Supporting Team Leaders: A Q&A with Marcus Buckingham

Marcus Buckingham believes HR’s job is radically changing—and that’s good.

By John Scorza Jun 1, 2015
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HR Magazine June 2015The world of HR is being turned upside down, says Marcus Buckingham, a New York Times best-selling author, thought leader and founder of the Marcus Buckingham Company. But that’s not so much a threat to the profession as it is an opportunity to drive engagement and productivity—and not as a business partner to the CEO. Rather, real progress will come only when HR begins to serve team leaders. Buckingham will be a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Annual Conference & Exposition this month in Las Vegas.

What is HR’s biggest challenge?

We are providers and purveyors of bad, out-of-date data, and we’ve got to change that. We’ve got to offer real-time, reliable, leading-indicator data. At the moment, we don’t have any of that. When a CEO turns to an HR leader and says “Where are our best-performing and most engaged teams right now?,” HR has to just guess. Companies still look at pure performance data, like sales and per-team profitability, but all those are trailing indicators. If HR is to be seen as a legitimate business partner in the future, we better have real-time, reliable data.

What bad data should HR stop using?

There’s an awful lot of data we should just stop collecting because it’s a waste of time and money, like once-a-year employee engagement surveys and best-companies-to-work-for data. All of that stuff just gives HR a bad name because we know that if you work for a great company but a rotten boss, the rotten boss trumps the great company. So we ought to be providing data around each local team’s microculture.

What about performance ratings?

We do not seem to understand how much it hurts our profession when we provide performance-ratings data or 360-degree data to our operational colleagues on the board and they say, “Is this data reliable? Does a 3 mean a 3? Does a 5 mean a 5? Do these ratings really reflect performance?” In HR, we tend to say, “Well, uh, yeah, I think so,” because of this whole process of measuring competencies and calibration sessions. But, in fact, those ratings data are all falsely precise—they’re all bad data. They’re garbage.

What’s wrong with the data?

It’s bad data because of the idiosyncratic rater effect. Basically, that means that if I rate you on anything—performance, potential, promotability, empathy, strategic thinking—between 61 and 62 percent of my rating of you is a function of me as the rater, not you as the person being evaluated. So my rating of you reveals more about me than it does about you. And yet our entire approach to talent management—who we pay, what we pay, who we promote, training we offer—is based on the assumption that my rating of you is reflective of you. But it isn’t. It’s all based on bad data, and everyone sort of knows it. And that’s a huge problem.

Why does HR have so much bad data?

We’ve been building our performance, engagement and learning tools for the wrong audience. They have been built for the HR function and the organization. And yet performance, engagement and learning don’t happen in HR. They happen on a team through a team leader, or they don’t happen at all. So the audience for all of our tools should be the team leader. HR has to push technology providers to develop tools that team leaders and team members will actively reach for—on their phones or on their smartwatches—to get the best out of each other.

If we do that, we’ll be able to measure real-time performance and real-time engagement. Moreover, in some ways, we can deliver real-time learning. HR’s job will then be to make sense of all that real-time, team-level data. And that will be a great job. We’ll be able to understand what the patterns mean in terms of performance and engagement in an organization at the team level, team by team by team.

What should those tools look like?

One simple tool would be an engagement survey—with really short and reliable questions—that every team leader could deploy to their team whenever they want and get results immediately. Then the company can aggregate that data—don’t cascade it down, aggregate it up—and the company will be able to see in real time which teams are most engaged and which aren’t.

A more sophisticated version of that tool would be strength assessments of the team leader and the team. Team leaders could see immediately their team’s strengths and capabilities as well as those of each person on their team. The tool could deliver customized coaching advice about how to get the best out of each team member and what the team leader should do right now with the team to build engagement.

How can HR best help team leaders get the most out of their teams?

People are productive right now in spite of the systems and practices of HR rather than because of them. So HR has to adopt tools and systems that add speed and insight to what the best team leaders actually do. We’ve studied the best team leaders, and they don’t write performance reviews, they don’t give feedback. I don’t want feedback. I want attention. And the best team leaders seem to understand that what we really want is coaching attention. Don’t give me feedback. Don’t tell me where I stand. I want to know how to get better. Coach me right now. Help me get better next week.

What’s the single most important ritual HR can help team leaders establish to drive performance?

Frequent check-ins about near-term future work—radically frequent check-ins. The best team leaders are talking to each one of their people individually every week. Not once every six or eight weeks because then, of course, you’re looking backward and reviewing where you’ve been. The best team leaders are always looking at next week’s work and giving you a slight tweak, a slight course correction, a better understanding that a year is a 52-week sprint. And they’re just asking a couple of really simple questions: What are your priorities this week, and how can I help? Leaders who say they’re too busy for that should stop everything else they’re doing and just do that, because that’s what leading is.

How can HR help make that happen?

Don’t give team leaders 14 things to do. Shine a spotlight on one, maybe two, chief rituals that the best team leaders do. Be the advocate for the team leader. That, in short, is what I think the next five years will be about for HR. The audience is not in the boardroom. You are not trying to be a business partner to the CEO. Don’t start there. You’ll sound silly. Start with the team leader. Serve the team leader, because that’s where differential performance and engagement occurs. Then, lo and behold, you’ll suddenly have the data that will give you the credibility in the boardroom. HR will become the linchpin for performance and engagement uplift. And that’s what we want to be.

John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.

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