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Wrong People, Wrong Bus

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins stresses that an important means for companies to become extraordinary is to choose the right people. But as Collins points out, too many organizations allow incompetent or disobedient employees -- workers he calls the wrong people on the bus -- to obstruct their company's road to greatness. These troublesome employees cause leaders to impose highly stringent rules. In turn, the added restrictions frustrate many good employees and prompt them to leave. As a result, problem workers make up a larger percentage of the organization's workforce, leading management to enact even more rules.

Not surprisingly, Collins found that companies willing to deal with their poor performers are able to avoid this deadly spiral.

Perhaps you've been avoiding the unpleasant task of tossing some "wrong people" off your organization's bus. If so, you're not alone. Firing workers is gut-wrenching work. Besides, you want to give people every opportunity to succeed. But as the following story illustrates, delaying the inevitable might be as detrimental to your problem employees as it is to your organization.

Many years ago, on the morning of my first day at a new job, I boarded a city bus for the twenty-minute commute downtown. There was a bus stop right outside our apartment building and another one just across from my new office. So, I decided to forgo the downtown parking hassles and take the No. 5 bus to and from work. My morning ride went off without a hitch.

After work, I once again hopped aboard the No. 5 for what I expected would be a quick trip home. To my surprise, about three blocks from our apartment, the bus driver turned off our street and headed in a new direction. Because the bus had made some short loops around several neighborhoods along the way, I wasn't overly concerned at first. It was just a matter of time before we returned to my street and reached my stop. Or so I thought.

One by one, my fellow passengers all disembarked while the bus traveled further and further from my home. Finally, the bus driver pulled over to the curb. "This is the end of the line, pal," the driver said to me. "My next stop is the garage. You have to get off."

I explained to the driver how I thought he would be passing my apartment. After all, I had boarded the No. 5 in front of my place just this morning. "That's my morning route. In the afternoon, you need to take the 5A." And with that, he left me on the sidewalk, five miles from home.

As I searched for a payphone to call my wife and ask her to come and retrieve her off-course husband, I remember wishing someone had told me that I was on the wrong bus.

Like your wayward workers, I thought I understood where my bus was headed. And even when it became increasingly clear that the No. 5 was going another direction, I tried to convince myself that everything would work out eventually. Had I known sooner that I was on the wrong route, I could have saved myself some frustration and embarrassment.

The moral of the story is simple: If you have some wrong people on your bus, do them -- and yourself -- a favor by making it clear that they'll never reach their hoped-for destination in your organization.
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