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Are You Sitting in the Right Seat?

How would you assess your organization? From the warehouse, to the production lines, to the accounting office and beyond, are the right people in the right seats? Personal experience and research strongly suggest not.

To paraphrase an often repeated quotation by Charles Dickens from his famous novel "A Tale of Two Cities," it was the best of decisions, it was the worst of decisions, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .

In manufacturing, every employee and job is co-dependent upon a network of other employees and their jobs. This may be more significant for success in manufacturing companies than in other industries as so much of what is done is co-dependent on others. And so, as leaders, we must be rigorous in how we hire, place, review and re-assign every one of our employees, so they get into the right seat on the bus.

When I was president at a middle market manufacturing company, I had hired a top gun salesperson. Aggressive. Looked under every rock. Knew the marketplace. He was excited to get a fresh start. We were eager to have him lead us to the Promised Land. And that he did. New business rolled in. Revenue . . . and profits . . . shot up. All was good on the home front, until . . .

Some assert that it takes great people to be great. I would suggest that success is more likely achieved when the blend of the team is perfectly positioned.

Having finally reached his personal plateau in terms of conquests and compensation, this determined salesperson, with his own career plans, asked for a meeting. Why not? I had nothing to lose, or so I thought. The purpose of the meeting was to ask me for a promotion, from sales rep to sales manager. He saw this opportunity as a way to move up the career ladder while justifying additional pay.

We talked. I thought long and hard -- and finally granted his wish. Worst employee-related decision of my career. Ever notice how the best at what they do cannot always make the transition to management? Magic Johnson of the L.A. Lakers comes to mind. One of the best to ever play; failed miserably as a coach. In my case, the salesperson was not Magic Johnson, but he was awfully good at his trade, but equally poor as a sales manager as Magic was as a coach. And since he now had to split his time between selling and managing, his sales began to slip. It quickly became a lose/lose proposition.

No wonder that years later, when reading Jim Collins’ 2001 massive best seller "Good To Great," it resonated so deeply with me -- particularly the much discussed analogy related to seats on the bus. As Collins asserted when comparing a bus to a business, it was not sufficient to have the right people, i.e., employees, on that bus. True success came when the right people where in the right seats on the bus. In my case, I had moved a key employee into the wrong bus seat.

How would you assess your organization? From the warehouse, to the production lines, to the accounting office and beyond, are the right people in the right seats? Personal experience and research strongly suggest not. Let’s consider how you can make that happen.

Know What You Are

Identify what you are, what the company is looking for in an employee. Strong work ethic. Team player. Moldable. Experienced. Whatever the criteria, know what that is. Each organization, and the teams within, might have different needs, so determine what is right for your company, your team.

I recently visited a client prospect. This manufacturing company, an industry leader in its space, is under new management, a new president arriving about 14 months ago. The president and I spoke briefly. He then asked if I would like to take a tour of the facility. “Yes, of course.” The first thing he did was walk me down a hall from his office leading to the factory. Stepping just inside the factory door, we stopped. He pointed to a rather large poster on the wall.

The president described how one of his first steps upon arrival was to gather his team and draft a corporate mission statement. He excitedly explained how the team constructed the Statement, making sure that it represented the company’s current values, goals and principles. Ever since that exercise, the energy and passion among team members has risen dramatically. They knew who they were and what they wanted to be.

Making the “Right” Choice

Knowing who and what you are as an organization will greatly influence how to hire the right people for the right seats. Make sure that you take your time during the recruiting/hiring process. Be cautious when making decisions. My most questionable hiring decisions arose when I allowed my heart to make the decision. We “connected,” we had chemistry. But I knew in short order that that VP of production was not in the right seat. Ultimately, I had to escort him off the bus. Remove the emotion. Be thorough in your hiring processes. Never settle for good enough. Hold out for that right person.

Making the Hard Decisions

As important as hiring is, getting the wrong people off the bus may be the bigger challenge. We have all been there. We knew the person was not in the right seat, yet we did not pull the trigger. They had been loyal, had been working at the company forever. They were part of “the family.”

Yet, for the betterment of the company, it was time to make a change. Companies outgrow employees -- and vice versa. Whereas an employee was in the right seat at the last depot, heading into the next station they are not. If a change is necessary, do not let the decision linger. Most management people I have encountered are loathe to pull the trigger yet, in almost all cases, feel enormous relief immediately after doing so. Be deliberate, decisive and move on.

Not So Fast

Just because an employee is ill suited for their current seat, it does not mean that there is not another seat that is better for them. If you suspect that an employee no longer fits, do not act hastily. Take a deep breath and give the situation some thought before processing that pink slip. Will additional training help? Is there another responsibility for which they would be better suited? Would establishing a mentor/mentee relationship with someone more capable and productive help? How about a shift in employee mindset?

Getting the right people in the right seats on the bus is not an easy task, but when accomplished the results are magical.

I once had a production line employee who was quickly becoming unproductive.  He was obviously bored. His attitude was affecting those around him. Did we jettison that person? No. Through conversation and a reassignment, we found a seat on the bus that better suited all concerned. The resurgence in the employee’s energy was contagious. All involved benefited from the reseating.  

Some assert that it takes great people to be great. I would suggest that success is more likely achieved when the blend of the team is perfectly positioned. I am a big sports nut. Grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. So imagine my excitement when the S.F. Giants won baseball’s World Series for the third time in five years. Not once were they favored to even get to the World Series, much less win it all. Was their bench filled with superstars? Not even close. But they have had the right players in the right seats for them. A trio of superstars. A pitcher who could come in from the bullpen and get that important out. An outfielder who comes into the game in the late innings to make that shoestring catch that the starter was less likely to make.

Getting the right people in the right seats on the bus is not an easy task, but when accomplished the results are magical. Jim Collins’ research determined that the best of the best commit to this. With focus, commitment and effort, you and your company are capable of doing the same.

Lee Schwartz, former CEO and president of manufacturing and distribution companies, is principal of the Schwartz Profitability Group (SPG) that, for almost 13 years, has uncorked the operational bottlenecks of manufacturing and distribution companies, boosting their bottom line results. Lee’s clients range from smaller family-run companies to Fortune 500 firms across a multitude of industries. His consulting and operational turnaround work helps clients find solutions related to process improvement, supply chain management, inventory control, workflow design, and operational performance. Lee can be reached at [email protected] or at 310-450-2628. More info can be found at www.schwartzpro.com or his LinkedIn profile.

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