Right People → Right Seats: Oh Please, Shut Up!

Seats on a bus

Today I read yet another blog misrepresenting the work of Jim Collins in his seminal work Good to Great. The typical misconception is that Collins was all about “getting the right people in the right seats on the bus”. That is only part of what he said, and certainly a short-sighted sound bite from consultants with little depth.

The diagram most people (who may or may not have actually read the book) draw is:

Right People → Right Seats → Greatness

A more appropriate diagram is:

Right People → Right Bus → Right Direction → Right Seats → Greatness

What Collins says, in Chapter 3, is: (italics are his)

To be clear, the main point of this chapter is not just about assembling the right team—that’s nothing new. The main point is to first get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) before you figure out where to drive it. The second key point is the degree of sheer rigor needed in the people decisions in order to take the company from good to great.

Jim Collins

Collins consistently drives the point that people are the most important asset to any successful organization. That is not news. What is different about his approach is the emphasis on making sure you have the right people before deciding the all-important direction, size, style, and culture of the bus.

The most important question to ask is why are we on this bus? There is only one answer that will guarantee success. The answer must be because of the other people on this bus with me. In every start-up or turnaround I have completed, this is what determined success. In the 15 years ExecuVision has been helping organizations to transform, this has consistently been the determining factor.

As Collins emphasizes, it is also important to get the wrong people off the bus. I have long lived by the rule that the best thing you can do for a good employee is fire a bad one. No good employee wants to work in an organization that tolerates mediocrity. By eliminating not only the truly toxic, but also the mediocre, we set the tone for that which the organization stands.

An early mentor advocated hiring slowly and firing quickly. I asked him how quickly I should fire someone. His surprising answer was, “The first time it crosses your mind.” I replied that I thought that was a little harsh. He disagreed, saying that by the time I knew someone was the wrong fit, everyone else had known it for a long time. How often have you finally taken the action to get rid of someone, and then heard from the folks around you that “it was about damned time”?

Collins’ emphasis on excellent people partially defines that excellence by their ability to collaborate. Where the bus is going is a group decision. Though the book was published in 2001, its wisdom endures. Actually, it should resonate more with today’s younger generation than anyone else. They have grown up sharing and collaborating. 

Dan Pink Photo

I’m thinking that Collins’ work ties in nicely with Dan Pink’s thoughts in A Whole New Mind. In that book, Dan talks about the rise of the conceptual worker. He says that the motivators for a conceptual worker are three:

 Autonomy – the freedom to work independently, solving problems creatively

 Mastery – a love of learning for the sake of learning, not for one more irrelevant certification

 Purpose – a sense of serving a meaning greater than one’s self

Collins says, “If you have the right people, they are already motivated”. That means you will not waste time managing, and will have time to actually lead. Dan Pink says, “Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word ’management’ into the linguistic ash heap alongside ‘icebox’ and ‘horseless carriage’. The era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.”

Pulling these two thoughts together may give us a definition of “right people”. We want to fill our buses with conceptual workers who are self-motivated, constantly learning, and full of purpose. Once we have the right people there, we need to have a dialogue of significant depth about where we are going and how we intend to get there.

Then, and only then, are we ready to assign the seating.



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