Waiting on the bus

May 20, 2019

Being cautious and reasonable about your growth plans is a smarter move than filling seats just for the sake of beefing up the org chart.

I was talking to a colleague of mine who was complaining about not having the right people in place to take the company where it wants to go. Sounds like he’s been reading Jim Collins, in Good to Great: Start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. Hmm, great strategy. Makes a lot of sense. The problem is finding anyone half way decent these days to be on the bus.

Good mid-level people seem to have gone into witness protection. They tend to stay where they are and get paid well. The job market is so tight few of them will be banging your door down. Even the best young people lack the knowledge and experience to tackle the big projects. Consequently, much of the work falls on the senior people to work more – a recipe for burnout and even more attrition.

Firms seem paralyzed with fear that the next bust is right around the corner. They are in a mad rush to store up their nuts before the freeze. Who has time to worry about putting people in the right seats or getting rid of the dead wood? What can firms do to keep the bus moving down the road to greatness if they’re more concerned with the wheels coming off?

  • Keep looking. Don’t make recruiting the sole job of the HR manager and your recruiters. You have a better Rolodex. You have the relationships. You know who you want to work with. The best 15 minutes of your day can be reaching out to your network, combing through LinkedIn and picking up the phone to let people know you’re looking for key people. If every person in your organization owned the urgency of recruiting, you’d make real headway. And don’t limit yourself to calling your contacts just once and then giving up. Schedule to check in every three months. You don’t need to badger them but sales is very much about timing. Everyone is looking for good people and you need to be top of mind to hit that spot when someone hears of someone looking.
  • Sell culture. People, especially millennials, consider workplace culture the deciding factor on where they choose to work. Peter Drucker quipped that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If your culture celebrates people and respects the individual, you have a competitive advantage over firms that are just using people as coal for the engine. If people are leaving your firm, what do they say in their exit interviews? Do they feel appreciated or valued or just overworked and neglected? If you have a strong culture already, let candidates know through marketing – website, social media, and office parties where you invite the outside guests. One of my clients is an asphalt paving contractor. They do all that gnarly, dangerous work on the freeways. But if you spend five minutes with any of the key employees, you’ll want to grab a rake and help them behind a truck – they are that much fun to work with. They realized that it’s the culture that defines their company – not the work or the pay. To tell their story, they created a culture video to show good people they should work there.
  • Build leaders. Even if you find a good person to hire, it takes time to make them productive. The real cost of losing an employee is the replacement costs of bringing a new person up to speed: up to three times the key person’s salary. The president of an architectural firm who lost his market sector leader decided to put a hold on expensive recruitment and instead is testing two promising young people to fill the void. It wasn’t an intuitive move, but his theory is solid: Why not invest in the current team to make them better? They may not seem qualified, but what’s at risk by training, coaching and mentoring them to see if they can rise to the challenge? So what if they don’t make the grade? They will improve their effectiveness and performance in any regard. And they will most likely stick around because you believed in them. Maybe they are not the right people in the right seats. But give it a shot. You might be surprised. Identify what skills they lack: Time management, delegation, managing teams, selling. Give them a try but be realistic. Maybe your intuition that they aren’t the right people in the right seats was correct after all. It’s still cheaper than making a mistake in hiring the wrong person.
  • Bite the bullet. Let’s get real. All firms have some of the wrong people on the bus. Before you kick them off, ask yourself this simple question: Was I 100 percent clear in my expectations of what was needed? It’s okay to kick them off if you were clear and gave them support to make the cut. But it’s not okay if you weren’t absolutely clear with what the job required or didn’t try to give them a good shot at success. Even when there is a ton of work to do and a company doesn’t believe it can let anyone go, trust me – your staff will find a way of getting the work done with the energy boost from not having to deal with that toxic laggard. There’s more than one way to get a job done. I’m amazed at how resilient firms can be when faced with a hole in leadership.
  • Wait for it. The hard truth is that you can network extensively, build and promote a great culture, and invest in your people and still come up short on finding the right people for the bus. Avoid cutting corners. Ignore your impulse to hire the wrong people. Not only have you lost your investment in recruiting costs by hiring badly, you’ve also lost productivity getting the wrong person out and back to spending money and time to find another candidate. Companies seem to be hell-bent on riding these boon times no matter what it costs them. Consider scaling down your expectations until the market corrects itself and those good people are easier to find. It may mean turning down work, but if you substitute logic with emotion, you’ll see that being cautious and reasonable about your growth plans is a smarter move than filling the seats.

Leo MacLeod is a leadership coach in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at leo@leomacleod.com.

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