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Who’s On Your Bus?

This might be the most important question you ask yourself this year.

There are three essential components of a successful business: strategy, people, and process. Someone recently asked me which one was most important. My mind immediately went to Jim Collins. Here’s how he put it in Good to Great:

“The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.’”

What’s the counterpoint to this argument? Sun Tzu has some thoughts on this:

“The expert in battle seeks his victory from strategic advantage and does not demand it from his men.”

Here’s how you can figure out which camp you are in:

Are you a leader who succeeds through others, or do others succeed through you?

I know both types of leaders. Each can be successful. But the leader who succeeds through others has much more potential. Because it’s not all on your shoulders to figure out the strategy and processes, your ability to scale multiplies. You can build an organization that outlasts you.

Most important to this article, I can only help one of these types of leaders. If you are still with me, then let’s get back to the bus. I want to break down his last sentence:

The Right People On the Bus,

The Right People in the Right Seats,

The Wrong People Off the Bus.

#1 – The Right People On The Bus

I hired our first employee, Garrett, about nine months after I started CareerPlug. His job title was Intern even though he graduated from the University of Texas a few years earlier. Ten years later, Garrett is now our Director of Operations.

I hired David a couple of years after Garrett. He was another UT graduate who took a job as an intern, even though I needed him to work a full-time schedule (or more). David is now our Director of Product.

We got the right first couple of people on the bus. We would not be where we are today without those two.

Character and Drive over Experience

We kind of joke about the Intern job titles now, but they played an important role when we got started. I was looking for people without egos who were willing to work hard. That job title weeded out a lot of people. I chose to hire people with the right character and drive versus the right experience. Too often, companies will overlook character to hire someone with the right experience. This is almost always a mistake.

#2 – The Right People, In The Right Seats 

A business executes its strategy by getting its people to perform certain processes. In the early days, employees wear many hats and perform a variety of processes. As a company grows, its workforce shifts from generalists who do it all to specialists who do only a few things. A function or process that used to be someone’s side job now requires a full-time position. You have to determine the right roles for the org chart and the right people to fill those roles.  

Identify Your Missing Roles and People

An organizational chart is an essential tool for leaders to look at their bus and its seating chart. But an org chart is not enough. You need to think more granular and look at all the processes/functions required to run the business. We use a Functional Accountability Chart [LINK] to organize this and identify gaps. From here, you can decide whether these gaps need a new person or a new role for an existing one.

Look for Future Leaders

If you want to see your growth potential, look at your next line of leaders. Your company will need more leadership roles as you grow. This could mean managers for new locations or a new level of leaders within a larger department. Either way, you cannot afford to hire most of your leaders from the outside. Consider creating a future org chart for your company to see what your needs will be three years from now. Then look at how many people you have on the bus currently who can fill those leadership roles. We identified this as a potential growth challenge a couple of years ago, and we have taken steps to address it. First, we created the Leadership Development Program to identify and train future leaders. Next, we invited future leaders to join what we call Tiger Teams to work on key growth projects. Finally, we added ‘leadership potential’ to the criteria in our hiring process.

#3 – The Wrong People Off The Bus 

Carrying the burden of an underperformer may hurt more than you think. In some cases, a team can produce more without that person even if they are not replaced. How is that possible? Think about a sales team. This underperformer may be squandering solid leads that another rep would close. The leader of the team is having to spend a disproportionate amount of time on this person. This time gets taken away from more productive reps and their deals. Worst of all, morale decreases and the standard for performance falls.

Set Them Up for Success

Make sure that each person on your team knows their role and responsibilities. Remember that a job description is more than a job advertisement. Sit down with new hires on their first day to review the job description and check for understanding. Create a success plan for their first 90 days and give them a way to keep track of their progress. This is true onboarding, and it’s the best investment you can make in someone.

Make sure that employees always know how they are performing.  Each person should have a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) that will help them keep score. You should also schedule regular performance reviews so that employees can receive feedback. We do formal reviews twice a year and less formal reviews once a month. Reviews are important, but you should not wait to give feedback. It is most valuable when you provide it in the moment. I love the feedback model that Kim Scott gives in Radical Candor. She says that you need to Care Personally and Challenge Directly.

If someone is underperforming, you owe them the opportunity to get on track. We use a Performance Improvement Plan to document the changes an employee needs to make. No surprises.

Don’t Compromise on Character

I look for three things in a candidate: Ability, Motivation, and Culture Fit. You can train someone on ability, and work with them if they are not performing. But you cannot compromise on motivation or culture fit. If someone is not willing to put in the time and work hard for you, don’t give them another minute of your time. If someone is not aligned with your company core values, you need to get them off the bus. Too many leaders overlook character issues if a person is a high performer. This is a huge mistake. If you don’t get this person off the bus, then you may  lose your best performers – the ones that embody your core values.

Right Person, Wrong Seat?

Sometimes you may have the right person on the bus, but they are in the wrong seat. David (our Director of Product) had almost every job possible with us when we first started. At one point, he was managing our small team of support reps. I knew that this was not his strength or passion, and it was tough on him. When we talked about where he could grow in the company, he said that he wanted to become a developer for our product. He took it upon himself to get admitted to an intensive coding school. I supported him while he took four months away from work, and he returned with a skill set that we needed to grow. Now he is the leader of that team. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Build A Process And Make It Repeatable

Like anything else in your business, you need to build a process to get and keep the right people on the bus. Remember, it only takes one wrong person to ruin a team’s working dynamic.

Nail Down Your Hiring Process

The best way to keep the wrong people off the bus is to not let them on in the first place. Early in the life of a business, this is hard because you don’t know any better. You usually have to make some hiring mistakes to learn this lesson. As your company grows, the risk becomes that you are not able to be involved in every hiring decision. This is where process becomes critical. The steps you use are not as important as the consistency in which you use them. An applicant tracking system is an effective way to ensure that this happens.

We use our own CareerPlug system to prequalify candidates based on their application. Then we use our assessments and interview guides to see if they meet our hiring criteria. Then we have two verification steps: reference and background checks. This helps us confirm what we have heard and ensure we did not miss anything. Finally we conduct a Candidate Defense. Managers present to our leadership team and make a case for hiring someone. It’s an important final step; a culmination of all the previous steps. Even if you are the business owner who is making the hire, I encourage you to use some form of a candidate defense. It could be with your existing team or even another business owner. The important thing is that you take a step back and reflect before making a hiring decision.

Develop Your Talent

The bus you are driving now is not the same one that you will need to be driving in five years. You will need to equip your team with new tools, processes and skills. Plus you will need to change yourself. You cannot afford to wait on this, so it is critical to build processes to evaluate and develop your team. This can means different things for companies, but at the least you should make sure that:

  • Everyone knows their role
  • Everyone knows how they are performing in it
  • Everyone knows where they are going (and what it will take to get there)

Embrace Change (and Enjoy the Ride!)

The way we hire today is nothing like how I hired Garrett and David – which is a good thing! It’s understandable to yearn for a time when things were easier, but I bet they were not as easy as you remember. Five years from now, you will be wishing things were as easy as they are today. Your best bet is to embrace change and put your energy into what you need right now.

And don’t forget to enjoy the ride. It has been close to 11 years since I started CareerPlug. Back then, my “bus” was a two-bedroom apartment with barely enough room for my first employee. Now we are about to move to our third office with enough room for at least our next few years of growth. My role is not the same, and neither am I.

We have put a lot of work into our bus, and there were tough times when the bus was hardly even running! But the work has paid off, and I have never been more excited about the team we have on the bus and where we will go. If you don’t feel this way about your bus yet, then accept that reality and get to work on changing it today.

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