In his book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins explains how important it is to have the right people on the bus. I’ve always thought this is a great metaphor for any group – obviously one where members are selected – trying to accomplish an objective: a symphony, a relay team and, of course, a business team. Over the years I have thought a lot about the people on the bus.
Periodically in my companies people hop off the bus and people get on. Sometimes we’re very sad to see people leave, sometimes we’re relieved. And occasionally we look at each other and ask “How did that guy get on here in the first place?” I’m always surprised at how difficult it is to determine the level of dysfunction in an active element. It’s only once certain people leave that it becomes clear they were not helping the business and, in fact, that they were harming it.
It is not my intent to pick on anyone who is no longer with us, regardless of the reason. I wish no one any ill-will (well, okay, I confess that I enjoy the idea of karma). That being said…
Recently we went through a substantial change in one of my companies and removed two entire departments for various conduct-related offenses. Some of these people had been with our company for many years. One of the big concerns we had, prior to taking action, was the effect it would have on our operation. The contribution of these individuals with regard to our overall effectiveness seemed substantial.
Yes, we definitely struggled for awhile- we were down half a dozen members of our team. However, even with our reduced workforce people stepped up and we were able to accomplish the same amount of work as before. We changed some of our operating methods, restructured the departments and hired a smaller but more focused team to replace those we had let go. In the end things ran much better than before. And as we retrospectively analyse the previous team and department operations I’ve come to recognize several employee attitudes that diminish effectiveness and undermine company efficiency.
1. Laziness: Employees may not realize how easy it is to spot laziness. It sticks out like a sore thumb. Laziness, as I see it, is decision to withhold your best effort. Sometimes it’s easier to overlook laziness if the offender is charismatic, excellent at some job aspects or isn’t always lazy. But seriously- if you think you’re getting away with something guess again. Laziness, as I’m defining it here, diminishes effectiveness and, in the worst case, is almost the same as theft. If you’re lazy you don’t belong on the bus.
2. Entitlement: We have had our fair share of people come through companies who nurture a sort of “you owe me” attitude. They perceive an injustice in the system because they feel that somehow they have less. One example of this “injustice” might be a company owner’s car collection. If you consider that someone created the business, took that risk and associated stress, invested their money, time, emotional, energy, worked one hundred hour plus weeks and sacrificed for years and years… if you consider everything then maybe it’s not a big deal that person drives an expensive car. But if you have an attitude of entitlement then you perceive a car as a manifestation of greed. You feel that wealth is being withheld from you instead of realizing that the wealth is, in fact, being shared with you. An entitlement attitude – in any setting – always creates a negative experience. If you feel entitled to be on the bus then you don’t deserve to be there (even if you’re the owner).
3. I Know Better: Time and time again we’ve seen a visceral reaction when we are unable (or sometimes unwilling) to implement ideas proposed by employees who “know better.” One employee really sticks out in my mind. After this individual left we discovered a letter he had written (on his work computer) outlining everything wrong with the company. He was certain that, after only working for us for a few months, he understood our company better than we did. He incorrectly identified instances of favoritism, proposed promoting many employees who are now no longer with us (for various reasons listed here), misunderstood business policies, practices and even predicted the demise of our company. This employee gave us zero credit for the things that we had accomplished and had no faith in the company leadership. I believe that part of the “I Know Better” attitude is rooted in unwarranted mistrust. If you suspect the motivation for action is always negative it’s akin to wearing blinders. Ultimately if you really know better then you’ll know to hop off the bus.
4. “Awesomeitis”: Occasionally we’ll interact with someone who thinks they’re amazing and that without them the company would dry up and blow away. Typically this attitude is present in conjunction with many of the others noted here. Awesomeitis is used to conceal laziness. It is used to justify entitlement. It fuels the “I know better” attitude. We have had people threaten to quit with the belief that our company will be crippled. Ex-employees tell mutual friends that they were essentially “running everything.” Spouses wonder how “idiots” like us stay in business without their significant other at the “helm.” The truth of the matter is this: In every case where someone infected with awesomeitis has left, the company has been better off. There is simply no room on the bus for people with an inflated sense of their importance.
5. Pleasers: Sometimes an employee who wants to make you happy (at least to your face) can cause serious business issues. When an employee tells you what you want to hear in lieu of what you need to hear that mean that facts are being skewed or omitted. “Everything is good!” The result is that you think things are under control when they aren’t. An unhappy employee gets unhappier, inadequate systems become overwhelmed and, in the worst case, you make important decisions based off of misinformation. When you run a business it’s critical that you know the factual state of things and pleasers aren’t able to present them. Additionally, pleasers tend to please everyone. If the owner hates something then the pleasers hate it. If a coworker hates the owner then the pleasers hate the owner too. Such duplicitous actions only cause rifts, bad feelings and help to cultivate the aforementioned mistrust. Do you really want to please everyone? Then escort yourself off the bus.
Okay, okay- so having the right people on the bus is important – more than important. Sure, sometimes it seems like having a couple of the wrong people on the bus isn’t a big deal and it feels good to have the bus full. But experience has taught me over and over that the wrong people get you to the wrong place. The difficulty – for me anyway – often lies in identifying the offenders while they are still seated. I imagine it’s something I will perpetually have to work on. In the meantime we have overhauled our hiring practices and we systematically screen for attitude elements that can destroy the culture and effectiveness of our company. The bottom line: A company is only as good as the team behind it. Make your team great. Get the right people on board, put them in the right spot (that’s important too) and you will get where you want to go even if you don’t know the final destination.
The ideas shared here are not comprehensive or definitive by any means. I’m open to the idea that I’m being unfair. I’ve always told people that if they don’t enjoy working for me that they can leave- no hard feelings. They can go start their own company and run it however they’d like. I wish them all the success in the world because their success does not diminish mine (and vice versa). But show me a successful company with employees heavily infected by any or all of the five attitudes I’ve listed here. Can’t find one? Didn’t think so.