The late Peter Drucker felt that the best and brightest people were ultimately volunteers for their organizations.
He’s not the only one who feels that way. In his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t, Jim Collins discusses the influence talented people have on making good companies become great. His research team analyzed 1,435 Fortune 500 companies and came up with 11 that made sustained good-to-great transformations. These companies also produced cumulative stock returns 6.9 times the stock market average over a 15-year period. According to Collins, most organizations settle for being quite good since it’s easier.
The core of Collins’ research resides in his “first who, then what” principle. It states that most leaders focus on what direction the bus or organization should go (vision) when in fact they should focus on who gets on the bus (management). He cites the example of Walter Bruckart, a vice-president of Circuit City during the good-to-great years. When asked to name the top five factors that led to the transition from mediocrity to excellence, Bruckart replies, “One would be people. Two would be people. Three would be people. Four would be people. And five would be people. A huge part of our transition can be attributed to our discipline in picking the right people.” Picking the right people and getting them into the right seats also means getting the wrong people off the bus.
Collins believes that most leaders are incorrect to first plan what direction the bus goes. What happens if the bus has to change direction after the first 10 miles? Those people who are fixed on the original destination may get off. The idea is that you painstakingly take the time to get the right people on the bus. They do not need to be tightly managed and often have an inner drive to be part of something great. Great CEOs surround themselves with outstanding people to account for their own shortcomings.
When a people change is needed, great organizations act quickly. Initially, they try moving the person to another seat before getting him or her off the bus. In contrast, ordinary companies use layoffs five times more frequently than good-to-great companies.
Finally, while great companies sell off problem divisions, they never sell off their best people. Instead, they put their best people on their biggest opportunities to keep them engaged and challenged. Not surprisingly, employees who stay on the bus for the long haul describe a deep sense of respect and admiration for the wonderful friendships they have built over the course of a great life at a great organization.
Flavian DeLima is a career and business coach and consultant.