You're a leader, not a bus driver

Businesspeople love Jim Collins. Jim wrote Good to Great to explain how to build a winning company from the ground up. It was a lighthouse to a generation of managers struggling to find their economic footing in the 2000’s. It is now a part of the American management psyche, but some of its maxims, distanced in time from the source, have lost their nuanced fidelity.

300 pages of rigorous analysis and thoughtful discussion explaining what makes a winning company have become fossilized into pithy one liners, entombed in the minds of modern managers. When this happens to any idea, we risk losing our connection to the core truth and leading by platitude, not understanding.

Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler
— Einstein

The thing about sound bites is that they are memorable, and in that brevity lies their seductive power. They offer knowledge in a bite sized form — tiny compartmentalized truth snacks we can deftly draw from hip pocket on demand should the need arise. No manager should ever be without one.

My favorite misapplied wisdom from Good to Great is the maxim to “get the right people on the bus.” This pruned slogan stems from this longer passage:

“Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” — Jim Collins

Pretty reasonable right? Get the right people on the bus and you’ll be on your way. Finally the answer you’ve been looking for — “Get Better People”. See, you knew this management thing was easy all along!

If you take this “getting the right people on the bus” idea too far, you will over-rotate on people and short change the other factors that enable their success. People are a big part of a great company, yes, maybe the most important part, but they aren’t the only part. People work within a system and we often ignore improving that system in favor of easier answers.

“Blame the process, not the people.” — W. Edwards Deming

Understanding and changing an environment is hard. It is much easier to put a few people on a list, move them out, and hire a few shiny new folks. But as leaders, we have to ask if this “people first” approach is going to deliver the desired outcome?

Sure, it’s easy to track the movement of talent on an executive status report — it’s tidy, but is it creating a place where people can thrive? If your culture is divisive, fear based, or bureaucratic, will a few new folks really address the core issue? If teams need your approval to move any project ahead, will the new and improved team members be able to operate more autonomously than the existing ones?

The biggest risk of a talent centric mindset comes with new managers. Newly minted leaders often assume the team they have inherited is weak. It’s a natural point of view. If the team was performing, the new leader wouldn’t have been needed, or so the logic goes. Further, if the team couldn’t get the job done, why would a new leader expect that the current team can get it done in the future. After all, these people were here when it went bad — ergothey are bad and need to be replaced.

The tragedy of this perspective is that viewing your role as a bus driver filling seats misses the opportunity for true leadership. A bus driver lives within very tight constraints. They have to drive the bus they’ve been given, on the roads that exist today — but you’re not a bus driver. You can change the route, the bus, and even the roads. The game is complex, don’t limit yourself to only one move.

In the end, the simplicity of the bus analogy over simplifies. That is the real sin. As leaders, we know that simplicity sells, but we are not salespeople — we are running a business and livelihoods depend on us having more depth to our thinking. It’s our duty to face the tough issues in service to our people and the business.

None of this is saying you won’t have people that are not a fit and need to find success elsewhere. Most of us hate conflict, so check yourself to see if you are dodging the tough conversations with people you need to move out. But be self-aware enough to be sure you’re not firing good people stuck in a bad machine and avoiding the deep work you were hired to do.

As with most complex issues, the answers are not cookie cutter. Don’t take the easy path. Hiring and firing isn’t all we need you to do. You have the unique opportunity to create the environment for people to thrive. That’s the heavy lifting, and yeah, it’s your job.