Posted by: Don Linnen | 12 December 2008

Who’s on Your Bus?

Voltaire said “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Collins said that “good is the enemy of great.”

Most of you know of Jim Collins, management consultant, teacher, author, and rock climber. His books include Built to Last (1994) and Good to Great (2001). In the latter, he studied 11 companies that made the leap from being merely good to being truly great. Their performance greatly exceeded that of their peers and resulted in sustainably extraordinary results for at least 15 years.

Out of his 11 outstanding performers in 2001, two are pretty iffy right now. Circuit City, struggling to remain profitable, is closing 155 stores and laying off 17% of workforce. Fannie Mae was recently placed into conservatorship.

But the rest, Abbott, Gillette (purchased by Proctor and Gamble in 2005), Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Philip Morris (now a part of Altria Group), Pitney Bowes, Walgreens, and Wells Fargo, are at least hanging in there during these turbulent economic times. Getting it right on 9 out of 11 is not a bad grade especially in today’s economy. The guy seems to know what he’s talking about.

Back in the day – when times were good (2005) – Collins wrote an excellent monograph for those of us in the nonprofit world. Entitled Good to Great and the Social Sectors, he reemphasized principles that distinguish good (or mediocre) organizations from great ones. Note that he’s not talking about business practices. He is talking about disciplines that benefit all organizations.

Today, in the nonprofit world, I believe one of his points is especially important. It’s about getting the right people on the bus.

Unless you’re living on another planet, you’ve already looked at your income and expense projections for the coming twelve months. You’ve undoubtedly looked at the sad prospect of making cuts. This is stewardship 101.

The tough choices get down to decisions on cutting programs or services (which will hurt your mission) or cutting staff (which is your most expensive cost). This is not a good time for anyone, but it is a vital time to ensure you have the right people on the bus, sitting in the right seats.

Nonprofits are often harder to reorganize than businesses for more complex relationship and emotional reasons. How do you tell an employee who’s also a donor or church/auxiliary member that their performance is not good enough? What’s the ripple effect among other volunteers if you eliminate a position or bring in a replacement volunteer?

Chances are you have some long-time, very nice, barely competent employees. Can you imagine not having that big smile and big heart around every day? But what if that wonderful person is not carrying the load? Or actually hurting the mission?

The bigger question is: during a recession, can you afford the luxury – the outreach to someone who’s taking up a seat on the bus? This is the time when you have to be doing more with less. When the team has to be pulling together. When the paceline has to be working together to go further and faster with less effort.

Nonprofits are nearly always challenged by efficiency. This very difficult time may be the very best time to gently let someone off the bus, or move them to a seat they can share with someone else.

Please tell me that I don’t sound like Dwight K. Schrute.

Collins concludes with some simple reminders: “The right people can often attract money, but money by itself can never attract the right people. Money is a commodity; talent is not. Time and talent can often compensate for lack of money, but money cannot ever compensate for lack of the right people.”

What a remarkable opportunity exists now to strengthen your team for the long haul.


  1. […] worked hard to surround yourself with good people – to get the right people on the bus.  Are you consulting with your staff or dictating to […]

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