Getting the Wrong People Off the Bus

One of my favorite books is Good to Great by Jim Collins. Particularly interesting from the book is the “people” or team member concept called “First Who, Then What”. The idea is that great companies start by getting the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off) and in the right seats before they decide where to drive it (i.e. vision and goals). You can learn more here.

I’d like to focus on one of the parentheticals above because it leads to two frequent questions I hear from clients:

  • How do I know if I have the wrong person on the bus?
  • What should I do if I need to make a personnel change?

In no particular order, I’d like to offer some tips and thoughts on these questions.

Use Your Performance Evaluation System

Do you have a performance evaluation system? Do you have annual, or even more frequent, employee review and performance discussions? If not, this is a huge improvement opportunity. First, this externalizes data, which allows you to see behavior patterns better and sooner. These are key to nipping a problem in the bud and taking the swift action necessary to keep the right people on the bus and get the wrong people off. Second, the evaluation system provides critical documentation if or when you need to escalate disciplinary procedures or terminate an employee. If you haven’t created, reviewed, or used your evaluation system recently, now is a great time to re-boot.

Train the Puppy

A friend of mine half-jokingly said once that correcting bad employee behavior is a lot like training a new puppy. You address the puppy’s developing bad habits in the moment, not in six months at the puppy’s next performance meeting. If you have a good person whose behavior has just gone a bit awry, addressing it ASAP is critical to getting it under control and helping that person stay on track. If you’re not sure if the employee is going to work out, seeing how they respond to immediate attempts to correct performance provides important data for decision making. Either way, address behavioral issues as soon as possible.

Wrong Person or Wrong Seat?

Before eliminating an employee, consider whether the person needs to be on the bus, but is simply in the wrong seat. If so, where can you move him or her to improve performance? Consider the employee’s skills, talents, and successes in addition to the performance concerns. Look at the total picture, review the organizational chart, and identify and discuss with the employee reassignment opportunities and the reasons for them.

Move Quickly

The Good to Great companies that did make personnel changes didn’t delay taking necessary action. The damage that can be done by a problem employee can take years to correct, so quick identification and resolution of the problem is essential. Be sure you are as transparent as possible, reinforcing company values, when reassuring any survivors, and though it may sound trite, try not to worry too much about any coalition building the problem child may do on his or her way out.

Gut Check

If all else fails, do a quick gut check. Ask yourself, “would I hire this employee for this position today if it were vacant?” If the answer is “no”, you need to make a change (see ideas above). If the answer is “yes”, taking simpler steps to correct performance, discuss your concerns openly with the employee, and look for mutual ways to support one another’s’ goals is your best course of action.

These are not hard and fast rules, and they’re not perfect solutions because, let’s face it, people issues rarely show up neatly packaged. They are useful tips to consider if you’re on the fence or not sure what to do next. If you’re facing a personnel problem, give some of these ideas a few minutes’ thinking, and see what emerges that may be helpful.

And don’t forget to praise and support the right people in the right seats who are consistently knocking it out of the park for you and the company!


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Picture of Craig A. Escamilla
Craig A. Escamilla
Craig Escamilla helps you find solutions before problems exist. With fifteen years of consulting, teaching, and senior management experience, Craig brings a wealth of practical expertise to helping others work on rather than in their businesses.

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