The A Player: Meme or Mantra?

So, I read on the internets that 20th century management sage Peter Drucker had a habit of asking executives whether they had any “dead wood” on their teams*.

Execs would usually confess to harboring under-performers.  Then, Drucker would supposedly ask, did you hire your under-performers, or did they stop performing once they hit your shop?

I smell a related meme.

People who are growing teams have been telling me,  “A Players attract A Players.   B players attract C Players.   So I only want to hire A Players.”  (It might be more of a mantra than a meme.)

When someone’s not performing, it’s tempting to decide they’re a “C-player.”   In this view, performance is a fixed characteristic.

It’s like like being tall, or having brown eyes.  They were born that way.   And when you hired them, they fooled you.

Hmmm.   Where’s the manager in all of this?

The A Player terminology seems to be lifted out of the Topgrading paradigm, in sort of a warped way.

“Topgrading” is a method designed by Geoff and Brad Smart, most recently described in Who: The A Method for Hiring.

It’s simple.   Figure out what you really want before you even interview.  Then, ask the right questions to see whether a candidate fits the bill.


Though my own methods differ from the topgrading approach, we largely agree.

  • Hiring is a huge investment in money and time.
  • Thoughtful, well planned hiring is all too rare.
  • Most firms don’t execute on a truly consistent process.
  • Many very skilled senior professionals don’t know how to interview candidates.
  • And even minor improvements — like taking time to gain internal agreement on job responsibilities — make a big difference.

I don’t think that the Smarts would describe people who don’t fit into your company as Losers.

When you hired someone over an internal candidate, and probably paid them a premium, you thought they were an “A Player.”  Right?

Recent research by Wharton’s Matthew Bidwell points out that external hires often don’t perform at expected levels; it’s tough to retain them, too.  You don’t always get a good return on your investment.

And this doesn’t just happen at large firms.  Faced with challenges assimilating new managers, Twitter’s Dick Costolo has taken to teaching an internal management course himself.   Wired‘s Michael V. Copeland reports:

 As managers were piling in from places like Google and eBay or promoted from within Twitter, Costolo saw a consistent Twitter management style evaporate. “I realized that all my managers were managing differently,” Costolo says.

Performance is about more than skills.  Cultural fit and management support are critically important.

Successful people can falter when they move to another company — we read this story about A Players over and over in the business press.

There are any number of reasons that someone might not perform well in a job.

And yet, there are two main reasons that an employee can’t do a job:  they don’t have the skills; or, they don’t fit into your culture.

It’s kind of a Loser move to call someone you hired a “low performer” or “C player.”   Whether you hired them, or whether you made them, they’re your responsibility.

“A Player” is jargon, a shorthand for the perfect candidate — someone who’s got the skills and cultural fit, and who’s extremely likely to perform to meet or exceed your expectations.

Finding them requires your effort and focus.  You’ve got to define the job, its expected outcomes, and the skills and interpersonal attributes required to be successful.  You have to have the right conversations to identify them and bring them on board.

But when they join your team, your work’s not done.   Facilitating their success is your responsibility.

Managing isn’t like throwing someone into the water and letting them sink or swim.

A team’s coach makes sure that players are drafted, trained, outfitted, briefed about the opponent, and on the field when they need to be.   That’s management.

If you want use the A Player terminology without stereotyping people based on a meme, do read Who, or its less conversational prequel, Topgrading: The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method That Turbocharges Company Performance.

Then, apply the method.   Not just the mantra.

(*This is one of those stories that smells potentially apocryphal.  Just saying.)

Loser, by bre pettis, via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License

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