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Drivers and Passengers

On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers wanted. - Volkswagen

There are two types of people: those who take action and those who conveniently observe. Drivers and passengers.

Drivers fix problems while passengers prefer talking about problems. Drivers constantly demand more from themselves and others while passengers like things as is. Drivers move the needle and passengers don't.

Frank Slootman, the epic CEO of Snowflake, ServiceNow, and Data Domain, is passionate about the topic. From his book Amp it up:

Whenever I bring up this notion of drivers vs passengers at an all-hands meeting, I can see it makes some people uncomfortable… At one such meeting, an engineer raised his hand during the Q&A session and asked innocently: ‘How do I know if I’m a passenger or a driver?’ My flippant answer was that he’d better figure it out before I did.

I like Frank’s intensity and the stock market does too. He argues that through hiring and firing, a company must strive to have 100% drivers and 0% passengers. Simple as that.

But there’s nuance. The very same person can be a driver 30%, 50%, or 70% of the time depending on the environment. If I’m a 50% driver by nature, my environment may encourage me to be a driver 70%, even 80% of the time, and it can easily make me into a 0% driver.

Creating an environment that puts people in the driver's seat is as important as hiring drivers and firing passengers.


Be a driver. Are you yourself being a driver? 100% driver? Are you solving the problems your team expects you to solve? What problem are you conveniently ignoring? Fix important problems and clearly communicate when you choose not to. If you’re not driving then nobody else will.

Trust fully. If you want employees to solve your deepest problems you need to entrust them with your deepest problems. Do you genuinely trust your people to solve your most important problems? They will know it if you don’t.

Be explicit. In some cultures, people assume that they are allowed to do anything unless stated otherwise. In others, people assume the exact opposite. Be explicit with giving folks the mandate and scope to operate in. Say “I expect you to be an owner of area X.” Then write it down in a follow-up email. Then say it in front of others.

Celebrate. Want more drivers? Don’t take them for granted. Celebrate them privately and publicly. Rewarding a behavior leads to more of that behavior.

Don’t punish. Drivers crash into walls more often than passengers. When they inevitably do, provide mentoring and support, and have them try again. Never punish for a good effort.

Intensify. Human nature drives us to exert as little energy as possible, to take a rest in the passenger seat. Intensity is the way to fight back. Raise expectations, increase urgency, and sharpen the focus. A laid-back environment makes us all a little lazier.

Flag. Taking the backseat is often unintentional and happens to everyone. An employee is chillin’ in the passenger seat? Don’t assume anything. Flag it to them and observe what happens.

Before you fire, inquire. Is someone not taking the driver’s seat? Stop guessing and ask why. Are they even aware of the problem you want them to solve? Are they already working on it? Perhaps they are working on something way more important? Maybe they don’t have the skills to solve it? Are they scared of the problem? Is something going on in their personal lives? Is a co-worker blocking them? There’s so much that you don’t know.

Fire. Behavior is contagious. If nothing else works, drop the passenger at the nearest stop.

To my employees: You have my trust, blessing, and expectation to drive.

To the rest of you out there: Be a driver. It’s the only road to job fulfillment. And job security.


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