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Collins' bus metaphor: greatest of all time?

As Lisa mentioned this week in her post about personnel decisions, several responses to this month's CEO to CEO question in Associations Now focused on personnel decisions. In the same issue, similar comments came up twice in the "Where Are They Now?" feature that I compiled. One interviewee mentioned the value of having a staffer eager to learn new media skills, and another mentioned the value of having board members who are comfortable with taking risks. In both cases, Jim Collins' "Get the right people on the bus" metaphor from Good to Great was used (though, I admit, one of them was my own writing in a transition sentence).

This got the bus metaphor on my mind, and I realized I see it referenced quite often. This month's magazine is no fluke. A quick search yielded all of these other instances of "right people on the bus" appearing in ASAE publications: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. In almost all of them, Collins is cited as the source, and in the two cases when Scott Briscoe mentioned it here on Acronym, he said it had "become a cliché" in one and apologized for bringing it up in another. (Again, this is just ASAE; Google "collins 'right people on the bus'" and you get 385,000 hits.)

Good to Great happens to be the first business leadership book I ever read, when a college instructor assigned it to me in an independent study. Even then, the bus metaphor struck me as the most clear and unmistakable message in the book. In my early years of working in the real world, I've heard it come up time and time again, as illustrated above, and it's certainly held true in my own work experience.

So, I've decided to make a proclamation, even though I have no authority whatsoever other than that I'm a blogger and, you know, this is what bloggers do:

I nominate Jim Collins' "Get the right people on the bus" metaphor as the greatest organizational-management maxim of all time.

And here's why:

  • It's easy to understand. There's no fancy diagram of a bus in Chapter 3 of Good to Great, because it isn't necessary. The concept of a bus with seats is universal. A kindergartner gets it.
  • Everyone works with people, so everyone can relate. With the exception of people who run one-person businesses, everyone means everyone. Whatever level you're at in an organization, you know what it's like to work with great people and what's like to work with duds.
  • For us in associations, the above point is two-fold. Not only do we work with people, but people are a product we sell when we praise the value of community, networking, and collaboration. We have to get the right people on our staffs, on our boards, at our meetings, and in our memberships.

I don't have much experience with of a lot of other classic business-leadership thought leaders like Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, or Gary Hamel, so feel free to tell me I'm wrong. I'm interested to hear your choices for best business maxim, or at least your personal favorites.

(And with all of that said, you should also go back and offer your opinion on Lisa's post, too. She poses a great question: Are bad personnel decisions really the worst business decisions you can make, or do they just feel that way?)



Joe, I love this topic. I read GTG (and listened to the unabridged version on CD - twice) while studying for my master's. The bus metaphor is one that clicks immediately and resonates indefinitely, which is one facet that makes it so powerful (aside from the imagery and applicability you referenced).

I think the second part of the metaphor, though perhaps not referenced as liberally, is equally important: get the right people in the right seats. You wouldn't want the kindergartner driving the bus, after all. The two parts of the metaphor hit on both passion and skills; achieving success without both is unlikely, or at least infinitely more difficult.

I also recommend The Leadership Challenge - not because it's eloquent, but for the underlying philosophy. Putting TLC and GTG together produces a sort of magical, practical, self-actualizing inspiration. Good stuff!

I don't know that I'd say "greatest ever," though it is sticky for the reasons you mention. My concern with it is that it is so simple it can be misused. You can use the "I'm getting the right people on the bus" line to justify some very horrible decisions or even some ineffective leadership behavior. It's been a while since I read GTG, but my takeaway was specifically that content expertise is not as valuable as we think it is. You get an amazing group of people together and they can handle any content. If I'm remembering right, then I still don't see many organizations doing that. At all. So how good is the maxim if no one's using it? Just a little devil's advocate for you.

The corollary to that advice is to be very careful about which bus you choose to board!

I think Jamie has raised an excellent point. People glom onto the metaphor, but don't necessarily apply it.

Many corporations (particularly Internet-related companies) are alleged to hire attitude and train aptitude, but you don't hear much talk like that in the association world. I will say though that my first association job was pretty much drawing on that philosophy and the experience was amazing.

Thanks everyone.

@Bill: You're right that there was more to the lesson Collins was sharing than just the bus idea. It also included getting people into the right roles (seats), and it also emphasized "First who, then what," which is actually the title of that chapter, even though everyone remembers the bus part. I'll make a note to check out The Leadership Challenge some time.

@Jamie and Jeffrey: Indeed, understanding the metaphor and applying the lesson are two very different things. Collins does say attitude is more important than talent, but he leaves any recommendations about the specific qualities of that attitude pretty vague, unfortunately. He also addresses potential misuse of the idea when he says "be rigorous, but not ruthless" in personnel decisions, but one downside of crafting such a memorable idea is that all the caveats and extra advice you offer is overshadowed. That may be the case here. As to whether associations have adopted the idea, I'd agree that I doubt many have. This probably does diminish the value of the bus idea, but I'm wondering if there are any iconic business lessons that have both wide understanding and wide adoption. (If there were, would people keep writing these books?)

@David: You should go read Scott's follow-up post for some further extension of the bus metaphor. But you make a good point: if you're not the person choosing who gets to be on the bus, then the only decision you can make is which bus you get on.

Joe: Great observation that a powerful idea/concept/metaphor might end up overshadowing the more layered and robust understanding of its complete meaning.

I now find myself thinking about all the times I've witnesses Metaphor Malpractice … someone using a metaphor but clearly not having read the full text or internalized its implications if they had.

I think this might be a more frequent occurrence in the future because you can Tweet the metaphor, but that doesn't mean people will hit the link to read all about it.

I have a different spin on "Getting the right people on the bus."

Who is driving the bus? Only one person? Right? So everyone else sits and watches instead of actively participates. They are playing Simon Says in the leadership game. And those sitting in the seats don't have to do much engagement or thinking. They are just along for the ride.

For me, getting the right people on the bus is a metaphor that has a flaw. It's about everyone following the lead of one driver. People are not allowed to drive their own bus and join the convoy. It's a typical broadcast, push style analogy. I don't want to be involved in organizations where I'm seen as a spectator, never allowed to contribute or participate unless I get off the bus. That's a waste of my time, mind and efforts.

I prefer to get the right people on their bikes and take a tour together. Then everyone is in charge of their own direction and aligning with other like-minded individuals. Bike riders can veer off to the side for a while, take a detour and rejoin a agreed-upon course as wanted.

So for me, it's about "Getting those that want to get involved on their own bikes and joining the tour."

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