November 29, 2007
Getting on the Bus
My friend Steve worked as a school bus driver to help pay his way through seminary. His first year on the job was the horror story you would imagine--chaos, unruliness, insolence, anarchy. His second year on the job was a model of order, civility, respect and humanity. What made the difference?
The first year he tried to use his position as bus driver to make the kids behave. He cajoled, ordered, yelled and finally gave up. Nothing worked. Why? He actually had no authority whatsoever to make them behave. They had no reason to listen to him. He had no consequences he could enforce. Except one.
Every student was issued a bus pass showing that they had the right to ride on the bus. So at the beginning of the second year, Steve required every student to show the pass every day before getting on the bus. No pass. No ride. It was the only authority Steve had as the driver. It could be the first time or the hundredth time students had ridden on the bus. But if students forgot the pass or lost it, they weren't allowed on. No amount of whining, complaining, reasoning, anger or threats could gain them entrance. They had to find another way to school. Needless to say, students only showed up once without their passes.
But something else remarkable happened. The students behaved. They listened to Steve, though in fact, he had to say little to maintain order. They knew he had the authority to allow them on the bus or not, and they were not going to mess with him.
A lot of lessons of leadership could be learned from this story--be the meanest so and so on the block, put your bluff in on folks to exaggerate the authority you have, use what little resources you have to maximum effectiveness or be consistent in applying the rules. None of this is what I took away from Steve's story.
Rather I found a model for how to lead without micromanaging, how to give overall direction while still allowing freedom for those you supervise to do their jobs. Over the years I've identified a few key points in the process of doing our work that require me to sign off--contract terms, budgets and a couple others. Otherwise my team members are free to do their work and come to me with their questions and problems as needed. Generally, I leave them alone, trusting them to do quality work.
Different types of work will require different sign-off points. But no manager can watch every single step of everything employees do. A manager has to choose. So those sign-off points should be limited, probably to no more than a half-dozen, and they should be the critical points in the process.
Certainly if an employee is underperforming to a significant degree, closer scrutiny will be needed. But if in general work is proceeding satisfactorily, more involvement by a manager in day-to-day work (even if the manager is the smartest person on the team) will not necessarily create a better end result.
Steve did less on the bus as a disciplinarian his second year, but because he was strategic in the use of his authority, the results were vastly better.