Is This Next Generation HR Software?

On the face of it, Marcus Buckingham, with his improbable Beverly Hills office address and Hollywood good looks, is the most unlikely HR software pioneer.

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But as one of the country’s top experts for decades in measuring employee engagement and performance and as a leader of the “strengths” movement in organizational development, he has the HR chops to create the next generation of software and a new executive team that can make it happen.

Do you imagine it’s some kind of coincidence that Marcus-not quite up there with Malcolm Gladwell, but similarly known as a celebrity business speaker and author or co-author of seven frequently best-selling business books-keynoted this year’s SHRM, HireVue’s user conference and will be the opening keynoter at HR Tech in October?

Hardly a coincidence. It’s all the work of his new CEO, Jason Averbook, one of the top four influencers in our world when he ran the leading-edge consultancy Knowledge Infusion, which he sold to Appirio. As his next act at age 46, the Minneapolitan has moved to Los Angeles to transform The Marcus Buckingham Company (call it but the name still has got to go along with that Beverly Hills address), a leadership training and development company for the Fortune 500, into a real software company.

[Full disclosure: Jason came up with the idea for The Bill Kutik Radio Show ® in my kitchen nearly eight years ago, and then he and KI partner Heidi Spirgi-who has since joined him as tmbc’s head of products -sponsored it for seven years, leaving me alone to produce the show without asking for anything in return. While I’ve publicly called them my Medicis, I’m basically an ungrateful guy and have never believed in repaying favors, only granting them in advance.]

HR has some really big problems right now. And you know what they are. Historical low employee engagement (No. 1 in all the surveys of HR executive concerns), a performance management process that everyone hates because, among other things, they focus on ratings rather than improving anyone’s performance, and managers needing guidance and tools to help run their teams, since no business school does a very good job teaching anybody anything about managing people!

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And the nice HR lady who used to be down the hall offering advice on all these things is now stuck in a call center somewhere called a Center of Excellence. LOL!

Marcus’ new software, called StandOut, is intended to address all of this and is already being put to use at companies such as Facebook, Hilton’s Hampton Hotels, Mission Health and Peak Six, just to name a few. Plus some others specializing in HR that may never reveal their names as users because StandOut should have been their own idea in the first place!

I recently spent two days in LA getting to know Marcus and his product. Yes, at Jason’s invitation and expense.

So Marcus’ first two books were business best-sellers: First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Now, Discover Your Strengths (The Free Press, 2001). I first heard him speak in 2004 before his third book came out-and soon after he ended his 18-year career at the Gallup Organization as a senior vice president at age 37. He was delivering a keynote at Debbie McGrath’s first big conference.

I remember thinking at the time that the word “celebrity” fit him perfectly: He was really smart, handsome and very articulate with a terrific Oxbridge accent. Recently, I learned he actually earned his accent at Cambridge, graduating in 1988 while simultaneously working for Gallup all through college. His father and grandfather had both been “personnel directors” for large U.K.-based companies.

Most of us lacking doctorates in organizational development or industrial organizational psychology and without jobs practicing those HR black arts for Fortune 500 companies probably think of Gallup as the popular pollster keeping track of how candidates are doing every four years in our presidential elections.

But those in the OD club, as well as big company HR executives, know that Gallup is actually one of the three companies that lead the world in massive, multi-national and always custom employee surveys and research (around engagement and dozens of other topics), creating performance matrices that would fill a ballroom and delivering leadership development for gigantic companies. Another leader, Kenexa (now part of IBM) is located near Gallup in Lincoln, Neb., perhaps so it can poach Gallup’s employees; a third, Sirota Consulting, is based in New York.

Marcus spent his time at Gallup learning the most popular and effective methods for measuring employees and then developing new methods. He first worked on the problem of pre-hire assessment (cue the dozen or more software companies offering it 25 years later as predictive analytics!) and then on “strengths-based” testing with its pioneer Dr. Donald O. Clifton, who invented it in the late 90s.

Marcus was certainly the voice and face of that unique method, but he also helped develop it and has lead the HR movement behind it. Simply put, we all know most companies (like most high schools) try to find out what’s wrong with you and then try to fix it. They focus on improving what you’re bad at. Instead, what Marcus and his mentor, Dr. Clifton, proposed was that there is infinitely more benefit to discovering and developing what is right about people rather than fixing what’s “wrong” with them. Marcus likes to point out that strengths are made up of talents, which are innate, combined with skills and knowledge that can be learned.

So simple, obvious and so accurate. Right?

