It's hard to believe that driving a bus can be a metaphor for hiring great talent. But when you add flea training and changing square holes into round ones, it becomes a metaphor for leadership.


Answer: When a company is more interested in hiring the best person who applies, not the best person available.

I've been on a kick of late--about 30 years or so--making the contention that most company leaders inadvertently set up their hiring practices to weed out the weak rather than attract the best. For an entrepreneurial company that wants to grow, this strategy limits how big the company can become.

To overcome the natural tendency to hire for the short term rather than the long term, I suggest company leaders learn how to drive buses, figure out how to put square pegs into round holes and then find out how to train fleas. These are key leadership traits every company leader should master.

1. Learn to drive buses.

Most of us recall Jim Collins' theme from his bestseller Good to Great: In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with "where" but with "who." They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.

Which brings me to my rather superficial Magic Bus Theory of Recruiting. The quick summary goes something like this: Imagine your bus is a big job posting with compelling titles, flashy neon lights, a cool horn, etc. It's a big bus with enough space for all types of people, although some routes would just be for sales folks, or engineers, or accountants, or whomever. The recruiting idea is to have top people who want to get on the bus and drive it around the city. This is what sourcing passive candidates is all about. Good recruiting is about putting the person in the passenger seat as soon as the person gets on board, with a clever phrase like, "Would you be open to go for a drive if this job represented a true career move?" This is inviting enough for just about everyone to go for the drive.

Once on board you need to conduct a quick screen to see if the person qualifies to be on the bus and possesses the "Achiever Pattern." This means the person has accomplished something significant in comparison to his or her peers. If so, describe the job in broad terms, highlighting the employee value proposition and why the job has the potential to represent a significant career move for the right person. Then ask the person to describe a major accomplishment most comparable to your needs. If your job offers some stretch and growth, the person will then begin to sell you as to why he or she is qualified. This is how you put the person in the back seat.

Now you have to find the right seat for the person, but don't let them off until you get them to the right stop. Unfortunately, most companies have predesigned bus routes and too many filters to even get the right people on the bus in the first place. Worse, it takes an act of God (in this case, the compensation and legal departments) to change bus routes. That's why we need another leadership lesson.

2. Learn to change the shape of round holes.

To get great people onto the bus to begin with, you can't use job descriptions. That's why thesemust be banished as boarding passes. To take this idea one step further, I'm going to suggest that once you have the right person on the bus, create a job that offers the person a true career move, not a lateral transfer. In HR speak--don't be afraid to modify the job description afteryou've found the person, not before. Rather than try to fit a square peg (the person) into a round hole, modify the shape of the hole (the job requisition).

Now comes the hard part, since you're already thinking this is not possible. That's why you first need to understand the nature of fleas.

3. Learn to train fleas.

Zig Ziglar used to tell a story about how fleas can be trained to jump lower (not a typo). Before any training, fleas can naturally jump 20 inches or so unless you put them in a 5-inch mason jar with a lid on top. After 20 minutes or so, the fleas get tired of bumping their heads on the top and "learn" to jump only 4.9 inches. When you take the top off of the jar, none can get out since they've mentally put a limit on their jumping ability. The point of this is to suggest that too many leaders sometimes act like trained fleas seeing only the restraints preventing them from implementing change, rather than the opportunity in doing so.

Of course, banishing skills-based job descriptions and writing the job spec after you've chosen the person raises legal compliance excuses ( a top labor attorney indicates there are none), impacts the ATS and workflow design, affects recruitment advertising, requires better workforce planning, changes the role of the hiring manager, requires flexible budgeting, and even requires figuring out who should be driving the bus. I call this the hiring Catch-22 which as the video shows is an easy trap to fall into, but not that hard to climb out.

Despite these challenges, the benefits are enormous compared to the issues to be overcome. At a minimum, you'll hire more talented people, and increase on-the-job performance, job satisfaction and retention. Your new found job design flexibility will allow you to structure work to better meet the needs of a demographically changing workforce, and your hiring productivity will soar by eliminating all of the self-imposed bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Of course, to pull this off you'll first need to recognize there's no lid on the jar.