How do I know we have the right people on the bus?

Dear Bus Driver,

We hear this question a lot. Thanks to the popularity of Jim Collins’ Good to Great book and his signature finger pointing, leaders everywhere wonder if they have the right people on the bus.

As a leader, sometimes you inherit the team that is and sometimes you get to pick the team members you want. Regardless, there nearly always comes a point where leaders wrestle who they’ve got in the seats: “Should so-and-so should stay on the bus or be let off at the next review cycle - or maybe we could slow down enough to open that little emergency exit door in the back…”

I attended a meeting with Jim in Fort Collins a few years back when a brave soul asked him: “How do I know we have the right people on this bus?”

The answer Jim gave is etched* into my mind, and we’ve applied it to our company ever since with excellent results.

Let me bring you back with me to the conversation:

Jim answered “Oh, that’s pretty simple,” and held up one hand, extending a finger for each point:

“Values, will, and skill.”

He used his other hand to point at his extended index finger.

Jim’s Number One: “Values. Have no patience for a values mismatch.”

“I’m not saying every employee’s values need to be a clone of your company’s values or your personal values. Every member of your team needs values compatible enough so every day isn’t fingernails on a blackboard. Their values aren’t going to change, and neither are yours - so why struggle? If you find someone with values that aren’t compatible, you need to let them off the bus as soon as possible.”

My heart sunk a bit as I realized we had a team member who had great intentions yet whose values were grating with me and the rest of the team. I mentally noted to sit down and figure out how to explore how compatible our values were - and weren’t - as soon as practical.

Jim then pointed to his extended second finger.

Jim’s Number Two: “Will. Have a little patience here.”

“By ‘will’, I mean the willingness to do the hard work for your company. The reason to be patient is because new hires may not have done this kind of work before, or faced the situations your company is facing, or perhaps they’ve never had new levels of authority.”

In the moment, I painfully realized another person left the previous year because I didn’t realize they didn’t have the willingness to do the tough work our company needed in that role. I assumed will was there - until I couldn’t miss it wasn’t. I made mental note to explore potential hires’ willingness as early and extensively as we could.

Jim then extended and pointed to his third finger.

Jim’s Number Three: “Skill. If you have the first two, you can probably train for the third.”

“Unless someone is unable to learn or you need an incredibly unique set of skills, there is a high likelihood that you will be able to work with them so they are equipped for the job.”

I just let that sink in. Number three made sense.

“Which brings me to what most companies do…”

“They normally hire this way…” he said as he pointed in the opposite direction of the three points he just provided.

“They hire for skill, hope for willingness...and fire for values. The best companies hire the other way around - value, will, and skill - in that order.

I winced inwardly as I could feel the accuracy of his assessment. Right there, I determined to do all we could to hire and support our team members in values, will, and skill order.

Ms/Mr Bus Driver, I can’t say we’ve implemented Jim’s advice perfectly. Yet, the successes we’ve had over the last few years can be tied directly to:

  • getting clear first about shared values and how we’re living them out together

  • supporting one another through doing the hard work needed to find and partner with clients, and

  • honing and sharing learning to build our collective skills for our clients and each other.

I hope this helps answer your question. I can’t think of anyone better than Jim to answer it.

We love being able to rely on Jim’s expertise and proven track-record. If his three-prong answers leave you with more questions about how to change your approach with your team, or if you’ve gotten clarity on hard things that need to happen next, let’s talk.


*While the overall answer is committed to my long-term memory, the exact responses Jim gave aren’t. If Jim sends me a note and says: “I would never say that!” I’ll edit as needed. Please consider the quoted text to be as accurate a recollection as I can make a few years after our conversation.