How to Keep the Right People On Your Bus

Right People on the Bus

I love working with schools. One of my favorite types of clients.

First, it happens that I like kids. Though – as an aside – the folks who work in management at schools tend not to actually deal with the kids all that often.

But there’s another reason I enjoy it so much. It’s because they do extremely important work, but there’s a structural issue that comes up over and over and makes things deliciously messy.

And you know I like to help clean up nonprofit messes!

What’s the structural issue? It’s that when teachers get promoted to become department heads, often they have never really been taught how to be good managers. They get promoted because they were rock stars at teaching. But that’s not the same thing.

Sometimes a young teacher-rock-star-turned-department-head with no experience managing now has former department heads reporting to her! Messy.

So in the spirit of school, I’m going to turn to one of our favorite metaphors in the nonprofit world… the bus.

I am not sure why the nonprofit sector uses the ‘bus’ as a metaphor so often. We have to ‘get the right people on the bus.’ We have to have a plan in case the executive director gets “hit by a bus.”

I blame Jim Collins for popularizing the term “on the bus” in his book, Good to Great. But it probably goes back further than that.

It’s not that we all love buses so much. School bus rides were loud, and without shock absorbers, nauseating. And then there are commuter buses and the bus drivers who seemed to have learned that the goal was to make the ride more miserable by hitting the brakes as hard and as often as they could.

The only people that ever seemed to have a lot of fun on a bus were the members of The Partridge Family. (And if not for copyright issues, that would be the image for this post).

But for whatever reason, we seem to be stuck with the bus. So let’s play the hand we seem to have been dealt.

Have you ever felt like you’re surrounded by a whole bunch of incompetent “do-nothings” and you always have to do everything yourself. At least if you want it done well? Maybe you don’t have the right people.

Board members don’t typically get performance evaluations and neither do volunteers. For staff, I do hope you do something that is constructive with each person each year.

But now I want you to throw all these people together on your bus. Metaphorically. Regardless of category.

And I’m going to show you:

  1. That your bus may be way better than you think
  2. A quick and easy way to assess the folks on your bus
  3. Actionable steps to make your bus a whole lot stronger and make sure you keep the right people in their seats.

OK, watch your step boarding the bus. Let’s do this.

STEP 1: WHERE IS EVERYONE?

Everyone has taken a seat. Where are they? Divide them into three groups and let’s give them grades.

You’ve got the folks in the back of the bus (in high school these were the trouble maker do-nothings.) They get a “C”. I call these folks the “dead weight (or worse)”. You would engage in some sort of unattractive happy dance if they got off at the next sop. You really want to ask them to get the hell off your bus but there are a ga-zillion reasons why you feel you can’t.

There are folks in the front of the bus. For this exercise let’s assume these are your highest performers. “A” students! These are your rock stars. Your initiators. The RIGHT people. You’re THRILLED they are here and you’d weep if they asked to get off at the next stop.

And then you’ve got the folks that are kind of in the middle because they are kind of in the middle. These are your “B’s”. The jury is out. They don’t drive you mad but they could be doing so much more. Sometimes it just seems like they are along for a ride and sometimes if you ask them to do something, they do a good job. You’re not sure why that is.

STEP 2: TAKE A SHORT QUIZ

Which of these groups should be your primary focus?

  1. The A’s: They’re your rock stars. You can count on them. So give them your focus and ignore the rest.
  2. The B’s: With some focus, maybe you can get them step up?
  3. The C’s: Kick them off your bus as quickly as you can!

Correct Answer IMHO: The B’s.

You have to invest a bit of time to understand what this group is – it’s a mixed bag. Often a “B” is a person who doesn’t initiate – maybe she’s not sure what to offer to do, maybe a bit busy, and not a good time manager. Or maybe she’s just shy.

STEP 3: DIVIDE AND CONQUER

Wow. This is starting to sound less like a bus ride and more like math class.

Take all your B’s and subdivide as follows.

B+: These are folks that follow through on tasks when asked but they rarely initiate. They do a good job. They are not screw-ups. They are generally reliable.

B-: You were on the fence about these folks because, well, you just don’t know. They don’t deserve the term “dead weight” – at least you don’t think so.

STEP 4: INVEST IN YOUR B+ GROUP

I’m not suggesting you ignore everyone else. I’m suggesting you put extra emphasis on this group. Identify finite high impact projects for the folks in this category. Ask them to help – tell them how important it is for the organization and to you personally.

Appreciate the hoo-hah out of them. And you know what happens?

Et Voila!

  • A few of your B+ folks move up to the front of the bus and become A players
  • Your B- folks start to feel a bit uncomfortable. Some will take note of what happened to their fellow B’s and start creeping toward the front. Others will gravitate toward the dead weight folks.
  • You should wind up with more A’s.
  • The more A’s you have, the more the C’s feel like dead weight.
  • Folks in the C group will start to ask to get off the bus at the next stop. And some will really start to act out and you will have cause to tell them it’s time for a different route.

BACK TO MY SCHOOL CLIENTS

So earlier I mentioned my love for working with schools and discussed the structural mess that happens because teachers get promoted to become department heads without the professional development training they need.

I’ve worked with numerous department heads in situations like this and told them to grade their bus. Their inclination? Oh, I can’t label people like that – everyone is an individual!”

Look, we’re not getting A’s, B’s, and Cs embroidered on their blazers, I tell them. Think of it as a game that just the two of us are playing.

It’s surprisingly easy to do this once you get over the labeling thing. I have several department heads who have given special assignments to their B+ folks – mentoring another teacher, standing in for the department head at a meeting where they get some visibility and have to flex some authority.

It works.

I will warn you though. When you start behaving differently with your village people, there are other implications. Not all of them are bad.

One thing I see often is that when you try this recipe, the C’s sometimes begin to act out. This is bad only in the short term. And only if you are unwilling to call them out on it.

When C’s act out, hold them accountable and then either they will decide to go (too uncomfortable and too little power) or they will make a move that is so problematic that you will need to tell them it’s time to go.

ONE LAST WORD OF ADVICE

All of this is about increasing the number of A’s and getting rid of your C’s.

But you know what? It is SO much easier to get the right people on the bus in the first place than it is to get the wrong folks off.

So please please please… bring folks in carefully.

If your gut tells you there is some C quality to someone BUT… I am begging you, listen to your gut.

Or in this case listen to the BUT.

Did you know there’s an entire section in my book dedicated to helping you find ­– and keep – more A’s on your bus? Learn more here.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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