Get Off the Talent Bus

In a recent Made to Stick column in FastCompany magazine, Chip Heath and Dan Heath challenged the ‘Talent Bus’ metaphor – the idea that your goal as a leader is to recruit talented people, get them in the right seats, and drop off the slackers at the next stop. Using research from Harvard Business professor Boris Groysberg, they show us that this talent/no-talent dichotomy doesn’t exactly translate into reality. Groysberg studied highly talented Wall Street analysts, and learned that their performance often suffers after switching to a new firm. Despite their individual abilities, they were trumped by the culture, systems and support available in the new environment. In other words, even the most talented passengers can’t go very far if they’re on a broken-down bus.

This ‘Talent Bus’ metaphor is alive and well in the fraternity/sorority world.  We often hear that the ‘bottom third’ of our members are uninvolved, hopeless hangers-on.  We are told to accept that this is a natural dynamic in every organization, and that any attempt to reengage these members is futile. 'Just cut the dead weight, tough it out until graduation, or boost your recruitment standards and the problem will go away!'

This certainly feels liberating, but it’s a terrible trap. The majority of those members are not careless hangers-on. They are not talentless drones. They are simply victims of an organization that hasn’t given them the support and encouragement they need to thrive.  They need inspiration, coaching and reinforcement from leaders.


The Heath brothers offer this alternative: “What if talent is more like an orchid, thriving in certain environments and dying in others?” This metaphor suggests that talent is hidden among our ranks, and by improving the environment and nurturing members’ abilities, we can get back on the road.  They share an example in Hindustan Unilever (HUL), a subsidiary of Unilever, where "senior managers are required to spend 30% to 40% of their time grooming leaders."  This policy and others like it have helped HUL become a multi-billion dollar company with an enviable growth rate.

What would happen if – rather than recycling our passengers – we invested in them?  What would happen if you put 30% of your time into developing your members' abilities?  Imagine the result if you asked more members, on-on-one, for their input and support. Imagine if you spent time seeking out their talent, cultivating it, and asking them to apply this valuable expertise to critical chapter projects?  Would it elevate the dynamic of your chapter?  It certainly sounds like a more hospitable environment to me.

The ultimate lesson for student leaders: Invest in people. Maybe 30-40% is a stretch, so I ask you to spend just 5% of your time grooming the members of your organization.  Here’s how that breaks down.  If the amount of time you put into your chapter each week is…

  • 1 hour: Spend 3 minutes thanking members for their work, celebrating their accomplishments and encouraging them to try something else.
  • 5 hours: Invest 15 minutes each week introducing members to leaders in the interfraternal community: council officers, university administrators, headquarters staff and local advisors.
  • 10 hours: Block 30 minutes to teach a recently initiated member how to plan an event for the chapter.
  • 20 hours: Meet for one hour each week with one person you’ve identified as a future leader.  Give them work to do.
  • More than 20 hours: You’re doing way too much!  Give up some of the work and practice your delegation and supervision skills.

By staying on the ‘Talent Bus,’ we simply continue recycling members through a flawed system. It’s time to welcome a new strategy where we invest in one another, cultivate talent, and provide more opportunity for involvement. Leadership takes more than a tough decision to kick someone out; it takes the courage to reach out with everything we have to reengage them. Without this kind of leadership, our tattered bus will continue limping along down the road.