog at

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

HOWARD CARLSON: In your work, you have challenged our thinking about leadership over the years and today we will dive into your influential book First, Break All the Rules and your latest writing, Nine Lies About Work. In First, Break All the Rules, you indicate that, if leaders want to build a stronger and more productive workplace, they should work toward achieving high levels of performance around six key questions. Do you still believe that’s true, and can you review those six questions?

MARCUS BUCKINGHAM: Yeah, I’m happy to just riff on that. The responsibility of a leader is not to become better at leadership. Because if you took all the best leaders you’ve ever encountered and lined them up, the first thing that would strike you was how very different they are in terms of the way they are driven, what they’re focused on, how they build relationships and how they think. In fact, the only thing that a group of successful leaders have in common is followers.

Leading is one of those jobs like teaching, where your success is defined through the behavior and the responses of someone else. In the case of teaching, of course, it’s the student. You are not a teacher unless someone is learning. And, in terms of leading, you’re not a leader unless someone’s following.

So the research that I did way back in 2000 was focused on what kind of emotions, what kind of experiences, do the best leaders create in their followers? At the time, we identified six questions that were focused on some pretty core things that the best leaders use to create the most productive workplaces and employees. Do employees know what’s expected of them is a very simple question that a leader must clarify. Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right? Do I feel as though I have a chance to use my strengths every day? People want to know that you as a leader have seen them — and seen them for what they do best, then put them in a role that helps them to use their abilities.

Recognition and praise. As the leader, do I catch employees doing things right? Caring. As an employee do I feel as though you genuinely care about my psychological or physical well-being or my growth? Of course, the last one is growth and development, do I feel like you genuinely want me to get better?

So whether those are the exact questions is less important than leaders realizing they need to create in their followers certain distinct feelings. Otherwise, you won’t get the productivity, collaboration or loyalty from your employees and teams.

OK, most of my remaining questions come from your book Nine Lies About Work. It helped me gain an understanding regarding the lies we’ve come to believe and, ultimately, how schools and workplaces should look as an alternative. So can you describe the difference between performance acceleration and performance measurement as it relates to employees? And secondly, how can school districts use performance acceleration to enhance employee effectiveness?

Well, we made the distinction between performance acceleration and performance measurement because currently we blur those two together in the workplace. We blur performance acceleration and performance measurement together through things like goals, where we’ll tell someone you’re supposed to achieve certain goals by the end of the year and we set those goals for you because we believe that we’re going to get more performance out of you if we define those goals, and then measure you on how many of the goals you hit.

There are two big problems with doing that. No. 1, the best way to get someone to achieve is not through imposed goals or to de-fine for them a model of leadership. That is not the best way to help a person achieve. All achievement, learning, performance and growth comes from the inside out. So if a person wants to set their own goals, in terms of what they want to achieve, that’s fine. But what you’re doing, as a person who’s managing or leading that person, is to figure out what their unique strengths are, what their unique values are, and then help that person to put those strengths and values into proper practice.

That comes from the inside out, and the way that you do that is to check in with that person every week. You don’t check up on them. You check in with them every week to figure out what’s the next week going to look like. Can I offer you a tweak or a course correction or a slight adjustment? That’s the way you get more performance out of people. You see their uniqueness and then you help them with little touch points every week to channel that uniqueness. That’s performance acceleration.

Performance measurement is an entirely different thing. There’s no way you can measure someone’s performance on goals they achieved because how you define a goal will be completely idiosyncratic. How you judge whether somebody hit that goal is a function of perception. It doesn’t matter how much measurement you put into it. Measurements of goals are completely idiosyncratic. They have no inter-relater reliability.

So performance measurement needs to be treated in a completely different way, and it’s got to be separated from performance acceleration. We clump performance acceleration and performance measurement together and as a result, we end up doing both really badly.

CARLSON: Let me ask a follow up here. Let’s say as you are consulting with a school district, how might you set this up, what might it look like, how would you do it, what would be the key components?
During his tenure as a superintendent over 17 years, Howard Carlson found several Marcus Buckingham books useful to his thinking and actions in school leadership. PHOTO COURTESY OF HOWARD CARLSON

That’s a big question. I run the ADP Research Institute and that gives me an opportunity to do global research at scale. We’ve just finished this 25-country study, which included approximately 26,000 people, and we were measuring resilience.

The least resilient industry is health care. Eleven percent of people around the world who work in health care are highly resilient, which comports with what we know about burnout, emergency room nurses and doctors, and levels of post-traumatic stress disorder. The pandemic has just made this worse. These poor people, even before the pandemic, were burning out at extraordinary levels.

