Bus Driver: Hands Off The Talent

Bus Driver: Hands Off The Talent

The seminal work, “Good to Great” by Jim Collins was published ten years ago and quickly became a major force in leadership development and the catch phrase of the decade.  It contained a number of insightful, refreshing and enduring ideas that inspired business leaders and talent development pros everywhere.  For awhile, the buzz was all about such things as Level 5 leadership, hedgehogs, and bus drivers.

So I am happy when a newly appointed leader aims to take the organization from good to great, applying many of Collin’s principles.  But I counsel the leader not to put on the bus driver uniform too soon.




Collins used a public transportation metaphor to describe the important of a leader selecting superior talent with his ‘first who, then what’ principle.  He asked readers to imagine organization life as driving a bus.  The task of bus driver leadership is to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and then the right people in the right seats.  In today’s talent management speak, that would be selection, outplacement and assignment management.  The Good-to-Great proposal was to pay attention to the talent before just about anything else.  And that’s where new leaders can get in trouble.

When a new leader arrives on the scene, there are a number of early challenges to navigate.  I’ve seen leaders become bus drivers too soon and mindlessly start kicking current team members out and adding back their old teammates to the short and long term damage of the organization.  I vividly recall in my early career attending a get-to-know-the-new-manager meeting where he shocked the room by boldly stating that many of the current staff would not make it through the year.  It was demoralizing to all – not just those who probably needed find a new bus to ride, but to some of the top performers, highest potential employees and deep-expert veterans who would all be terrific assets to the new leader.  Of course, there are teams in need of upgrading or at least removing a negative, blocking employee.  But the premature act of moving people out or around without the right context will have the wheels falling off the bus.




There are two critical items on a new leader’s start up agenda.  Assessing the talent is an important one but needs to be considered in concert with the other early challenges.    In observing new managers who get off to an impressive start and build long term momentum, I find that they first have a good handle on establishing task clarity or getting clear on where the bus needs to go.  This means assessing and developing a longer term view of where they need to take the organization – usually a 2-3 year perspective.  Of course, they also have a focus on the practical near term actions of the first twelve months.  In some situations, circumstances such as a day one crisis or a difficult turn-around dictate a singular spotlight on the present where timely actions are necessary to provide ‘breathing room’ before more strategic thinking can take place.  Successful leaders usually make the best use of current team talent.  In other words, the bus driver needs to start heading out in the right direction with the current riders, even if the map route is for a few miles. 

Second start up agenda item is appraising the organization’s capacity to deliver the tasks identified from the long term and short term framework.  This is where most leaders take on the bus driver role, thinking about what seats are needed on the bus (organization structure), who needs to occupy the critical seats (position skills and experiences needed AND motivation to go along for the ride) matched against the current and available bus riders.  Good-to-Great thinking makes sense here, but should include a broader view of considering what people systems and processes best align with strategy.  For example, thinking about the measurement and reward system contributing to the new direction or working against it; the training and development support currently in place versus the knowledge and abilities necessary to drive results; the formal and informal linkages between people and departments for need collaboration.  Changes in the people practices can have more of an impact that just changing out the people. 

Compelling fresh approaches to leading organizations and talent development come around from time-to-time, and “Good to Great” was certainly an exciting contribution to our field.  But any new lens to view organization life can be over-simplified and misused.   Talent shuffling is an important way a new leader can drive the organization to great, but good driving needs to including following the right map route and making sure the organization practice parts – in addition to the people – are in good working order and ready for the journey ahead.


© Kevin D. Wilde, September, 2011