Where in the world are the “A” players?

May 7, 2010


My definition of an “A” player in your company is someone who has serious talent and cares enough to put in the necessary time to win.  That’s it.  That’s my definition.  A large organization can survive with several non-A players and some do pretty well with very few A-players.  In the startup world, with limited resources and limited time, you can ill-afford to not have A-players.  The entrepreneurs that survive surround themselves with A-players.  How stacked is your team?

I believe that people are born with talent – some with numbers, some with sales, some with creativity, etc.  Every individual is unique and gifted in some way.  The goal of the entrepreneur is to put people in the right roles.  In the right roles, a seriously talented person will thrive.  Sometimes that means the rockstar developer stays a developer and does not become a manager even though they really want to.  Sometimes that means telling your salesperson that they probably aren’t cut out to be a salesperson and perhaps they should look into becoming an HR manger.  I’ve hired the wrong folks before thinking that they would thrive in a startup environment and they couldn’t do it – they couldn’t handle the ambiguity, they couldn’t handle the stress, they couldn’t handle the crazy goals, they couldn’t handle the extra hours.  That’s ok, you need to put people in a position that they can succeed.

Now, even if you do place them in a position where they can succeed – for example, a great salesperson – they can still turn out to be a non-A player or even a below average player.  These are the first round draft picks in the NFL that are filled with talent and promise, but totally flame out.  Why?

I’ve had salespeople that are satisfied with reaching their quota.  Once they reached their quota, they take a deep breath and hit the beach even though there are substantial rewards if they strive higher.  They don’t care about winning because their thirst was quenched and they thirst no more.  A well-paid developer can react the same way, extremely talented, but does the minimum to get their paycheck.  A great customer service person who assumes that the call at 4.55pm on Friday can wait until Monday may lead to a very important customer feeling frustrated until Monday.  These talented employees do little to challenge themselves, compete, and push the company to new levels.  They lack desire, direction, urgency, motivation, and most of all they pass this culture to other folks which can be extremely dangerous for startups.  These are the B and C players that you cannot have permeate your startup.  Sure you can’t have all A players, but too many of these B and C players you’ll find your A players suddenly playing B and C ball.

Here’s an A player.  They are always stretching goals that you set and they hate to lose.  They take personal responsibility for everything.  They push the people around them to set higher bars, to compete, to put in the necessary time.  Startups are not for the faint of heart and they are definitely not for the clock-watching employee.  The A-players thrive on startup energy, they love how fast things can get done, they hate bureaucracy, they expect excellence, and they want to make a real difference.  Ultimately, they care. How many A-players do you have?  How are you investing more time and resources into them?  How are you finding them?  

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Comment by Evan K
2010-05-07 19:38:58

Not sure what I like better…the picture or the article! The very top entrepreneurs & business associates I’ve met in the A category tend have been introduced through a mutual friend. I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts on how to speed up the process.

Comment by meks
2010-05-08 00:19:52

Andy, this is a well written article about what the owners in society expect from the owned. Hopefully not too many people buy into your working philosophy and are able to lead healthy, fulfilled lives.

2010-05-08 16:24:50

Rock solid post. I completely agree. I’ve burned through a good number of employees since I started my business about 5 years ago. I only keep people that are A-Players. That’s what makes me successful.

Comment by Karthick Subscribed to comments via email
2010-05-09 01:33:10

Very new explanation for “A” players. A new approach. Everyone think different about this term.

Comment by Eoino
2010-05-10 05:14:53

Inciteful article Andy but I’d be curious to hear the reasons why an ‘A’ player is satisfied with giving a ‘B’ performance? You touch on monetary rewards but a simple ‘job well done’ can work help motivate. Different personality types respond to different motivating factors, it’s up to the coach to figure out what motivates each of his players.

Comment by Andy
2010-05-10 13:25:27

Thanks for the interesting comment. I definitely disagree with the notion that people who are “A” players are unable to lead healthy, fulfilled lives. In fact, I’d argue the exact opposite – people who are motivated care about what they accomplish each day not only at work, but outside of work as well. As an owner, I have the obligation and responsibility to invest and recognize the “A” players – they should be celebrated and challenged with mentoring and exciting opportunities. I think owners spend far too much time focusing on B and C players when investing and ensuring the success of A players bring far greater returns. To the extent you are arguing owners push people into leading unhealthy, unfulfilled lives, I agree with you that this is short-sighted and wrong.

Comment by Cary Bergergon
2010-05-10 20:52:29

The A player starts with you. If you don’t expect your employees to produce they never will.

Comment by Eric Itzkowitz Subscribed to comments via email
2010-05-13 08:48:05

Another awesome post on which I have 2 thoughts.

1. I believe that true A Players are born with a higher level of competitiveness that innately drives them to win. B Players can be coached to become A Players, but a true A Player has that extra something you just can’t teach.

2. “These are the first round draft picks in the NFL that are filled with talent and promise, but totally flame out. ”

Can you say Ryan Leaf?

Comment by Ades
2010-05-16 07:05:03

Good point.

You should write another article – this time for Entrepreneurs – on how to be a preferred startup company for “A” players. Because often times, it’s companies that are unable to provide good working environments for its employees; for them to thrive, grow and stay motivated. Sure, cost cutting is a very important thing for startups but it shouldn’t be at the cost of demoralizing its employees.

Comment by Blue Horizon VC
2010-06-07 10:49:30

A good strategy is for small businesses to hire college interns. They will be eager to work for you (usually for free) and if you find out they are an A-player, you can offer them a job when they graduate. Then you know that you will have at least one loyal A-player. Every entrepreneur should have a plan, though, in case you cannot find any A-players.

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