“First who, then what: ‘It’s not just a business principle, it’s a life principle.’
The right people in the right seats on the bus: That metaphor from the first Jim Collins best-seller “Good to Great” has always clicked for me.
If you have ever been part of a team that is hitting on all cylinders, I bet it resonates for you, too: It is a genuine thrill knowing you have the horsepower to handle any challenge that comes your way in these rapidly changing times.
The concept is one of the key points in “Good to Great.”
That book – published in 2001 and even more essential today – set the standard for how Collins uses research and analysis to identify the most crucial patterns that shape organizational success.
Here is how Collins explains the right-people-on-the-bus concept for that book:
"The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there.
“No, they first got the right people on the bus – and the wrong people off the bus – and then figured out where to drive it.’
The good-to-great leaders understood three simple truths, he says:
First, if you begin with "who," rather than "what," you can more easily adapt to a changing world.
Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. The right people don't need to be tightly managed or fired up: They will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of creating something great.
Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn't matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won't have a great company. “Great vision without great people is irrelevant."
Collins sometimes uses the example of rock climbing – a passion of his. At first, he planned climbs based on what he wanted to accomplish – which hill would be a nice challenge. But he realized the success felt empty – “lonely and barren.”
So his pattern flipped: He realized the quality of the experience was less affected by which hill he climbed than the person he climbed with. So he started choosing partners he liked first – and the hills all turned out to be good climbs.
How to find the right people
A great way to get a quick refresher on “Good to Great” is to listen to short segments at the extensive Jim Collins website.
- Does the person share your organization’s core values – or at least have a predisposition in that direction?
- Does this person “get it” so they don’t need tight management?
- Does this person have exceptional ability – the potential to be one of the best in his or her field?
- Does this person understand the difference between having a job and holding a responsibility? You want folks who think three steps ahead, feel a sense of responsibility – and if they see a hole, they fix it.
- Can you answer “yes” to this question: Knowing everything you now know about this person, would you hire them again?
Are they in the right seats?
One challenge, Collins says, is that someone might be good to have on your bus – but maybe they are not in exactly the right seat… not assigned to the right role.
He advocates experimenting with new seats.
If they are the right people, but just need development, his argument is to leave them on and coach them in a way that gets their performance up to great levels.
One risk is that the bus can change a great deal over time.
It can get bigger, for example. Someone might be perfect when the bus is, metaphorically speaking, a tiny minivan. Over time, it evolves – in concept – into a Greyhound and the seat is too big for the person to fill.
Collins says the question is “Can they grow into the seat or not?’
The key sign of overreaching to grow is to grow so fast that you can’t be sure you have the right people on the bus anymore, says Collins. “You will fail.”
Again, the challenge is coaching. It is both powerful and time-consuming. So, be intentional about what needs developing in an individual and then develop a plan that addresses those issues.
The wrong people
If someone doesn’t fit on the bus, Collins says there is no neat timetable to figure it out and move them off the bus.
He tells of organizations that shift 80 percent of top managers in a couple years and some that take five times that long.
A peek into the teams Collins assembles
If you have ever wanted to learn a little more about Collins than what you read in his books, check this out: A few years ago, as Collins publishing “How the Mighty Fall,” The New York Times business section ran a great profile of him.
Collins shares the key qualities he looks for in the young teams of researchers who help him zero in on key issues.
His team members must be smart, curious, willing to “death march” to get it right – and bring a bit of irreverence to the job.
One of my takeaways: All are qualities Collins embodies as he attacks challenges and keep us reading his insightful looks at organizational triumphs and disappointments.
And finally: a word about words… the power of metaphor
One more thing: The bus metaphor teaches another lesson on the side -- about the power of images to communicate important concepts.
As we work with colleagues and lead, it’s worth thinking about metaphors that embody the process… the challenges… the satisfactions. Images stick – and they motivate.