After Gallup, Marcus struck out on his own, starting his eponymous company to offer his leadership development and training around the “strengths” concept, delivered by others, not just him. All while continuing his prodigious research, writing and speaking. In short, he turned himself and his ideas into a company, just like Tom Peters and others have done.

In 2012, he created a software package that embodied his decades of research and Fortune 500 training engagements called StandOut. If you buy his new book called StandOut 2.0 from Harvard Business Review Press, you’ll get a key code to test drive the software and 197 pages explaining what it can do.

After reading the book, watching some presentations, seeing a long demo and asking a lot of questions, I like to think of StandOut as a self-service productivity package for team leaders. Not to drive the work getting done (lots of project management software does that), but to guide management by measuring and fueling engagement and performance (revealed in real-time with reliable data), and maybe even solving those two gnarly problems mentioned at the top.

The product brings to mind the famous joke about business consultants, which I long ago extended to OD people. “What does a high-priced business consultant do, when you ask him what time it is? He asks to borrow your watch. Ask an OD person what time it is, and he tells you how to build a watch.”

At Gallup, Marcus learned just about everything OD people know without getting the degree: all the concepts and all of the three-letter acronyms, but also without catching the OD disease of needing to cover every nuance, exception and tangent. As StandOut (the book and software) makes clear, he knows how to sharpen it down to bare essentials that still manage to work.

When was the last personal assessment test you took (or administered) that was under 75 questions and less than an hour long? StandOut starts with a self-administered strengths assessment that has fewer than 30 very entertaining and thought-provoking questions-with no obvious right answers-in 15 minutes.

This short situational judgment test spits out two categories that describe you (similar to Myers-Briggs) but are more useful than its predecessors because there are only two categories. Then an algorithm goes to work on the categories along with subsequent assessments to personalize and calibrate them for you. Which is what we’re now all calling machine learning.

Once all members of your team take the assessments, you as team leader get a dashboard of everybody and their results. Then comes the first secret sauce: StandOut offers you personal coaching based both on your assessment and what role you play in the company: sales, customer service, etc. Plus coaching on managing your team members based on their assessment and your own!

While not yet AI and basically written in advance, though content gets modified by the algorithms, the advice seems enormously useful, particularly without the nice HR lady down the hall to help most young managers who don’t have a clue!

A weekly check-in gives team leaders a pulse on how members are feeling with two questions: “This week I added outstanding value” and “This week I had a chance to use my strengths every day.”

In the check-in, team members can also share what they loved and loathed and what they need from their team leaders.

Team leaders are given a larger engagement pulse survey with eight deceptively simple questions and are urged to send it out every six-to-eight weeks or at their own interval. Another algorithm goes to work considering every answer to those.

Managing and rating team members’ performance is designed to avoid the “Idiosyncratic Rater Effect,” a phenomenon becoming better known as survey after survey reveals that 61 percent of a performance rating is a reflection of the personality and traits of the rater, not the observable characteristics of the ratee.

The performance pulse survey seems ridiculously simple. But its four questions are based not on what you think of your team member’s past performance (everybody’s criticism of current performance management), but on what you would do with each one in the future: “I would promote Jody today if I could.” And another algorithm goes to work on the answers.

Naturally, Marcus has correlated all the answers with their predictive effects on each other, plus on voluntary turnover and other metrics. Then there are weekly video coaching hints, and documents and training materials.

It all seems too simple. How could it possibly work? Well there’s the rub. Industry elders (unhappily now including me!) have long equated software complexity with power-and simplicity with fun but useless toys. The young ‘uns won’t put up with complexity (just look at their phones!), but still want all the power.

In response, every vendor is desperately trying to make their software simpler. StandOut already is. Witness it being used in 58 countries (mostly U.S.-based multi-nationals) with the assessment test available today in 17 languages and the rest of the software matching it by the first quarter of next year. The company issues a Global Engagement Index to highlight for each country the aspects of work that drive engagement there. No surprise, they’re different!

With Jason knowing everyone who counts in the HR software industry; Heidi managing the product (as she did a while back at PeopleSoft); and Marcus knowing all the OD stuff in his bones and explaining it all so perfectly and mellifluously-we may indeed be looking at the next generation of HR software.

Bill Kutik
HR Technology columnist Bill Kutik, as chairman emeritus, is at the 22nd Annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in Las Vegas, Oct. 1-4, 2019. Watch Kim Billeter, the new Americas Lead for EY HR advisory group (PAS), discuss the question: Why is Cloud adoption taking so long? Just six minutes for the current video episode of Firing Line with Bill Kutik®. Bill can be reached at [email protected]