The Right People vs. Getting the People Right

Leaders of companies large and small often complain to me that their teams are just not up to the task of dealing with difficult times. But instead of complaining, what management really needs to do right now is put less emphasis on getting the "right people" and more on getting the "people right."

True, there's nothing like tough economic times to reveal weak players in an organization. But when weak players are identified, they should be put through an aggressive development program or moved out of the company. The problem is, many leaders like to complain about the poor quality of their teams, but they don't actually do anything substantive about it.

I think way too much has been made of this "right people" idea, and today some leaders use it as an excuse for their companies' poor performance. After all, as I like to ask the leader who blames his company's travails on the lack of right people, how did those wrong people get there in the first place? The typical reluctant response? "Well, I hired them."

Let's get real. Business leaders need to be careful not to take out their frustrations on their troops—who need their leadership now more than ever. Most college athletic coaches spend only about 10% to 20% of their time recruiting; the rest of the time they spend coaching the talent they have. That seems like about the right split for a business leader, too. Can you imagine a coach explaining he had a losing season again because he just didn't get the right people? Not sure that would be the best contract renewal strategy.

Emphasis on Training

Consider the military. We take 18-year-old kids, give them a couple of years of training, and put them in charge of equipment worth tens of millions of dollars designed to do hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage and end human life. Today's soldiers work in the most high-pressure and technologically complex environments imaginable, and yet for the most part, the raw human material coming into the military is pretty basic stuff. Somehow the military finds a way to take young people without a lot of related skills and turn them into the greatest fighting force in history. They do this by spending 10% of the time worrying about getting the right people and 90% of the time about getting the people right.

Try this exercise. Take a piece of paper and divide it into three columns. In the first column, write down the names of your direct reports. In the second column, list the positive qualities each person brings to the organization—the things that make him or her valuable. In the third column, list the things that each person would have to develop or master in order to be in his or her position or a higher one when your organization has twice the annual revenues it has today. Then spend some time thinking about how you can identify resources that would help each person develop those skills, insights, or perspectives. Sit down with these employees one at a time and get their thoughts on what they believe they need to keep momentum in their careers—and put together a development plan to get them there. Treat it just like any other business project: identify measures, deliverables, and the whole nine yards.

And one very important point: If there is a person on your list you can't imagine working with to improve, then you need to make him available to the industry. That may sound cold, but you need to do it for his sake as much as for yourself. Everyone in an organization deserves to work for someone who is excited about his potential, and great leaders simply do not allow themselves to grow apathetic about their charges. A person is either a member of the team and is deserving of whatever investment necessary to get to the next level or should be off the team. Better to release the person into the job market where he has at least the chance of connecting with a leader who can still be excited about his potential.

Don't get me wrong. With every hiring decision, leaders should try to choose the very best person they can. But they should do what Lee Hein at Fastenal (FAST) says: Hire attitude; train aptitude. Maybe that's why Zappos is willing to pay $2,000 to new hires if they quit in the first week of training. If someone doesn't see early on how great it is to work there, Zappos doesn't want them