April 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 2 // Tools of the Trade // 2TOT2

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First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently–A Book Review

First, Break All the Rules highlights the core characteristics of great managers and great work places. They are the culmination of two studies completed over a 20-year time frame by the Gallup Organization. During this study more than 400 companies were involved and more than 80,000 managers and more than one million employees were interviewed. This book will challenge 4-H Extension educators and other Extension educators to rethink how they manage volunteers.

Bob Peterson
Associate Agent, 4-H Youth Development
Pima County Cooperative Extension
The University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona
Internet Address: peterson@Ag.Arizona.Edu

After a few pages, First, Break All the Rules introduces the reader to a whole new pattern of thought in regards to how volunteers are selected, trained, and evaluated. The principles discussed are targeted toward private enterprise, but they are easy to adapt to various systems, including Extension and the evaluation of Extension volunteers.

As educators we believe that through training everyone can improve their performance. After all, we work within the university system and an educational setting. Our maxim is that education can help lead to the solution of most problems. We believe that, if we study long enough and train hard enough, eventually we will obtain the goal we seek.

Talent vs. Skill

It turns out, though, that this tenet is rejected by the most successful managers in business. After studying the results of the Gallup interviews, the book's authors, Buckingham and Coffman, found that great managers distinguish between talent and experience, or skills. They define talent as "a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied."

Buckingham and Coffman compiled the Gallup organization's results from interviews of more than 400 businesses, 80,000 managers, and more than one million employees conducted over a 20-year period. The Gallup study determined that these managers believe that people cannot overcome a weakness in talent. If they do not have the talent for math, for example, they will never be great math teachers or great engineers.

Why? Because they believe individuals are unique and that people will be true to themselves and their unique nature. The authors state that these managers say, "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."

Thus, great managers aren't overly concerned with a potential employee's skills. When interviewing a potential employee, a great manager would direct the interview toward the talents that are necessary to be very successful in the position for which the candidate is being interviewed. An outstanding manager would already know which talents the job required. The interview would be based on scenarios designed to elicit open responses that would help the interviewer determine whether or not the prospective employee's talents matched the talents of those already successful in the job.

Evaluating Volunteers

The best managers are touted as both performance and people oriented. However, they do not accept low or average performance because the end result is what makes or breaks their companies.

The measures of performance described in First, Break All the Rules can be applied to volunteers. In the past, 4-H agents have not used performance measures to evaluate volunteers. Perhaps we chose not to use performance measures with volunteers because we are educators, not managers. It may be that we do not treat volunteers as paid staff. In fact, many university policies are different for faculty, staff, and volunteers, so it is relatively easy to fall into this line of thought and action.

Some of the possible volunteer performance measures that we could identify and use are:

  • Number of returning 4-H members, not counting those who move away;
  • Number of satisfied parents;
  • Number of youth who expand their program area to include county, regional, state, and national programs; and
  • The way youth and volunteers feel they are treated in the program (as resources, or as objects?).

If other performance measures come to mind, jot them down now, before you forget.

The goal of great managers is for all of their employees to answer all 12 of the following questions with a score of five or four on a five-point scale, with five being high. Any division of the operation that has employees scoring three or less, is in trouble or is headed for trouble. This will be demonstrated in higher absenteeism, higher employee turnover, and, of course, lower productivity.

Read the following questions, substituting "volunteer" for "employee," etc. Ask yourself how the volunteers with whom you work would score and what that would indicate about you as a manager.

  1. Do I know what is expected of me? (If the employee answers with a four or a five, this self-score would indicate that he or she knows the goal, how it is measured, and how he or she plans to reach the goal. An answer of one indicates that the employee does not know the goal or objective or how it is measured and has no idea how to reach it.)
  2. Do I have the right materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
  3. At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  7. At work, do my opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  9. Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do I have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  12. This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

How will your volunteers answer the questions? Do they feel as if they belong? Do they believe they are making a difference in your organization, in meeting your organizations mission statement? Are their views, ideas, and suggestions listened to, supported, or adapted?

We all have one or more volunteers whom we would like to clone. Think about them. What makes them special volunteers? What are their recurring patterns of thought and behavior, i.e., talents? Can they be identified through interviews? Are the right kinds of questions being asked of potential volunteers? Are different talents needed for different levels of volunteering? For example, do great project club volunteers automatically have the talent needed by community club leaders or middle management volunteers?

While the principles promoted by Buckingham and Coffman will take some adaptation to work for the 4-H Youth Development program volunteer, I believe the effort will be well worth it. As an Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent, I couldn't help but think that perhaps because of our current system I am limiting my volunteers and not providing them with the necessary tools for success in our county 4-H program.

Questions kept coming to mind:

  • What kind of talent are we looking for in 4-H volunteers?
  • Do we give our volunteers measurable performance standards and standards of excellence?
  • How do we–or do we–measure our clients' satisfaction?
  • How can Extension agents use the interviewing tips to understand new volunteers and place them in the best fit for their talents?

I believe there are benefits to using performance measurements when evaluating volunteers. It will provide accurate data that can be shared with decision makers to support a request for additional or continued funding to support a program. When used properly, volunteers will become ambassadors for the program. They will market and sell a program in which they believe and in which they feel they are making a difference.

Measuring performance does not have to be an all-absorbing, all-encompassing task. First, Break All the Rules provides some simple strategies that can be used to measure performance. After reading this book, perhaps you will agree.


Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, Break All the Rules. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.