Getting (and Keeping) the Right People on the Bus

Dec 15, 2003

As anyone who’s read any business books in the last decade can tell you, Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” is a classic that will be talked about for years to come. In the book, Collins reviews the results of an extensive research project on mature, publicly traded companies that outperformed their industry, and the market overall, by a significant factor over a 15-year period. One of the findings was that “you have to get the right people on the bus.” One of the counter-intuitive findings of Collins’ team was that these highly successful firms didn’t set direction and then go find the people. They instead got the right people on board and let them set direction. While I don’t want to review Collins’ book at this time, I would like to talk about getting the right people on the bus— particularly for A/E/P and environmental firms. Here is some of my thinking on the subject: The best people hate carrying duds. One of the most important things you can do is get rid of the duds if you want to be able to get and keep good people on your bus. Generally, we do a very poor job at this in design and environmental firms. Incentive compensation is not necessarily that important. This, while another of Collins’ findings, doesn’t really surprise me. More important is whether or not people get information on how the firm is doing, and feel like they are part of a winning team. The best people don’t always come from our industry. I have learned to never underestimate the benefit of hiring someone who worked in a client organization when it comes to having real credibility with similar kinds of clients. I have also learned that we do a lot of things certain ways in our business that may not be the best. Those coming from environments other than a typical A/E or environmental firm may have some new ideas. Showing someone you really want them is critical in the hiring process. I have seen company presidents who always participate in employee interviews, NOT because he or she wants to stamp every hire with his or her approval, but instead to show potential employees how important they are. This is a powerful idea. The more you can personalize the entire recruiting process, the better. This means spending a lot of time finding out what the employee’s needs are for special schools, housing, or assistance for their spouse in finding a job. A good human resources person can be invaluable here smoothing the way to a successful hire. You need to continuously look for candidates, even when you aren’t in a growth mode. Times of stagnation or decline may be the best times to upgrade who is on your bus. And even if you are happy with everyone you have, some turnover will always be inevitable. Be prepared for it by knowing who you want to hire in advance of the actual need. This takes a continuous process AND a lot of hand-holding to keep good candidates interested while you don’t yet have a need. You will never bat 1.000 on your new hires. Some mistakes will be made, and you’ll be scratching your head wondering how you ever hired certain people. While a thorough examination of your hiring processes may be in order, the important thing is to recognize your mistake and act on it. Move out the bad hire, and get someone else in there as quickly as possible. We are already seeing a dramatic increase in hiring activity for firms in our industry. After the first of the year, we anticipate even more. If you are the senior bus driver, now, more than ever, is the time to get the right people in every seat on your bus. Originally published 12/15/2003

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