You’re a leader, not a bus driver

Building great teams isn’t only about hiring the right people.

Businesspeople love Jim Collins.  Jim wrote Good to Great to explain how to build a winning company from the ground up. It was a lighthouse to a generation of managers struggling to find their economic footing in the 2000’s.  It is now a part of the American management psyche, but some of its maxims, distanced in time from the source, have lost their nuanced fidelity.

300 pages of rigorous analysis and thoughtful discussion explaining what makes a winning company have become crystallized into simple platitudes in the minds of modern managers. When this happens to any idea, we can lose our connection to the core truth and risk leading by platitude, not understanding.

“Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler” – Einstein

The thing about pithy one liners is that they are memorable and in that brevity lies their seductive power. They offer knowledge in a bite sized form – tiny compartmentalized bits of truth we can deftly draw from hip pocket on demand should the need arise. No manager should ever be without one.

My favorite misapplied wisdom from Good to Great is the maxim to “get the right people on the bus.” This pruned slogan stems from this longer passage:

“Leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” – Jim Collins

Pretty reasonable right?  Get the right people on the bus and you’ll be on your way. Finally the answer I’ve been looking for – “Get Better People”.  See, you knew this management thing was easy all along!

If you take this “getting the right people on the bus” idea too far, you will over-rotate on people and miss the other factors that enable their success. People are a big part of a great company, yes, maybe the most important part, but they aren’t the only part.  People work within a system and we often ignore that system in favor of easier answers. 

“Blame the process, not the people.” – W. Edwards Deming

Understanding and changing the system is hard. It is much easier to put a few people on a list, move them out, and hire a few shiny new folks, but as leaders, we have to ask if this “people first” approach is going to deliver the desired outcome?

Sure, it’s easy to track the movement of talent on an executive status report – it’s tidy, but is it creating a place where people can thrive?  If your culture is divisive, fear based, or bureaucratic, will a few new folks really address the core issue? If teams need your approval to move any project ahead, will the new and improved team members be able to operate more autonomously than the existing ones?

The biggest risk of a talent driven mindset comes with new managers. Newly minted leaders often assume the team they have inherited is weak.  It’s a natural point of view. If the team was performing, the new leader wouldn’t have been needed, or so the logic goes. Further, if the team couldn’t get the job done, why would a new leader expect the current team can get it done in the future. These people were here when it went bad – ergo they are bad and need to be replaced.

The tragedy of this perspective is that viewing your role as a bus driver filling seats misses the opportunity for true leadership. A bus driver lives within very tight constraints.  They have to drive the bus they’ve been given on the roads that exist today – but you’re not a bus driver.  You can change the route, the bus, and even the roads. The game is complex, don’t limit yourself to only one move.

In the end, the simplicity of the bus analogy over simplifies. That is the real sin. As leaders, we know that simplicity sells, but we are not salespeople – we are running a business and livelihoods and lives depend on us having more depth to our thinking. It’s our duty to think about the real issues in service to our people and the business.

None of this is saying you won’t have people that are not a fit and need to find success elsewhere. Most of us hate conflict, so check yourself to see if by standing by your team you are just dodging the tough conversation with people you need to move out. But be self-aware enough to be sure you’re not firing good people stuck in a bad machine and avoiding the deep work you were hired to do.

As with most complex issues, the answers are not cookie cutter, but don’t take the easy path. Hiring and firing isn’t all we hired you to do. You have the unique opportunity to create the environment for people to thrive. That’s the heavy lifting, and yeah, it’s your job.

Paul is General Manager of Design, leading our product design teams across CA. During his…


  • Frances Handrick

    You Are a Leader, not a bus driver!!! I
    Love that statement, as a bus operator
    over 20yrs, I speak that, and also tell my Co-Workers that for the years, I have Driven city buses!!
    I know, leadership, people say, you don’t like it, leave.
    I don’t call it a job, anymore, it is a calling.
    I have seem so much sickness and death, from the stress of driving buses, and trains, all over the world.
    I often wonder, how can the system take some of that stress off the drivers!!! When are the death and and sick drivers stop. Drivers dies in nursing home.
    It was good money, but at the end was it worth it?
    We are Leaders and Great Leaders!
    I would love for the public, to get involved, and come and see and experience what our work Day is like!!
    Come and visit!!! Spend a work day with a driver!!! You would be amazes!!!
    Come and visit, Dallas, Texas, We Welcome You!!!

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