The Collins Bus: Coaching to Get the Right People in the Right Seats

by Gary Markle

Jim Collins said, “To get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and everybody in the right seats.” What he doesn’t say is that it’s HR’s job to make this happen. According to him, it’s leadership’s responsibility. So, how do you do this? My suggestion is quite simple. Coaching. Not evaluating. Not grading. But coaching.


Coaches fill the bus with the best possible players

In sports, a coach is responsible for picking who is on the team, who plays what position, who’s on the starting lineup, who isn’t — and who’s let go. They need a full bus with the best possible players who are ready and eager to give it all they’ve got.

In professional sports, an owner gives the coach money and people with a mandate to get them to play together to win. When they lose, the owner wants to see changes. And when a coach doesn’t produce a winning team and runs out of ideas for change, it’s time for a new coach.

The whole organization will rise or fall as a function of their decisions. Sounds a lot like business to me.


Coaching is more than giving advice and counsel

In business, we’ve come to use the term “coaching” to represent the advice and counsel given by a consultant hired by a top executive. Here, it’s the executive being advised who normally makes the employment decision. So, perhaps a more accurate label for this is “executive counseling.”

Coaching is also more than completing a performance review. More than evaluating an individual’s performance against competencies derived from cultural values and a job description. Sure, it’s important to assess an employee’s skills. But it’s also important to consider the individual’s personal interests as well as the organization’s needs.


Coaching to find the right seats for your employees

If you want to create a high-performing team — and ultimately — a Top Workplaces culture, coaches need to pay attention to three key components:

  1. An employee’s skills
  2. The employee’s interests
  3. The organization’s needs

How many times have you encountered an individual in a job who simply lacks the desire to perform? Perhaps they were invested at one point in time, but now it’s gone. They could do a good job if they want to, but they no longer care to make the effort. The challenge for coaches is to determine what happened to their interest. Can it be rekindled — or has it been lost for good?

In some situations, evolving interests can still be accommodated within the same organization. It all depends on the organization’s need. If an individual is bored with a work routine they’ve done day in and day out a thousand times, perhaps the coach can change it up. Alternatively, perhaps there’s a need elsewhere in the organization that’s a good match for the individual’s interests and skill set. This is what Collins calls finding the right seats. If not, despite the presence of both skills and need, it may be time for the individual to get off the bus.

Sometimes, the organization has a need but lacks resources that have interest or skills. This is when it’s time to recruit, either internally or externally. Take the CEO whose son was his obvious heir apparent. Despite having everything needed to do the job, including brainpower, formal education, work experience, and the last name that rhymes with “owner,” he was reluctant to step up and accept the full weight of responsibility of the top office. In short, he didn’t want to replicate his father’s workaholic lifestyle. But when faced with the option of working for someone other than his father, the young man quickly decided to quit equivocating. He accepted the CEO role and took his chances on life balance.


How to get started 

  • Institutionalize listening: Make sure that you check employee interests at least annually using a formal process for collecting and reviewing this information. Your most talented people will leave you quickly if they’re bored or feel ignored.
  • Think systemically: Introduce a system such as Catalytic Coaching that provides the template for a comprehensive series of formal conversations about performance and potential. Utilize a process that is scalable to an employee count well beyond what your organization will ever approximate.
  • Educate: Train managers to function effectively as coaches. Train employees to be coachable. Remember that coaching is a skill that improves with education, mentoring, and practice.
  • Speed it up: Work performance problems expeditiously. Individuals who can’t or won’t perform should be dealt with in days. Not weeks, months, or years. Spend less time with poor performers, so you can have more time to invest in good ones.
  • Take a sample of one: Realize that each individual is unique. They’re not a carbon copy of everyone else born in their decade: Gen X, Gen Y, or Gen Next. Get to understand both their interests and skills as a unique individual — and then tailor your coaching solution to fit only them.