The second most vulnerable profession is education. Twelve percent of people around the world who work in education are highly resilient. Everybody else is just vulnerable. The reason for that ties to many things. But one of the most compelling factors predicting whether you are resilient is this: Am I part of a team? Do I feel part of a team? If I say yes, I’m three times more likely to be highly resilient than if I don’t. Schools are deliberately set up so that teachers themselves are atomized in a classroom. That’s what we do with nurses and that’s what we do with teachers. So setting up and establishing teams is vitally important.

The very first piece of human art that we’ve ever found was discovered in December 2019 on a small island, Sulawesi, in Indonesia. It’s about 50,000 years old, and it’s not a painting of a god. It’s not a painting of an animal or a human body. It’s a painting of a group of individuals who are trying to corral or kill some animals. And each of the individuals depicted has a different animal head. One has a face of a lion to depict courage. One has the trunk of an elephant to depict strength. One has, seemingly, the mouth of a crocodile to convey their cunning. This is a picture of a team, the very first piece of art we have found shows that we can achieve more together than we can alone. And that we function best in very small groups, very small teams.

So the very first thing I would do is go in and say how can we truly build a team environment in this school district? What does that even mean? What does that look like? If we can do that, then we can do so much more to help each team member get closer to their team leader to figure out the right rituals to have in place, to figure out the right metrics we can use to help the team determine whether we are engaged. All sorts of things flow beautifully through the idea that school districts should build more teams like their best teams. That’s where you start. You get rid of ratings, you get rid of siloed departments, and you figure out how can we show teachers that they’re all part of many different teams.

Ninety-seven percent of people around the world say they do most of their work on teams and 85 percent say they do most of their work on more than one team. I would start there. I would, depending up the situation, continue thinking and focusing on what does a team mean in this district. What do our best teams look like and how can we learn from their procedures, rituals and methods of communication?

Shifting gears a bit. In Nine Lies About Work, you indicate that people don’t care which organization they work for, but rather which organization they join. Can you expand on that concept and then speak to how school districts can integrate this thinking as they work to attract and retain teachers? I think that’s a very important point for people.

BUCKINGHAM: The point there was people don’t care which organization they work for. They care which team they’re on. So, and this is important for companies and school districts, we talk a lot about how organizational culture is so important. Actually, when you start to measure culture, you go inside any organization and you start to ask questions about what it’s actually like to work there, what is the mission there, do people support one another there, is recognition free flowing there, do people feel like they have to watch their back there — all sorts of questions about culture — you find that the answers to those questions vary much more within an organization than between organizations. The data from the real world is unequivocal about this. Company cultures are not monolithic. They vary significantly, according to which team you’re on.

In the world of schools, you’ll find huge variation. Even within the same school, there will be huge differences in terms of what it’s actually like to work there. And what people then end up leaving isn’t the organization. They leave the team.

So anybody who’s leading a team or a team of teams, who is guiding a large organization, needs to realize that the actual experience of what it’s like to work there will be mediated through what is happening at the local level. You can’t really do much to create an engaging work environment when you’re five miles behind the front line, as it were, as a district superintendent. There’s a limit to what you can do. You can create the space and the conditions and the support for local leaders to do good work with their people, but you can’t reach in and make it happen. You just can’t.

So the first thing to realize is that when people leave, either psychologically or physically, they’re leaving the local team. When they join something, they join the organization. So, yes, if you’re a school district and you want to try to attract the best talent, it makes tons of sense to try to put a coherent and compelling talent brand out there. Define your talent brand. Speak about it in public forums. Publicize it, absolutely. And you will probably attract better talent. That’s really cool because people do care which company they join. But once they’ve joined, how long they stay and how productive they are while there doesn’t depend on the organization. It depends on the local work teams or local work environments they’re in.

That is excellent thinking — that to attract teachers in large part is based upon the school district’s efforts, while retention is about the individual school and professional learning community in which a teacher will work.

In Nine Lies About Work, you discuss the difference between a planning model and an intelligence model. Can you take a moment and explain how school districts might successfully move from one to the other?

Employees care more about what team they’re on than what organization they work for, says Marcus Buckingham, author of Nine Lies About Work. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NORDIC BUSINESS FORUM
BUCKINGHAM: A planning system is one where the frontline workers, in this case teachers, are used to generate data, such as school attendance or students’ grades or gaps in learning. Those data are then pushed up the hierarchy where they land in the end on the school superintendent’s desk. The superintendent and his or her team then sifts through the data and tries to make sense of it and turn it into a strategic plan of some kind.

That plan is then pushed down through the organization in the same way the data were pushed up through the organization. The problem with this is it takes way too much time to put together these plans, to have the data roll up to the school superintendent and then to roll back down to the organization to have people act on it. By the time people are acting on these strategic plans, the world has moved on. Things have happened in the real world. This year is just an extreme example of it. But things will have happened in the real world that make whatever you were planning in November irrelevant by January. In fact, in the end, a strategic plan is one of those things where the better it is developed, the worse it works. The more detailed and complete it is, the worse it works because you put more time into it and the world has changed.

