Get right people on the bus, in the right seats

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Every leader worth their salt will tell you that they believe that an organisation’s success depends on the calibre of people that it has on board.

Systems Think with Sam Hlabati

The mantra that “people are the most important asset” is sung everyday by anyone who wishes to display their understanding of what makes great organisations.

The question that has to be answered is how to get the right people on board. Thought leaders have always talked of having good staff attraction and retention tools in place. All efforts to have the right people on board are quite commendable. We will have to consider the issue of getting the right talent into the organisation, in the context of when to do it in relation to the setting of the vision.

American writer Ken Kesey (September 17 1935–November 10 2001), most famous for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) as having said: “There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.”

The underlined words are often said by organisational leaders when they are pushing their teams to move in a particular strategic direction. The concern about whether the team is on the bus or not has never been more pressing than the present business day. The biggest differentiator between the success and failure of organisation has always been about the people in the organisation, and more precisely the calibre of the “people on the bus”.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, noted that the business executives who successfully lit the torch of organisational transformation to greatness did things in a rather unusual way.

Often when executives get into an organisation, they try to figure out the direction, setting the vision and then “indoctrinating” it into the people in the organisation. Jim’s research findings were that those that made it to success first checked for who was on the bus before they set out to map the visions and direction. Then decisions were made, and implemented, about who to keep on the bus and who to take off the bus.

The underlying principle for this action was that by getting the right people on the bus, it would be easier to talk with them about the desire vision and direction. Furthermore, it is important to get the “right people on the bus” into the “right seats”.

Let us bring this discussion alive through an everyday life illustration. Imagine getting onto a bus for a trip to a place one would desire to get to. The first thing one would do is to verify the destination before boarding. Once on board, and a destination at variance with the desired one is announced, one would likely disembark because that is not the destination they signed for.

The same would apply to organisations. Key role holders who come on board in the instance of the vision of an organisation being set before their arrival would base their “joining decision” on their own alignment with the existing vision.

Jim say that those key role holders that come on board because of a pre-set vision will mostly likely disembark once the direction is changed because what they came on board for would have vanished. For once the direction is changed, a feeling of “this place has now lost its marbles” will set in, then they will jump ship.

Leadership thought leaders have written volumes of literature about the importance of ensuring that the people in an organisation share the vision for them to feel that they belong. However, the discussion about the timing of the hiring of the very people who should be on board is barely touched in detail. Ideally, key personnel should be taken on board on the basis of their willingness to come and set a vision, or re-envision an organisation.

The right talent is that which comes on board to help drive the bus in the most appropriate direction, and be flexible in re-envisioning the organisation when the need arises. They are not necessarily on the bus because of the direction it was going when they came on board, rather it is about being part of the team that will set the direction.

Even with the right people on the bus, it should not come as a surprise to leaders when some of the people decide to disembark along the journey. Natural attrition of talent should be considered as healthy, as long as it happens within reasonable turnover ratios.

There should be something wrong with an organisation’s talent management processes if there is a feeling that there would be a disaster in the event of some people leaving the organisation.
I will discuss in detail the dangers of relying on “super star” employees. Such reliance on an individual or a small number of individuals will definitely kill the team if these people depart the organisation through any form of attrition.

Let us turn to a soccer example of the “super star reliance syndrome”; I will take the liberty to tease my son Lee who is an ardent FC Barcelona supporter. I will quote the words of Dani Alves, who when commenting on a hamstring injury that Lionel Messi had picked up in the Spanish Super Cup match against Atletico Madrid in August 2013 said: “If you have the best player in the world, it’s inevitable to rely on him. But we’ll try and make his absence show as little as possible”. Of course, he was admitting that the team needed Messi for its success.

Take a closer look into your organisation, do you have your own Messi in your team, or a number of them for that matter. Will your organisation be able to survive when your “Messis” decide to seek a transfer to another team (organisation)? Are you going to put a huge price on the super star player’s head?

Unlike in the soccer circles, your contract with the super star employment allows you hold them no longer than the contractual notice period should they decide to leave. The only option at your organisation’s disposal would be that of trying to match the cash compensation and benefits offered to the employee who is intending to leave by the prospective new employer.

Let me hasten to point out that people do not remain in organisations for cash compensation and benefits only, other factors such as organisational culture are always a key factor in an employee’s “stay or go decision”. A time will always come when the financial counter–offer will not persuade an employee to stay on in your organisation. Never lose sight of the fact that the superstar may also leave due to other reasons beyond your control, death, dismissal, retirement and moving out of town for family reasons.

The talent and succession management processes should be in place to ensure that the right people are always available on the bus; in the right seats.

Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail: samhlabati@gmail.com; Twitter handle: @samhlabati

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