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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published March 30, 2016

Right People, Wrong Bus? When Top Performers Must Go 

Jim Collins’ book Good to Great is universally acclaimed as one of the best business books there is – and rightly so. One of the reasons it – and most of his other books – are such hits is because he has a storyteller’s way of explaining business growth concepts using easily grasped metaphors. NL_BusWrongPeople One of his most famous is that of the business-leader-as-bus-driver. As Collins puts it in Good to Great, “[Your job is to] start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” Clear, lucid advice – and correct so far as it goes. Only problem is, for the leaders of fast-growing businesses (or those which were fast-growing and now have stalled out), it doesn’t go far enough. Here’s the problem: To build a truly scalable company, you have to go through this process not once, but twice. And the really hard news? Second time ’round, you have to let go some of the ‘right people on the bus’. It works like this: You found a company, it claws its way through Early Struggle and before you know it, you have a tightly-managed, highly energetic business that’s growing fast. You’re in what we call the Fun stage. And being in Fun is just that – you’ve having fun, pleasing your customers and clients, saying yes to everything and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on a weekly basis. You’re punching well above your weight and by being resolutely flexible to your clients’ needs, you’re regularly landing business that competitors 5, 10, 25 times your size should be getting. Problem is, that very success, the very growth you’re experiencing, brings complexity. And, at some point, that complexity begins to overwhelm your ability to improvise and tap dance your way to success. You’ve hit what we in Predictable Success call the Whitewater stage of growth – a pivotal point in your business’s development when you have to decide if you’ll go back to Fun and remain that scrappy, improvisational business (and by doing so, place a cap on your growth), or if you’ll push through Whitewater into the Predictable Success stage, where you can, for the first time, truly scale. The catch? Going through Whitewater is like taking your business into a tunnel – and what comes out the other side isn’t the same bus as the one that entered. In fact, chances are, it isn’t even a bus anymore. Reconstructing your business so it can scale turns it into an entirely different vehicle. And guess what? The members of your team who were superstars during fun – likely hard-charging, give-me-the-task-then-leave-me-alone Operators will not only start to flounder, most probably they’ll begin to subconsciously sabotage your plans for scaling the business in their desire to get back to what was their ‘glory days’ in Fun. So remember: It’s not just about getting the right people on the bus; sometimes it’s about recognizing you’re not even driving a bus anymore, and that you need people with the skills to master an entirely new set of navigational skills.  

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  1. I think even if you are interested in staying smaller or “right-sized” or in fun, changing markets, increased demands from clients for various metrics and analytics, can put a company in to whitewater. The people who succeeded in the early launch/start up either need to develop new skills or those with the new skills required need to be brought in.

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    1. Hi Jill, Thank you for your comments! You’re absolutely right that an organization in Fun will need to continue to develop and evolve. The difference is that in Fun, an organization is small and nimble enough to respond and adapt as needed. Decisions can be made and implemented quickly. In Whitewater, the organization has grown too complex to turn on a dime. So when issues arise, they require much more time/attention to not only diagnose, but to address and solve – and not just for the short term, but by putting in systems and processes as needed for long-term scalable success. We have a terrific white paper about this available here: http://bit.ly/1CQoVgo. ~ Sarah, Community Manager, Predictable Success

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