Have you ever worked for a total jerk? If so, how much did it matter to your day-to-day happiness that the business was a success?
On the flip side, whom would you rather have working for you, a nice, trainable person with less experience or a competent but arrogant know-it-all?
Too often, company leaders focus on what the company needs to do. They develop a vision and spend time on strategy before they give any thought to who is going to implement their grand plans. But the truth is that the people who work for you are where the rubber meets the road.
If you've got the best people in the right positions, they will tell you what is needed and how to get there. If you don't, chances are you are going nowhere.
Jim Collins makes this point in his best-selling book Good to Great, which centers on examining the success stories of companies that pulled away from their pack of competitors. Collins found that the companies that achieved long-term success did so in part by focusing first on "who" and then on "what."
As Collins's writes: "The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it."
Finding the Right Leader for the Right Market
Nowhere is this more evident than in the ways in which companies decide to expand into new geographies. Many start with "what"--as in, "We need to be in the United Kingdom"--and then move in that direction without the right leader in place. Before long, they have an expensive mess on their hands.
I've seen many companies in my industry rush into new markets only to waste both time and money. So, at Acceleration Partners, we chose instead to focus all our energy on finding the right people to lead our efforts in new countries and represent our brand. Once we had our new hires on board, we then asked them to develop plans for each market based on our strategy, rather than the other way around. We trusted our people to know the market better than we did.
Building the Team That Will Get You to the Finish Line
Another reason to focus on "who" and not "what" is that when people "get on the bus" because of where it is going, you can run into problems when you need to change direction--as Collins points out. And even if you do find the right direction, if you have the wrong people, you probably won't make it to your destination.
Consider how fundamental recruiting is to the success of many sports teams. At the University of Michigan, for example, softball coach Carol Hutchins ("Hutch," to most of her players) has made the case this way: "If I lose a recruit, she might beat me twice a year. If I make a mistake on a recruit, she beats me every day."
Coach Hutchins has more NCAA career wins (1,500) than any other coach, male or female, in any sport in the school's storied history. Having led the Wolverines to 23 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, and 25 overall since taking over in 1985, she keenly understands that adding the wrong player to the roster is far more damaging to her team than passing on an all-star.
The principle of "first who, then what" can be applied not only to whom we hire, but to whom we marry and choose as our friends and business partners. If we get the "who" part wrong by focusing too much on the "what" (e.g., wanting to be married or have kids), it's often a recipe for disaster down the road.
So, the next time you have a problem or an opportunity, consider looking at it through the "first who, then what" lens--and pay close attention to whom you want on your bus and whom you need to take off. Toxic personalities, complainers, and energy vampires are not worth keeping on board no matter how talented they are.
Ideas and circumstances change. Neither will matter if you wake up every day and have to spend time with people you don't like or respect.