When You Are Stuck With the People You Have On the Bus

Jim Collins popularized the concept of getting the right people on the bus in the classic book, From Good to Great. And it’s a great concept. There are at least two issues I see for business owners, CEOs and leaders when they try to operationalize the concept. First, too often the “right” person gets translated into the “perfect” person. More often than not the “perfect” person does not exist for the job we are trying to fill. Second, all the focus on getting the “right” people can leave little time and attention for growing and developing the people that are already on the bus.

In addition, the cost of replacing staff can be staggering, as much as 1.5 times or more the salary of the person being replaced. In addition, when unemployment is low, it can be difficult to find even the right staff let alone the perfect staff. I’m not advocating keeping chronically underperforming staff with poor attitudes that are toxic to a team, once it is clear they are unwilling to change. But how do you know what a person’s potential to improve is if you have not set the expectations and given them the tools and opportunity to do so?

All too often, the businesses I encounter spend a lot of time complaining about the performance of their staff or the inability to hire good staff while spending very little time coaching and developing their people. Giving a less than stellar annual performance evaluation and telling the person they must improve does not constitute coaching.

Most business owners and leaders are not truly “stuck with the people they have on the bus”. However, that’s not so true for Navy captains or high school football coaches – especially coaches in rural America. I believe the true test of a leader is their ability to take the people they are dealt and develop them into a top performing team. Here are three well documented examples of leaders who did just that.

Captain L. David Marquet took the submarine, the USS Santa Fe from the worst performing submarine in the Pacific fleet to first during his command. One of the points he makes in his book, Turn The Ship Around, is that he did it with the staff that were on board when he arrived.

Captain D. Michael Abrashoff took the USS Benfold from an underperforming crew and ship to one of the top performing war ships in the Persian Gulf and in his book, It’s Your Ship, he also makes the point that he did it without firing anyone.

Finally, there is the story of the high school football coach in the tiny rural community of Smith Center, Kansas, a community with a population of less than 2,000 people. Coach Roger Barta and his teams won a record setting 79 consecutive games. And they maintained this winning streak while often playing teams from much larger schools. Coach Barta did not have a huge pool of talent to choose from and he certainly wasn’t able to recruit the best from around the country or even around the state. The story of these amazing teams and their coach is documented in the book, Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redman by Joe Drape.

All three of these books are worth the read!

What did these three remarkable leaders do to achieve such great results with the people they had on the bus?

  • They clearly defined a common purpose for people to rally around.
  • They identified and built on the strength of each of the individual team members.
  • They gave people the opportunity to take on ever increasing levels of responsibility – in some cases huge leaps in responsibility.
  • They focused on increasing the competencies of every single team member.
  • They cross-trained to build bench strength.
  • When things went wrong they questioned their own performance before questioning the performance of their team.
  • They focused on putting forth the best possible effort and improving a little every day.

A question for you to ponder: Do the best leaders surround themselves with great people or do they help the people around them become great?

Want more tips and resources to help you dissolve barriers to business success by unlocking the potential of your people and harnessing the power of teamwork?

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POSTED ON: Strategy and Vision