The Trouble with Jim Collins' Bus

In his bestselling book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins says the key to building a great company is to “get the right people on the bus”— a statement that has become a mantra for many managers. Don’t get me wrong — surely finding quality people is as important as anything in determining the ultimate potential of a business.  But the suggestion is self-evident— like saying companies should treat their customers right—or that they should manage their costs. 

It’s also a lot easier to blame a company’s problems on having the “wrong people on the bus” than it is to identify the systemic problems that may cause a company to fail to get the most out of the people it already has.  In my experience, strong people tend to naturally gravitate to strong organizations—so maybe the best way for a leader to “get the right people on the bus” is to create a “bus” worth riding on in the first place.

I am not even sure there is such thing as a “right person” for this hypothetical bus.  In my two decades of running organizations I had the privilege of hiring some terrific people— but I don’t know that any would qualify as “right”.  As good as they were (and a few were truly outstanding) everyone I have ever hired has had some area of their performance begging for improvement—or they needed to develop in some way in order to help take the business to the next level.  I have always remembered the words of one of my early mentors: “Even the best new hire has some hair on ‘em—your job is to make sure they see the need to always get even better, and to show them the path to improvement.” 

And as markets, customers, and strategies change these days, the “right” person for a company today might be the wrong person tomorrow.  So what’s a company to do—re staff every time the rules of the game change? While some venture capitalist’s take this approach to staffing their companies, anyone who has ever operated a business knows how short sighted this approach is. 

When hiring—work hard to get the very best people you can.  But realize that getting them on the bus is only the first step in the long road of maximizing the impact of your people.  What comes next is what really makes the difference. 

Every time you hire someone, do you:

(1)  Quickly assess their strengths and weaknesses as they relate to your current business and to changes you anticipate in your business in the next 2-3 years?

(2)  Communicate and confirm your assumptions about that hire’s development opportunities and work with the hire to identify resources that will help him/her develop in those areas?

(3)  Give regular, specific, and actionable feedback to each new hire on how he/she is doing with respect to the development objectives?

If you are like most executives, you don’t have a systematic way of doing any of the items above—or you delegate them to the human resources department—which probably lacks both the information and the authority to make the process meaningful.  Leaving the development of a company’s most important assets (its people) to chance, or to the human resources department—is like a basketball coach believing he can, after recruiting his players, simply watch the games from the stands.

Finally, even if you are successful at getting a lot of great people on the bus, there inevitably will be times when they will pull each other’s hair or poke each other in the eye.  Often it is a team’s ability to work as a team, more than the talents and experience of its individual members, determines the difference between winning and losing.

This fact was clearly demonstrated years ago in the 2004 National Basketball Association (NBA) championship. In terms of technical ability, experience, and raw talent, the Lakers had the biggest line-up of stars in the league.  And they were beat by a bunch of character actors from Detroit.  Watching the Lakers during that year, one got the impression that the players had taken over the team—and that Phil Jackson was put in to position of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, when he said during the French revolution:  “There go the people.  I must follow them, for I am their leader.” Reflecting on that season I heard Jackson admit, in a revealing radio interview on NPR, that he is to blame for not taking far more aggressive steps with the team when the early fissures appeared in the tumultuous relationship between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

Get the right people on the bus?  Sure.  But even with the best hiring strategies—no company is going to bat 1000.  The real game is won and lost after the people get on the bus.  Executives (like coaches) should be given authority and respect in organizations on the basis of their ability to build a team—and recruiting is only the starting point.