The Five Key Things to Consider When Looking for the Right People

Audio Transcript

I get asked all the time, “Okay, so I buy the idea of the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, the right people in the right seats. But can you tell me a bit more about the characteristics of the right people? Are there any generic characteristics of what we’re looking for in the right people?” 

As I see it, there are five basic characteristics, five basic criteria, for being a right person on the bus. First, the person must share the core values of the institution or the organization you are building. I’ve had people come to my laboratory and say, “Jim, how do we get people to share our core values?”

My answer is always the same. “You don’t. You can’t.” You can’t get people to share your core values. You can’t give people new core values halfway through life. As Harry Truman once said, “If somebody doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong by the time they’re thirty, they probably never will.” No. The whole task is to find people who are already predisposed to your core values—already inside them, latent perhaps, or maybe they’re already ignited. But if they’re there, it’s something you can draw upon. Those who do not have a predisposition to sharing the core values get ejected like a virus, escorted right out the door by the organizational antibodies. So, Principle 1: they must share the core values.

#2. A right person on the bus is not somebody whom you need to manage. The moment you feel the need to manage somebody, or tightly manage them, you’ve probably made a hiring mistake. In fact, that is one of your key clues that you might have the wrong person on the bus. You know how you have two different types of people? You have some people whom you guide and you teach and you lead and you provide them knowledge and understanding, and you help them become better in their roles. But you don’t spend a lot of time compensating for them. You don’t spend a lot of time trying to manage the wrong person into the right behaviors. Then there’s somebody else on the bus who takes a whole lot of time and energy, and they’re draining because you’re trying to manage for the fact that they’re just the wrong person. The moment you feel the need to manage somebody, you’ve probably made a hiring mistake.  

#3. In key positions, do they have exceptional capability, defined as the following: in the seat that they hold, could they potentially be one of the best in the industry, or one of the best in the field in which your organization operates, in that particular seat? It doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually are the best in that seat, but it is at least possible that they could eventually become one of the best. 

#4. The individual understands the difference between having a job and holding a responsibility. My assistant, Vicki, gets this so well. When we first began working together, I tried to explain to her and I succeeded, I suppose, because she grabbed onto this so successfully. I said, “Vicki, you don’t really have a job here; you have a responsibility.” She looked at me quizzically. She’d come out of places like AT&T, where it wasn’t necessarily clear that people understood this distinction.  

I said, “Let me put it to you this way. If you were an air-traffic controller and you did a good job, you did all the right things, but the planes still crashed, would it matter?” No, it wouldn’t matter. Because the truth is, you have a responsibility that goes far beyond just having a job: the responsibility to worry three steps ahead, to ensure that the planes don’t crash. That sense of having a broader sense of responsibility rather than having a job. The ability to get that distinction is one of the crucial dimensions of the right people on the bus. They are what I would describe as productively neurotic. If they see a hole, they feel the need to fill it and to make it better.  

Then finally, the last question, the last criterion. If you’re really wrestling with whether somebody is the right person on the bus, think about this. Ask yourself the following litmus test question: if it were a hiring decision all over again, given everything that you know, having worked with this person, would you still hire them?

Now, one of the last things I want to say on this clip that’s crucial regarding the right people on the bus—you must be fair, and fair in the following sense.  Always ask yourself the following question: if you’re wondering about somebody, do you have a bus problem or do you have a seat problem? It could be that you have a wonderful, great person on the bus, but you’ve made a managerial mistake and put that right person in the wrong seat. Question 1 should always be, do I have the right person in the right seat, or perhaps do I have the right person, just in the wrong seat? When in doubt, be fair.
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