Guest Post by Roy Goble
Jim Collins writes great business books that explore new ideas, make us think, and ultimately strengthen our management skills.
But like most management gurus, his ideas can be overly simplified. To be fair, perhaps it’s his readers who are overly simple and we miss some of the nuances of his ideas.
Today I want to explore the Collins maxim that we need to “get the right people on the bus.”
The idea is summarized this way: if you want an organization to succeed, then you have to hire the right people for the job. Put them in the right position to maximize their strengths and success is infinitely easier. In other words, get the right people on the bus.
Sounds obvious, right? Well, maybe.
After decades of managing people in both for-profit and non-profit organizations, I think the simplicity of the idea is misleading. A few reasons why below.
First, getting the “right” people on the bus is never simple. Some are beyond our networks and unreachable. Others command more money than we can afford. Like traveling with a tour group, you will never get everybody you want on the bus at the same time.
Second, we misunderstand “the right people” to mean “the best people.” But you will never have an all star team. Somebody else will always be brighter, more talented, or harder working.
Finally, and this is the most important point to me, sometimes our real job is to work with the wrong people on the bus. Collins defines success as organizational profit, which is appropriate for his books. But is that really the main goal we want to pursue?
I tend to see the people I work with as works in progress (and I’m sure they look at me the same way). We find ourselves working with people who are hurting, confused, and weak. Frankly, they can be the misfits of life. A good boss or colleague does not kick them off the bus, but will instead help them grow stronger.
Doing so takes time and energy, which (in the efficiency model of business) is a drain of resources. From a bottom line perspective such effort for the weaker team members is wasteful. Ultimately, the thinking goes, it will harm the financial achievements of the organization.
But are the financial achievements of the organization the standard we really want to embrace as success? Should we kick the misfits off the bus in an effort to attain greatness for an organization? Do we want to live by the adage that to succeed we must have “A” people around us or the whole team is compromised?
A lot of companies follow that guideline. Ruthlessly. And you can see the incredible financial results in companies like Google and Apple, to name just two.
But that’s not for me. I’d rather look at the people on my team, understand their weaknesses, and invest in their lives. I’d rather spend time serving my colleagues than serving my organization. Ten years from now I should care less about whether the organizations around me are thriving and more about whether the people around me are.
Obviously I don’t want to be naive here. A business needs to be profitable. A non-profit needs to have an impact. And I’m not pure in heart; I can and have been ruthless (which I often regret). There is a balance we must strike, and sometimes we do need to kick people off the bus.
But I don’t think we should be so cavalier about it. I doubt if Collins does either. In our race to “greatness” we tend to simplify his thoughts into a heartless matrix of efficiencies that discounts the human spirit.
Having the right people on the bus is great advice. But sometimes the right people on the bus are those who need us more than we need them. Eventually you will have to work with the “wrong” people on the bus. In my way of looking at things, being good to them is the real path to achieving greatness.