The Bus Metaphor Redux

If you have been in business and, in particular, in management for a certain amount of time, you’ve probably heard of Jim Collins’ seminal bestseller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. The book uses a bus as a metaphor for your organization and tells you that, in order to become great, you must build a great team by getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats, and by getting the wrong people off the bus. Plenty of CEOs have latched onto this concept thinking it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. All you need to achieve greatness for your organization is effective talent management. 

I won’t argue the value of properly attracting, retaining, and leading talent. However (and no disrespect to Jim Collins), the bus metaphor in Good to Great has two massive holes in it: 1) the bus driver, and 2) the bus itself. You can play musical chairs with your bus passengers all the live long day and still not have a truly great organization if you are not also looking at what’s going on with the bus driver and the bus itself. “Jonathan, what do you mean?”, you ask. Okay, let’s have a little fun with this bus metaphor . . .

What if the bus were on fire? What if the bus were driving the wrong way down the street, crashing into cars and scaring little old ladies? What if the wheels were about to fall off the bus? What if it were headed for a cliff? What if there were a bomb on board that was rigged to explode when the bus goes over 50 miles per hour? And when passengers try to warn the driver, all he says is, “You kids better sit down and shut up back there! I’m the one driving this bus!” Maybe the driver is totally incompetent or a psychopath or has a terrible sense of direction. Maybe he’s  been pocketing the bus fares for the last ten years. Maybe the bus driver keeps going in circles and insists he’s right in spite of the persistent warnings from passengers that they aren’t going anywhere. Maybe he throws sharp objects at passengers for being too loud.

Alright, so hopefully you get the point by now: you’re not perfect and neither is your bus. But what happens in the modern workplace when employees voice any concerns or feedback about their organization and its leaders is they get booted off the bus or threatened with the same. Don’t tell the bus driver he’s headed into oncoming traffic or that the brakes are making a funny noise, and certainly don’t cross the white line behind the driver’s seat. Just sit down, shut up, and be grateful for the ride. I’ve seen this over and over again in my own work experiences and in my observations of other companies and leaders. 

One example I use in my book, The Stepford Employee Fallacy, is the Wells Fargo account cross-sell fiasco. A few years ago, Wells Fargo’s CEO set a goal for all bank customers to have at least eight accounts. His mandate was unrealistic and was only based on the fact that the number eight rhymed with “great.” Still, that didn’t stop the bank’s managers from holding employees accountable for opening at least eight accounts per customer. Any employee who raised concerns, expressed dissent, or couldn’t meet the goal was punished. Since the goal could not be met, employees resorted to opening fake accounts for thousands of Wells customers. Of course, when the fraud came to light, the bank found itself in a public relations nightmare and the CEO eventually stepped down (after making millions of dollars while the scandal was going on). The employees who opened the fake accounts lost their jobs, as did many of their colleagues who were brave enough to stand up to their bosses.

In my book, I stress the importance of leaders seeking out and acting upon feedback from their employees. They are the ones who work closest with customers and can tell you whether a particular strategy is realistic or advisable. They are also the ones who make your organization successful. I believe the bus metaphor is flawed, but not just because it ignores the imperfect nature of organizations and their leaders. It is flawed because employees are not passengers on a bus. The word passenger implies someone who has no agency, who is just along for the ride. But organizations need partners in action, not passive riders who have no say. They are on the bus, so that means they have just as much of a stake in its safe and successful travel as you do, perhaps even more so. After all, their lives (or their livelihoods) are in your hands.

It’s true that you need the right people on the bus, but it’s more important that the bus is in good working order, that the bus driver knows what he’s doing, and that he listens when passengers are screaming that he’s about to drive them off a cliff.

#EmployeeEngagement #EmployeeExperience #Leadership #organizationaldevelopment #spreadthetruth

The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and through other major retailers. Buy direct here:

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