Fasten Your Seatbelts. It’s Going to Be a Bumpy Night!

I’ve become a reluctant fan of the writings of Jim Collins, who gained notoriety for writing about the habits of companies he says are “built to last.” He names a number of traits including having Big Hairy Audacious Goals and being a Hedgehog (good at one thing) rather than a Fox (clever at a lot of things.) The topic that has captured my attention lately: the selection and motivation of people. Jim Collins recommends “getting the right people on the bus” first, then “getting them in the right seats,” and only then “deciding where to drive the bus.”

(How could I resist the bus metaphor, so often used in the Dead world? But, I digress…)

Selection and motivation taken together is too large a piece to bite, so I’ll focus on step two. I see it more often than I want to believe: Many organizations seat their people so uncomfortably that loyal, talented people jump off the bus out of frustration — even if the bus in on a bridge and they have to jump into the icy waters of a very tough job market.

Some typical examples:

You have probably heard of The Peter Principle, or promoting someone to his or her level of incompetence. The root cause of the Peter Principle is a belief that it is “natural” for a person to rise up predictably, from sales assistant to junior marketing writer to senior marketing writer to marketing manager, say. This path is seductive, even as an employee leaves behind work he loves and at which he excels to takes on management roles for the money, prestige, and security that come with them. After a gigantic failure, he quits or gets fired.

Another common problem is rewarding the wrong behaviors. A perfect illustration comes from the nonprofit world, where there is a tradition of giving cost-of-living increases, often uncapped. There is no pressure to move up, on, or even laterally to earn more money, so people stay in entry-level or mid-career level positions far too long. There is also no reason to put effort into professional development; falling behind has no consequence. An executive director candidate I interviewed recently described a situation where mid-level managers of long tenure were making six-figure salaries. Talented people got bored, resented their unmotivated coworkers, felt unrecognized, and quit. Many people who stayed were also unhappy, their risk-aversiveness having backfired. They felt trapped by golden handcuffs and disappointed in their inability to grow professionally. Meanwhile, in the 21st century, the organization kept its membership records on index cards because nobody knew how to use a database.

Poorly constructed jobs. Often organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, compose job descriptions and career advancement paths that require traits in a person that are diametrically opposed, that include sets of activities that no person can perform simultaneously, that waste talent, or that simply waste ridiculous amounts of time. Can anyone proofread well while answering a busy phone? Is it likely that your hottest salesperson is going to stick around long if you require her to spend 25% of her week filling out tedious paperwork? Will a person with the capacity and drive for management stick it out in staff position in a seniority-based culture where he will underearn and be underemployed for years?

These problems are so ubiquitous that many people I know — me included — have come to the conclusion that self-employment is the only way out! With the relative ease of changing jobs and self-employment options today, a downward spiral seems to be in the making. People who can leave for their own companies or for a few companies known for good environments; every place else just gets worse and worse …

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