Talent Wars: The “A” Player Hoax

The cover of The Legion of Super-Heroes (vol. ...

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We love easy solutions: take a pill and lose weight; go to the right schools and become a zillionaire; hire the right “A” player new talent while clearing out the “C” deadwood and make your business a great success.

But life (mostly) is not that way. As Ronald Reagan said, “It’s simple, but not simplistic.”

And here’s the hoax – the canard; the idea that if you just hire those “A Players” – people like the Legion of Super Heroes (pictured right)  – the folks in the top 10% of their roles – and “release” the untrainable B and C players to their future career path you’ll have stocked the right talent to have your company become a success.

Here’s why it doesn’t work that way, and why the “topgrading” panacea as I’ve seen it applied is fraught with the same risks of something like unsupervised Fen- phen for obesity. It’s an interesting idea but full of danger.

There’s no doubt that hiring effectively, something that the topgrading folks recommend (and part of any smart business basics), is critical to an organizations success.  But just who exactly do you hire?

The Topgrading folks are pretty clear about who exactly you hire. You hire only “A Players” – “It’s packing the team, indeed the entire company, with the very best people at every pay level.  Topgrading hiring and promoting methods are basically common sense, but delivered and applied on steroids.” For the proponents of topgrading the world is divided into cake layers: the top 10% for A players, the next 25% for B players (people you might be able to turn into A players), and everything else – all 65% of it – C players.

You can, according to the topgrading proponents tell the difference between the A and C players: “A Players make things work; They press for progress and creative, energizing solutions while”C” Players drag their feet, resist change, stifle creativity, impede advances, kill off good ideas, and encourage the status quo.

Sounds pretty common sense; what’s the rub?

An individual’s performance within an organization depends on at least four dimensions – right person, right culture, right role, and right boss/workgroup – not just one. Just great talent alone (think best player available in a professional sports draft – absent close integration of the other factors) does nothing to predict or guarantee performance. The “A Player” metaphor – throw some all-stars together and things will be perfect, just does not work. (And speaking of the all-star approach, the US in men’s and women’s Olympic basketball dumped the throw all-stars together approach to staffing the Olympic teams ten years ago.)

The performance research wonks (Carol Dweck, Angela Lee Duckworth, and Anders Ericsson) will rightly suggest that individual achievement and performance is more about perseverance, time spent pursuing applied practice (think good executive coaching) and having multiple strategies and tools at your disposal.

And while people may have great individual talent, most (but not all) roles require performance within the a team or group context. And the factors that may drive group/team performance are different than those that drive individual performance (commitments to clear destination and goals, understood milestones and deliverables, agreed metrics/deliverables, and agreements on how the group/team will work together). So fitting the person within the boss who can work best with the individual as well as the right work goup is critical to the performance of an individual.

Role (the actual job) plays a key part. Hire a great sales person to write code and it’s pretty dicey. Ask the software engineer to handle customer service and it may also be a mismatch of talent.

Culture of the organization – the last (but maybe there’s more) dimension comes to mind as fourth factor. Great individual talent and wrong culture is a formula for someone bouncing. Think Queen Latifah in the House of Lords, or a Prince Charles type working at Pagatonia.

And last, the fact that some people are perceived as C players rather than A players may have significantly more to do with who they have been managed (or mismanaged), as well as the role or workgroup to which they are placed. Success in performance, it appears, has more to do with how you’re managed and how you’re coached than the sum of your innate talent or peripheral experiences.

So the prevarication that success comes to companies that systematically hire and develop only “A” players is twofold: one, that talent is innate and that you really can’t do much to develop the 65% of your workforce that are “C” players, and two, that filling your roster with all stars – and forgetting about things like right role, right culture, right boss and workgroup – is the simple (although it’s simplistic) fix.

Performance, both with individuals and organizations, just doesn’t work that way.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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