So what that tells us is that comprehensive plans don’t work, which is the second lie of the book — that the best plan wins. The best plan does not win. The best intelligence wins. What that means is we should build intelligence systems. The difference between an intelligent system and a planning system is an intelligence system inverts the whole process I described. The role of the superintendent is to figure out ways to get as much intelligence inside the schools as possible and then, as fast as possible, relay that information to the people on the front lines, the teachers, so decisions can be made that quickly react to the situation at hand.

The goal of the school superintendent should be how quickly can he or she get relevant, real-time, reliable intelligence to teachers. That’s the job of a school superintendent. How quickly can I do that? Because the people who are going to be making decisions about how we should teach and what we should do to best meet students’ needs are the people who are dealing with students all the time. They’re in the real world, and they know, better than anyone else, what’s working, what’s not, what needs tweaking, what needs adjusting.

The data that the school superintendent and the district provide should be helping each teacher to go, “hmmm that worked, that didn’t and how can our team make an adjustment? We’ll try more of that, we’ll turn that up a little bit, we’ll turn that down a little bit.” It’s not easy, by any means. Intelligence systems aren’t easy to build. But they are systems that enable a school district to have what I would call tensile strength, where it is, as an organization, responding to the warp and weft of what’s happening with a particular student body or community during the course of a year. You invert the whole thing. How could we get the relevant data, the relevant intelligence, to our teachers as fast as we possibly can.

CARLSON: Okay, one final question. You state that leadership isn’t a “thing” in Nine Lies About Work because it can’t be measured reliably. But followership is a “thing” because it can. If this is the case, then how can we effectively measure followership and how should this impact the way we train education administrators?

BUCKINGHAM: Well, the lie there is a thing called leadership, that it’s definable, maybe it’s the list of competencies or a list of at-tributes or a list of skills. And if you want to be a better leader, you should try to acquire this thing that we have defined as leader-ship. That’s how you get to be a better leader, you get more leadership.

The problem comes when you try to find that “thing” in the real world. When you take a list of great leaders and you line them up against the wall, and you realize they all have incredibly different approaches to the way in which they’ve impacted the world.

I quoted a couple of examples in the book. If you take Warren Buffett and Richard Branson, both men over the age of 75, both entrepreneurs, both white. And yet, they couldn’t be more different in terms of how they’ve led. You would never say to a Warren Buffett, grow your hair longer and smile brighter and then you could be more like Richard. It would just be stupid. You would never say that. You would go, Warren, how can you be the most intelligent Warren, and, Richard, how can you be the most intelligent Richard?

So when you look at leading, you realize that what you’re seeing is uniqueness. You’re seeing a whole bunch of unique individuals. Even in this last presidential election, Donald Trump got 74 million votes and Joe Biden got 81 million votes. They both got a lot of votes. They’re both white men. They’re both over 75. They’re both politicians, and they couldn’t be more different. I’m not saying who’s a good leader and who’s not. They both got a whole bunch of people to vote for them; yet they are unique.

So when you look at the real world, you realize there’s no such thing as leadership. Leaders do not have anything in common at all. We should stop saying that they do and teaching people as though they do because they don’t. The only thing they have in common is followers. Leaders have people who have chosen to climb that hill with them.

Now, interestingly, we can measure that. Why can we measure that? Because if you go to the basics of data fluency, what you dis-cover is that humans are good at providing data on only one thing. We are good at providing data on our own experiences and feelings. I can report on that. I can’t report on who you are. I can’t report on what qualities you have. I can’t rate you on the attributes that I think you possess. I can’t do that because of the idiosyncratic rater effect. But I can report how I’m feeling and what I feel like doing, which is why followership can be measured. We can ask do you want to follow Marcus up that hill? And if you say, yes I really do, then no one can come in and say, no you don’t. You are the arbiter of whether you will follow Marcus up that hill.

We can measure followership through those first six questions I mentioned at the beginning. I have extended that to eight questions at the beginning of Nine Lies About Work, which you can ask to measure followership. And what that means for leader development is that, rather than spending a ton of time talking about this generic concept called “leadership,” and how you can acquire it, we should completely flip that around and say, let’s teach you a lot about followers. What do people really want, what do they need if they’re going to follow you up that hill? Let’s really get you to dive into that, and then the question won’t be how you can acquire leadership. The question will be, given who you are, as a unique human, as a leader, what is your way of getting people to follow you?

Next in Line:

School Administrator’s Thought Leadership Series continues in June with an interview of Joy Harjo, the poet laureate of the United States, by Maria Ott, who serves as executive in residence at University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. She is a former superintendent in California.