Filling Seats on Your Bus

If you lead any type of organization — company, church, or department — you probably have an organizational chart of some sort. It’s one of those necessary structures that help delineate chain of command and channels of communication, among others.

When I first began leading a church (a typical organization in many ways), I was encouraged to envision the org chart 5 – 10 years down the road. What departments would be necessary? What divisions? How many layers? How many staff? I even went as far as putting my name in most of the “open” positions in this hypothetical org chart. Visually, it looked impressive and strategic. Personally, it just looked like I had too much to do!

I think this is a valuable exercise for every leader. If you’ve never done it, you should. But a few years into leading at Woodstock City Church, this exercise created quite the conundrum.

Here’s the dilemma I began to ponder:

Is it better to start with the org chart in place so you can then find the right people for each box, or is it better to find the right people and build the organization around them?

To borrow from Jim Collin’s illustration, an organization is like a bus, and where people sit on the bus basically represents the org chart. Is it better to design the bus by pre-placing the seats and then filling each seat to meet growth demand, or should you allow people to board the bus in motion (don’t think too hard about the illustration — it’s just a metaphor) and build the seating assignments, positions, and structures of the bus around the riders?

Until recently, I would have suggested the bus, seats, and seating assignments go first. That is what I did in my “envision the future org chart exercise.” With the future in view, leaders can use this design to fill each bus seat as it is demanded. If the bus were sitting in a bus-barn, static, and still, this approach would probably work just fine. In fact, it would be highly preferable. It’s predictable.

But organizations are more like organisms. They grow and change. They evolve. They morph. The culture around the organization is constantly changing. The culture in the organization is ever evolving. And the people in the organization are (hopefully) growing and changing, as well. Which leads me to a recently realization:

For most of my leadership life, I’ve tried to drive a static bus with static seats in an evolving world with growing people.

In doing so, I almost unintentionally limited our organization’s potential. Just the same, I almost limited each staff members potential, too.

So back to our dilemma: Is it better to start with the org chart in place so you can then find the right people, or is it better to find the right people and build the organization around them?

Maybe there’s a third option:

Design the organization in a way where new leaders can be engaged and current leaders have space to grow and experience new responsibilities. This is possible, but only if the seats on the bus are mobile. Nothing can really be bolted down — at least not permanently. Think lawn chairs more than bus seats.

Practically, that’s what we’ve attempted to do at Woodstock City Church this year. Let me give you some examples:

1. We have an amazing leader in student ministry. He should definitely be a Campus or Lead Pastor at some point. His capacity was outpacing his role, so we redesigned the bus by redeploying the seat arrangement. We moved a few other departments under his supervision, giving him more global responsibility by creating a new seat on the bus. It was a completely new seat design, and we could make it happen, because we weren’t mentally bolted down to our seat layout.

2. As Lead Pastor, I am technically responsible for staff development at large, but there is a person on our local leadership team who is a great leader with wonderful insights for growing other leaders. For our church, our staff, and for his growth, we needed to engage this portion of his talent more, but that wasn’t necessarily in his seat assignment. Well, we redefined the seat layout.

3. One of our core ministry leaders was ready for a new challenge. She was a wonderful leader in her current role, but her desire for a new challenge was too strong to ignore. We decided her growth and potential influence in another area of our church trumped the current seat assignment and seat structure. We changed both for her to make the move.

4. One more. Our production team is full of talented and highly skilled people. They each have specific capabilities that make their contributions unique and vital to our success on Sunday morning, but as they each have grown individually, we’ve restructured the department three times to better position the seats on this section of the bus. This department looks very different today than last year. And my guess the evolution will continue.

The challenge is simple:

It’s often easier to stick with the organizational bus you’re currently driving with the seats bolted down, but your church or company might go further, faster, by allowing the people on your team to define a better seat arrangement. This is way bigger than simply positioning people in the best, static bus seat available. This is about moving seats around to best accommodate the ever-changing nature of change.

Application ideas to consider:

1. If you have a relatively small organization, division, or department, design an org chart for the future. Put your name in all the places where there are staff and employee gaps. Don’t write it in stone, though!

2. If you are in a slightly larger leadership position, evaluate your current staff, but not based on the current org chart. If all the seats on your bus were mobile, how would you redeploy them as to best utilize your current leaders while taking advantage of your current opportunities? What things could be naturally combined? Where are the gaps? Who is being underutilized?

3. Consider who is a leader versus an executor. Both are highly necessary, but each has its own place to thrive while you drive. Who is ready for more leadership? Who is ready for more responsibility? Who is indispensable (relatively)? Who provides a unique skill set that is vital to organizational success? Who is in the bottom 10%? The top 10%? These are hard questions, but one’s every leader should ask from time to time, especially knowing that nothing is ever static.

4. Resist the fear of change. Change is necessary and required for growth – organizationally and personally. Change is good, even when it’s hard. Overall, your staff will tolerate change if they believe you have their best interest in mind and believe the organizational mission matters.

5. Get advice from the bus. The people sitting in the seats know what’s working and what’s floundering. Often, they are closer to the action and have a better perspective. Engage them in the process.

I guess if leading were easy, everyone would do it! Moving things around the bus isn’t always easy, but it can be a key to unlocking personally and organizational the potential.

  4 Comments

  1. Darren Starr   •  

    Great to see this message. Very timely

  2. Tim Goodwin   •  

    I believe I have experienced the same. Leaders that hire based on talent and a need to fill a box/seat often struggle later with good team chemistry and culture. It probably feels good in the short term and then becomes painful until that person gets off the bus. So far, I have found getting the right people on the bus first and then plugging them into the right seats seems a better strategy. I like your analogy of the lawn chair versus the bolted down seat. Whether small or large, an organization as to innovate and do it quickly to continue to succeed and have exponential impact. Here are my current filters before we consider letting someone join our bus. There are many more steps in our hiring process but these have to be true for them to stay. 🙂
    1. Great cultural fit & high chemistry with current team
    2. Humble & Teachable
    3. Batteries included (self-starter, take initiative)

    • Gavin Adams   •     Author

      Tim, you’re a great leader! I believe you are absolutely correct. I love the “batteries included” metaphor. I’ve never heard that, but I’m officially stealing it now.

    • Shalin Siriwardhana   •  

      Culture and the structure are not two different things. When restructuring your company you have to look at the culture as well. There are 3 major organizational structures and they are hierarchy, flat and matrix. You can find good examples of these structures in the diagram community of Creately Organizational Chart Software .

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