Differences in Leadership

Adapted from “StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment From the Leader of the Strengths Revolution” by Marcus Buckingham (ThomasNelson, Inc.).

By Marcus Buckingham

Recently my company, TMBC, undertook a best practice study of the top 10 percent of Hilton’s Focused Service brands’ general managers—Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites, and Home 2. Since Hampton Inn was just voted the best franchisor in the country by Entrepreneurmagazine—ahead of the likes of McDonald’s and Subway—and since Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites are multi-year J.D. Power award winners, we knew that, in targeting their top 10 percent, we were interviewing some truly excellent performers.

Although during the interviews it became apparent that they shared similar approaches to some things, it was their differences that were most striking. Diana runs the Hampton Inn and Suites in Ephrata, PA. Vivacious and excitable (and chatty—my 45- minute interview was still going strong at an hour and 15) Diana has been a perennial award winner since she opened the hotel five years ago.

“What’s your secret?” I asked her. “I mean, if there were a few things you would tell every manager they should do if they are to succeed, what would they be?”

“First, get a mascot,” she replied.

“A mascot?”

“Yep. A mascot. Every hotel should have one. It gives the employees and the guests something to rally around. A personality. A purpose.”

“What’s yours?”

“The turtle.”

“What? Why?”

“Because, like the turtle, we won’t make any progress unless we stick our necks out. The turtle is so cool. We have them everywhere here. If you could see my office, it’s full of plush turtles. When you win employee of the month, you are the ‘turtle of the month.’ Our regular guests get little toy turtles to take back to their kids. It’s an awesome thing. I’ve been telling every hotel manager I run into that they should get a mascot. In fact, I’ve just heard that another Hampton down the way are now ‘the bees’ because, you know, they don’t get anything done unless they work together.”

So I talked to Diana for an hour or so about her turtles and a part of me thought, “Really, turtles?” And another part thought, “Well, if it works, it works,” and then I hung up the phone and called Tim. Tim runs the Hilton Garden Inn in Times Square, and he’s another superstar. But he’s no Diana. He’s quieter, more cerebral.

“A practice I would share with others?” he repeated my question. A long pause. “Well, I don’t really have one. I think my people have all the answers. That’s the way I run my hotel. I tell my people that they are closer to the guest than I am, that they know this hotel better than I do, and that, whether it’s a guest issue or something to do with the property, they’ll know the answers.”

I kept probing. “That’s an interesting perspective, Tim, but can you think of any ways that you put this perspective into practice? Anything, anything at all?”

“Well, there’s our lending library, of course.”

“Excuse me?”

“We have a lending library. I decided that if my people were going to have all the answers, then we needed to be a learning hotel, and what better way to symbolize learning than to ask every employee to bring in one book per month and we would set up a lending library. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fiction book, nonfiction, or even a kids’ book, we still want you to bring it in. All of you have something to teach us, something we can learn from. So bring in a book, borrow other people’s books, and we’ll all learn together.”

These are but two innovations from two superstar managers. With my prodding, Tim told me about many more. So did Diana. So did they all. And yet, very few of these innovations would have been transferable from one person to another, even though they all came from top performers doing the same job, at the same level, in the same organization. Tell Tim that he absolutely must have a mascot for his hotel and what would he have picked? The bookworm? The owl? Most likely he would have picked nothing and procrastinated in hopes that the new corporate “mascot” program soon would wither away. Tell Diana to start a lending library and, while she might rouse herself to put her own spin on it, most likely she would dismiss it. Not exciting enough. Not her thing.

Two engineers in one of the social media giants offer us another example. David writes code. And he’s a certain kind of coder. He is a “massager.” Give him 10 or more hours of uninterrupted coding time and he will massage the code, working and reworking it until it is so efficient and so elegant that others will read the code just to admire it. He refuses to come to the office. He works from home, alone with his dog, Bit. His secret sauce, he said, is extended solitude.

Not so for Luke. He’s another exemplary engineer at the same company, but he’s not a massager. He’s a “salvager.” He takes one person’s failed coding experiment, reconstructs what the person was trying to do, combines it with another person’s experiment, and creates something neither initially had intended. His genius—although he’d be uncomfortable with that label—is asking probing questions without making the original designer defensive, a practice he calls the “Guessing Game.”

During his company’s once-a-month code-a-thons—where all engineers who want to can stay up the entire night coding, drinking, munching, and then shipping code the next morning—he can be found moving from one engineer to another, playfully guessing where they were intending to take the code, and throwing in a couple of intriguing “guesses” of his own. These guesses, in turn, prompt new ideas from the original designers, which he then pieces together into a workable program.

Tell Luke to spend 10 hours of solitude a day and he’d see it as a punishment, not a best practice.

Try to teach David the mechanics of the “Guessing Game,” and he’d dismiss you as a know-nothing crank.

Adapted from “StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment From the Leader of the Strengths Revolution” by Marcus Buckingham (reprinted with permission of ThomasNelson, Inc.). For more information, visit http://www.tmbc.com.

Marcus Buckingham, founder of The Marcus Buckingham Company, is an author with more than 3.7 million copies of his bestsellers in print. Buckingham spent nearly two decades at the Gallup Organization pioneering research into personal strengths and has developed strengths-based business solutions for some of the world’s most recognizable brands, such as Best Buy, Disney, and Toyota. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1987 with a Master’s degree in social and political science. He is a member of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Leadership and Management.

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