Over the past 25 years, the Gallup Organization, famous for opinion polling, has undertaken two giant research studies. In the first, Gallup asked more than one million employees from a broad range of industries a series of questions designed to uncover the answer to the question, “What do talented employees need from their workplace?”

The answer — that talented employees need great managers — led to the second research effort, which attempted to determine how the best managers find, focus, and keep talented employees.

The conclusions, gleaned from analysis of 90-minute interviews with more than 80,000 managers and data from a million employee surveys, can be found in the remarkable book First, Break All the Rules (Simon and Schuster, 1999), written by Gallup researchers Markus Buckingham and Curt Coffman.

The chief outcome of these studies is a performance “measuring stick” that evaluates human capital, which, the authors argue, is increasingly seen on an equal footing with more traditional metrics, such as assets and profits. Using just 12 questions, “The Measuring Stick” captures those elements critical to finding, engaging, and retaining the most talented employees.

As the authors point out, these seemingly straightforward questions share two interesting characteristics. First, many contain an extreme — asking about a “best” friend or doing “what I do best” — because extreme questions are more likely to distinguish the most productive employees from everyone else. Second, none of the questions concern pay, benefits, senior management, and the like. These factors were culled during the distilling process, not because they are unimportant, the authors explain, but because they are equally important to every employee. In other words, bringing your pay and benefit package up to standard is essential to attract employees but isn't enough to guarantee you'll attract and keep outstanding performers.

Whether you're starting to think about regular employee performance reviews or want to revamp a casual process with something more formal, First, Break All the Rules is a good place to start. It analyzes how each question relates to one or more of four critical business outcomes: productivity, profitability, retention, and customer satisfaction. The first six questions are the most powerful because they combine strong links to the greatest number of outcomes. Ten of the questions show strong links between employee opinions and productivity; eight show strong links to profitability.