Right People, Right Seats? What About WRONG People?

I remember the day I was fired. It was more than 30 years ago, and it was the one time it ever happened, all over a perceived conflict of interest concerning an investment I had made in another company.

I also vividly remember the first time I had to fire one of my own co-workers, and though I followed all the proper protocols, it was painful for both parties, and there were tears from the employee who was to exit the premises that very day.

Years later, I was attending the Global Leadership Summit in Chicago, listening to researcher and author Jim Collins, and I remember the moment he said it.




Good-to-great organizations first get the right people on the bus—and the wrong people OFF the bus—and THEN figure out where to drive it.”



Jim Collins

Jim Collins

He then went on to expand his bus metaphor and why “right people in the right seats” is so critical, and that has become a standard mantra for organizations and their leaders: “We need the right people in the right seats!”  

But what about WRONG people on our bus?  

No one seemed to hear that portion of Collins’ speech that day, or at least I didn’t see many people jotting that portion down in their conference notes, because that’s the truly hard part of effective management and leadership: knowing when to kick people off your bus. Yet Collins said it, and he dedicates an entire web portal of video and audio resources to the topic. In the case of the co-worker I dismissed that day long ago, I sometimes wonder if he was “right people,” or if I had him “in the right seat.” After all, he was my hire.

Harvard’s Dr. John Kotter is a leading authority on leadership and change-management, and he, too, has strong feelings about when it’s time to let people go, especially when an organization undergoes the strains of change and reorganization.

As for Kotter’s view, healthy organizations need balance and, honestly, a healthy dose of push-back when it’s warranted. No organization should look like a scene from the classic 1975 movie The Stepford Wives, where everyone’s submitting to a single idea or concept in some docile, “follow the leader” approach. And no manager or leader wishes to be perceived as the next Donald Trump off “The Apprentice,” either.


No, I’m a big believer in what I often refer to as “the ministry of redirection.” People who aren’t in the right seat should STILL be invested in — up to a point. They should expect clarity about their roles, what’s working now, what isn’t, their future, and how to grow more in the area of their strengths. They deserve to be led with compassion, especially during times of change. If warranted, they should have opportunities to re-develop themselves as part of their current work or be given opportunities to explore new, meaningful work, even within the same organization, the same “bus.”  

However, in the end, if all else fails, I’d have the bus make one final stop to let “wrong people off,” no doubt about it.

I have a friend who teases me at times that there are only three sets of working people in this world with “lifetime employment.” They include independent business owners or farmers, Supreme Court justices, and, in a light-hearted jab at me personally, tenured professors.  

So, assuming you’ve tried “the ministry of redirection,” when should your bus pull over to let someone off at the next stop? To me, these four conditions help build a case, and there are likely many more:

  1. When the individual, no matter how hard everyone’s tried, simply isn’t “a fit” (this has everything to do with organizational culture and workplace engagement), then it’s likely time to part ways.
  2. When someone isn’t performing up to expectations and/or getting results, assuming both are well-defined for all involved, it’s time to pull the bus over to let someone off.
  3. When someone simply can’t handle change, though it’s inevitable, it may be time to pull the bus over. Growth is so crucial to most all organizations that letting someone become one of Gallup’s “actively disengaged” is poisonous to the rest of the team.
  4. When there is literally no drive or enthusiasm left, and/or they suffer from a very low EQ (not to be confused with IQ), it’s time. Emotional Intelligence is so important, especially if the hire in question is “front-of-house,” interacting with stakeholders on a daily basis.

Right people in the right seats on the bus is something in which many of us still believe strongly. But there’s also a time for pulling the bus over at the next stop and letting some riders reach their destination by other means. There may be another bus along for them soon…


2 thoughts on “Right People, Right Seats? What About WRONG People?”

  1. David Dicke says:

    Thanks for the insight Bill! I remember when we worked together, talking about removing those “cancerous” employees to allow the organization to move forward and be successful. And most of them do find “the right fit” down the road at the next stop.

  2. Hey Bill! I listened to this podcast last month and it made me think of your post. Listen to the first 10 minutes – good stuff!



Leave a Reply