A vision without execution is a hallucination. If you’re the one responsible, the head of the ship, the bus driver, then it’s your job to execute!
I’ve previously been brought into some companies at the direction of the CEO or the board of directors to ‘turn things around’ – This involves looking at what was or wasn’t working, and making tough decisions on priorities, investments, and on which products, services, and people need to stay or go.
There are many management books containing a mixture of advice. I’ve read quite a few of them, and I have noticed that a number of them don’t start with the obvious.
For example, in “5 Traits of Dysfunctional Teams,” Patrick Lencioni presents the five characteristics as being:
An absence of trust
A fear of conflict
A lack of commitment
Avoidance of accountability
Inattention to results
These are structured in a pyramid of cause and effect, with a foundation of distrust eventually hurting business results.
This sounds pretty accurate, but it appears to carry some base assumptions. One is that the company has achieved some level of success to date and is now struggling to move to the next level or is now beginning to move backward, losing market share, competitive edge, etc. Another assumption is that the team members have all the basic skills and functionality necessary to perform their role, and if the team could get out of its own way, then success is within grasp.
But, what happens if the team lacks the abilities and competencies necessary to perform their roles successfully? Wouldn’t this cause an ‘Absence of Trust’, a foundational element -- unattainable not out of a lack of desire, but out of necessity? You can’t trust someone that doesn’t have the skills to plan, execute, and achieve business results, and unless you’ve got a really compelling reason, you can’t risk waiting for them to gain the skills necessary by learning from their failures.
Therefore, the pyramid really needs an additional level, which is “Lack of ability/competency.”
If you have people that lack the core ability to perform the job, then the reality is that trust can’t be established, and the model fails. If ability and competency are missing, you’re going to see an escalation of organizational challenges.
But if they didn’t have the basic ability and competencies, how could they have even been hired or placed in that role? – The answer is that there are many ways that people end up in the wrong role. For example, lack of clear understanding of what is necessary for the role, hiring by selecting by title, never understanding the day-to-day tasks essential to accomplish expectations of the role, hiring friends, or moving someone into a position expecting them to ‘grow into the role.’
A common way the wrong people get hired is a “Title to industry mismatch” – someone who can be successful in one industry or market is assumed to be successful in another. The title oversimplifies the role and confuses. For example, you could hire me as an ‘Engineer’ for your software company, and I would have the skills to perform in that capacity. But hire me as an ‘Engineer’ for your Chemical and Biological company, and you’d be making a mistake. This may sound extreme, but it happens in subtle ways all the time. Can a sales leader who successfully sold services transition to selling products (and vice versa)? Can an Account Executive who brought home the sales trophy every year in pharmaceuticals have success selling Cloud Computing? Can a marketing leader who has successfully put real-estate or financial service organizations on the map be successful in doing the same for your BioTech startup? Being a successful Product Manager of accounting software does not guarantee they will be successful as a Product Manager for AI/ML. I’m not saying these people can’t be successful; I am just explaining how you can end up with a role filled by someone who appears qualified and capable but may not be when applied to your specific organization’s use case.
FIRST WHO, THEN WHAT.
Each business book has its pearls of wisdom. Jim Collins captures the problem well with ‘First Who, Then What”, a concept developed in his book "Good to Great." Jim explains that great leaders don’t start with ‘where’ they’re going, but with ‘who.’ They focus on getting the right people in the right seats on the bus, they get the wrong people off the bus, and they remain disciplined on this regardless of the circumstances.
As a business leader, you can’t possibly predict what's around the corner. Therefore, your best strategy is to have a busload of people who can adapt and execute regardless of what’s coming at them. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.
The key point is not just having the right people on the team, but that the “who” questions come before “what” decisions. Before vision. Before strategy. Before tactics.
The process is:
Get the right people on the bus
Get the right people in the right seats
Get the wrong people off the bus
Put who before what
Get the right people on the bus.
Leaders must be rigorous in the selection process for getting new people on the bus. People who build great organizations focus on having qualified A-players in the key roles (seats on the bus). They select for the right mix of talent, skills, and experience.
Get the right people in the right seats.
Have all of the key seats on the bus filled with the right people. Understand that this doesn't mean that every seat has to have the right people, but the right people need to fill all of the key seats.
Get the wrong people off the bus.
Once you know you need to make a people change, then be rigorous in the decision, but not ruthless about how you go about it. Instead, help people exit with as much dignity and grace as possible so that, later, the majority of people who have left still report positive feelings about your organization.
Put who before what.
When confronted with any problem or opportunity, shift the decision from a “what” question, such as "What should we do?" into a question that addresses the "who," such as "Who is the right person to take responsibility for this and run with it?" -- It's essential to spend a significant portion of time on getting the right people on the bus so that you have this kind of capability where you can assign the problem or opportunity to a person and trust them to execute.
As a leader, you must create an environment where the truth is heard, and brutal facts are confronted – Embrace the Stockdale Paradox – Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.
Who are the right people?
It is not easy to determine the right mix of talent, skills, and experience you need. Defining the need is the most crucial step in deciding who to allow on the bus. Often those preparing the job descriptions haven’t performed the role, and they imagine what the job requirements are, or worse, trust that a job title will encompass whatever the necessary needs will be. Take the time to understand the position and how you will measure their success. What does a day in the life of the role look like? What is the expectation for how they will need to integrate or collaborate with other departments and teams? How will they elevate your organization (don’t hire to delegate)?
Don’t skip this step and invest the necessary (and substantial) time needed to evaluate each candidate. The good news is that if you have a bus full of the right people, then you won’t need to spend a lot of time motivating them.
When in doubt, don’t hire. Keep looking. A company should limit its growth based on its ability to attract and onboard the right people. Your culture should be filled with self-disciplined people that are passionate and willing to go to extreme lengths to fulfill their responsibilities. They’re with you on this journey. ‘We got this!’
The right people will avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy, choosing to embrace a culture of discipline, one that has freedom and responsibility within an established framework.
What about the Bus Driver?
One of the most critical steps for organizational success is deciding who will be the bus driver and the people at the next organizational level. Ensuring that the CEO/President, COO, CxO, and Vice President levels are filled with the right people is critical to company success. If leadership is wrong, then the results can (will) be catastrophic. One of the most serious mistakes a board can make is to underestimate the speed at which a company can decline under the wrong leadership. A faltering CEO or COO cannot be allowed to stay in the job for long.
Viewed another way, a B-player or C-player executive team does more than just hold a company back. They occupy positions that prevent great leaders from stepping in. Reversing the downward trajectory later will be costly and painful, potentially further damaging morale (for example, restructurings like seat changes, new people on the bus, and others needing to get off the bus)
In “The Right Leader,” Nat Stoddard and Claire Wyckoff dive into the characteristics of finding the right executives. They strongly point out that "Leaders cannot lead if the followers are unwilling to follow." So don’t confuse management with leadership.
Getting People off the bus
As a leader, you need to give clear guidance as to what’s expected from your team. These aren’t the obvious measurements, such as revenue goals and quotas, but for performance and behaviors that align with the company culture. It means providing timely feedback on these goals along with opportunities to improve. For example, if you need to get someone “off the bus,” you’ll have already had conversations regarding how the person was underperforming against expectations, not just in productivity but in cooperation and attitude. Once you know you need to make a people change, check to ensure that they’re just not in the wrong seat, and then act. The main thing is that any action you need to take shouldn’t be a surprise for the employee. If non-performance and misalignment with the culture are an issue, and the employee is surprised to find themselves “off the bus,” you’re not doing a good job in this area.