“A” Players Unwelcome

Recently I attended a meeting of HR executives at the leadership development center of a big company based in Minneapolis. The subject of the meeting was recruiting challenges, particularly the difficulty in finding top talent?the A players. Appropriately enough, on one wall of the facility was a saying: “So easy to find an army, so hard to find a general.” This was attributed to some ancient Chinese philosopher (apparently no one in China has had anything interesting to say in the last 2,000 years). Of course they might have just found it in a fortune cookie, but it sounds better if attributed to Sun Tzu. But deeper thought brought the realization that this statement was not exactly profound. Old man Sun was probably in a philosophical slump when he came up with this one. He was only stating the obvious: good leaders are hard to find. Few are called, even fewer are chosen.

But even finding a good army is hard. An army represents all the people the general depends on to get the job done. For every A player an organization has there needs to be lots of B players. And this is where recruiting needs to focus its energies. A players are hard to find but there aren’t that many jobs that require A players either. Dave Lefkow recently wrote about recruiting B players and I couldn’t agree more. So why do recruiters always strive to hire the “best”? Part of the reason is no organization likes to admit they accept anything but the best. But this creates unrealistic expectations and unnecessary pressure on recruiting. Hiring the best may be possible for an organization with an unlimited budget, but that doesn’t apply to anyone I know. Leave aside the fact that an organization with all A players would likely implode under the weight of all those egos; one reason Enron turned out to be such a fiasco was because it was packed with hotshots. The B players, like whistleblower Sherron Watkins, were shunted aside.

The Need for B Players

An article in USA Today summed up the problem very well.

When employers aren’t busy weeding out the bottom 10% of their workforce, they’ve been trying to steal the A players from the competition in a battle to lure the best. But some of those employers are coming around to the realization that failure and success might not lie among the weakest and strongest links, but in the solid middle, the B players, the 75% of workers who have been all but ignored. Companies have been trying to capture the “unicorns,” but the focus is starting to shift to the horses, the B players.

Research by Harvard professor Tom DeLong has shown that while A players can make enormous contributions to performance, companies’ long-term performance ? even survival ? depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players. These capable, steady performers are the best supporting actors of the corporate world. They counterbalance the ambitions of the company’s high-performing visionaries. Unfortunately, organizations rarely learn to value their B players in ways that are gratifying for either the company or these employees. DeLong also claims that his research shows that there is no evidence that A players are any smarter than B players ? the difference is temperament.

That last part, the temperament, also highlights another problem with A players. They need to be continuously challenged and rewarded, else they will leave. A players are much higher risks for turnover than B players. For this reason a colleague of mine has coined a term that describes B players well: “competent stayables.” These are the people who get the results (a point underscored by Lawrence Bossidy and Ram Charan in their bestseller Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done). A players have the vision, but B players are the ones who execute. And execution is ultimately what makes the difference between failure and success ? the best ideas are worthless if not well-executed.

Recruiting B Players

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So what do we need to do to get better at finding and hiring the competent stayables? The first thing is to get out of the mindset about only hiring the best. That was never true for even the best recruiters ? it always meant the best of what was available. Start ignoring the drivel that relying on B players can only lead to failure. One prominent writer who ought to know better claims that hiring A players is the only way to build a great team: “A players hire A players; B players hire C players ? meaning that great people hire great people. On the other hand, mediocre people hire candidates who are not as good as they are, so they can feel superior to them.”

This kind of feel-good nonsense or seat-of-the-pants wisdom is precisely why so many are so fixated on hiring A players. Recruiting processes and the systems that support them are also designed to identify the best by screening out all others. This lengthens the time and adds to the cost of recruiting. Organizations need to change the focus of recruiting efforts to identifying those candidates looking for stability and longevity, but also challenging work. Hiring B players doesn’t mean settling for people who are not interested in being challenged.

It also requires changing screening criteria to look for candidates with a track record of execution, not long lists of accomplishments. There may also be a need to consider compensation packages that are not heavily dependent on pay-for-performance. For all the good that pay-for-performance does, it is primarily best for motivating A players. B players that produce dependable performance will suffer if compensation is determined by meeting ever higher targets.

B players also want a life outside the office. These are not the workaholics interested in working 16-hour days. They want advancement, but not at any price. Look for evidence of that in identifying them. DeLong’s research suggests that some of the best B players are former A players who have chosen different motivations than the ones they had in the past. These may be some of a company’s best hires because they can fill in for A players when needed, having been there before.

Recruiters need to radically rethink how they approach recruiting, getting away from the ridiculous goal of hiring only A players. B players are the middle 60% to 70% of employees who consistently perform in their current role. They may not stand out like the As, but companies would be unable to function without them. Instead of chasing the fantasy of always hiring the best, recruiters would be better off and far more effective if they channeled their efforts to identifying and hiring B players. Forget Sun Tzu.

Raghav Singh, director of analytics at Korn Ferry Futurestep, has developed and launched multiple software products and held leadership positions at several major recruiting technology vendors. His career has included work as a consultant on enterprise HR systems and as a recruiting and HRIT leader at several Fortune 500 companies. Opinions expressed here are his own.