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A Company's Long Road to Greatness

By Keith McFarland In his best-selling book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins says the key to building a great company is to "get the right people on the bus" -- a statement that has become a mantra for many managers. In fact, if one more executive tells me that his winning strategy is to get the right people on the bus, I may just eat my BlackBerry (and I'm not talking about the fruit).

Don't get me wrong, surely finding quality people is important in determining the ultimate potential of a business. But the suggestion is self-evident -- like saying companies should treat their customers right, or that they should manage their costs.

HAIR ON NEW HIRES. It's also a lot easier to blame a company's problems on having the "wrong people on the bus" than it is to identify the systemic flaws that may cause a business to fail to get the most out of the staff it already has. In my experience, strong people tend to naturally gravitate to strong organizations -- so maybe the best way for a leader to "get the right people on the bus" is to create a "bus" worth riding on in the first place.

I'm not even sure there's such thing as a "right person" for this hypothetical bus. In my two decades of running organizations, I had the privilege of hiring some terrific people -- but I don't know that any would qualify as "right." As good as they were (and a few were truly outstanding), everyone I've ever hired has had some area of their performance begging for improvement -- or they needed to develop in some way in order to help take the business to the next level.

I always remember the words of one of my early mentors: "Even the best new hire has some hair on 'em. Your job is to make sure they see the need to always get even better -- and to show them the path to improvement."

ONLY THE FIRST STEP. And as markets, customers, and strategies change these days, the "right" person for a business today might be the wrong person tomorrow. So what's a company, particularly a fast-growing one, to do? Restaff every time the rules of the game change? While some venture capitalists take this approach to staffing their outfits, anyone who has ever operated a business knows how shortsighted this approach is.

When hiring, work hard to get the very best people you can. But realize that getting them on the bus is only the first step in the long road of maximizing the impact of your people. What comes next is what really makes the difference. Every time you hire someone, do you:

1. Quickly assess their strengths and weaknesses as they relate to your current business and to changes you anticipate in your company in the next two to three years?

2. Communicate and confirm your assumptions about that hire's development opportunities and work with the employee to identify resources that will help him/her develop in those areas?

3. Give regular, specific, and actionable feedback to each new hire on how he/she is doing with respect to the development objectives?

DEVELOPMENTS ON THE BUS. If you're like most executives, you don't have a systematic way of doing any of the items above, or you delegate them to the human resources department, which probably lacks both the information and the authority to make the process meaningful. Leaving the development of a company's most important assets (its people) to chance or to the human resources department, is like a basketball coach believing he can, after recruiting his players, simply watch the games from the stands.

Finally, even if you're successful at getting a lot of great people on the bus, there inevitably will be times when they will pull each other's hair or poke each other in the eye. Often, it's a group's ability to work as a team, more than the talents and experience of its individual members, that determines the difference between winning and losing.

This fact was clearly demonstrated last year in the National Basketball Assn. (NBA) championship. In terms of technical ability, experience, and raw talent, the Lakers had the biggest lineup of stars in the league. And they were beaten by a bunch of character actors from Detroit. Watching the Lakers during the past couple of years, one got the impression that the players had taken over the team -- and that coach Phil Jackson was put in the position of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, when he said during the French Revolution: "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader."

CREATING A TEAM. I recently heard Jackson admit, in a revealing radio interview on NPR, that he's to blame for not taking far more aggressive steps with the team when the early fissures appeared in the tumultuous relationship between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

Get the right people on the bus? Sure. But even with the best hiring strategies, no company is going to bat a thousand. The real game is won and lost after the people get on the bus. Executives (like coaches) should be given authority and respect in organizations on the basis of their ability to build a team -- and recruiting is only the starting point. McFarland, a two-time technology CEO, is the founder and principal of McFarland Strategy Partners in Sandy, Utah. His clients include House of Blues, Vans, and other entrepreneurial companies

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