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Opinion: Maybe we shouldn’t start with the ‘right people’

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Jim Collins, in his bestselling book “Good to Great,” famously states that great organizations start by getting the right people on the bus first and then getting them into the right seats. This concept has become pervasive in business, and we often hear it quoted by clients who are quick to hire people they are excited about without knowing exactly what role they will play.

The problem is that starting with the right people might not be the right approach.

Here’s an example why: An organization we worked with found a great salesperson who was very well known in their industry. Hiring this person seemed like a no-brainer for the CEO. However, the company quickly discovered it wasn’t ready for the sales volume this new person would bring. Furthermore, when the salesperson started to work, he was missing key tools and support from other departments that didn’t even know who he was and why he was hired.

In other words, when the salesperson “boarded the bus,” this high-performance leader quickly discovered that he couldn’t find a seat. After just a few months, the salesperson left the organization – and left behind hard feelings and more than a little chaos.

Think right fit
The first problem with the idea of starting with the right people on the bus is the inherent concept. Old-school management philosophy talks about eagles and turkeys. Some employees are eagles, who are great employees destined for success, and others are turkeys, who will always resist management. The reality is a little more complicated than that.

The vast majority of employees are smart and capable people who want to make a positive impact on their employer and on the rest of their team. We often blame disengaged employees for not engaging management, but the most common issue is management not engaging the employees. If you look at your entire career, all the way back to that job you had in high school, I would bet that you can think of times when you were a great employee and times when you were disengaged or even toxic. As people, we are hardwired to be engaged.

The concept of finding the right people is often twisted into thinking it’s all about the employee. In fact, it’s more about the right fit than it is about the right person.

We worked with a company several years ago that had an employee who had a terrible attitude. She would frequently speak badly about her boss to other employees and even to customers. We engaged this employee to try to help her see that even if her boss is bad – yes, the boss had lots of opportunities to improve – her toxicity made the situation worse. She struggled to shift her focus from her boss to herself and ultimately decided to leave the company.

A few months later, another company we worked with hired this employee. She showed up as a completely different person. She was in a role that was more suited to her skills. Her supervisor mentored her, and her co-workers embraced her. She did take lessons from her last position and remained positive even as conflict or difficult situations arose. She was a rock star employee.

Most people can be the right person if it is the right fit in a healthy organization.

Designing the bus
The other problem with the “right people on the bus first” concept is that it encourages leaders to ignore the bus, when designing the bus is critical. A study reported by the Harvard Business Review showed that a major driver of employee engagement and success is the systems implemented by the employer. The most impactful system identified in the study is called role design.

Role design means having a clear role for everyone in the organization. In other words, role design is the seat in the bus. When a company has a poor role design, the study shows that employee motivation drops dramatically.

If you take a high-potential employee and put them into an unclear role, with undefined expectations, within an organization that is not ready for them to perform, they will become the wrong person.

“Good to Great” is an excellent book with powerful concepts that benefit any leader. However, I think we should be careful about the concept of starting with the right people and then finding a place on the bus for them. The right answer is to think hard about the bus you need, set up the seats and then find the people who are the best fit.  

Don Harkey is the owner and CEO of People Centric Consulting Group LLC. He can be reached at


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