Not long ago, I engaged in a conversation on Twitter about the de-motivating effects of placing extrinsic motivators on A players.
This resulted in a fun discussion about the nature of motivation and whether the concept of an “A player” is even a useful classification.
I’ll leave the discussion of extrinsic-vs-intrinsic motiviation stuff to Dan Pink. But what I don’t see is a really coherent explanation about what it means to be an “A player”, how a person becomes one, or whether the term has entered the MBA-buzzword graveyard with “proactive” and “synergy”.
Is the term “A player” fair, or even useful?
Popularized recently by the management style of Steve Jobs, the term “A player” has come into broad usage by management types who wish to sound knowledgeable. Which, sadly, is where good business terms go to die.
That said, the term does carve out a spot in your brain to understand that not all people in an organization are equally valuable. “A player” refers to the power plants of your organization: the people who supply an abundance of high-quality output.
This means that there are “B players” and “C players” who produce less useful output and are more likely to be sort of “along for the ride” in an organization.
“A player” is a role, not a permanent label
Yes, it is dangerous to use a term that looks and feels like a classification or labeling system for people, especially one that implies a judgement as to that person’s value. But it is a hard truth that some people are more valuable to an organization than others.
That said, it’s crucial to note that “A player” refers to a role a person plays. I’ve been an A player, a B player, and a C player at various times in my career, and sometimes even at the same job.
Identifying an A player
Whether you’re looking to hire and keep A players or trying to figure out if you are one, here are some observations I’ve made about people I’ve seen as A players:
Has a trail of accomplishments: A players leave behind visible, tangible results of their work, as they are results-oriented. A players ship.
Seeks out feedback: They don’t reject criticism outright, and actually seek feedback, since their ego is less valuable than getting something done.
Has confidence in own abilities: They’re not confident as in boastful, but as in the opposite of insecure. A players rarely shy from a challenge, knowing that it is a matter of patience and work to see something through.
Not big on seeking permission: They tend to choose the work they think will have the biggest impact and go for it, steamrolling obstacles in their way.
Self-evaluating and self-correcting: A players tend to introspect, are driven to improve themselves, and correct mistakes quickly.
Not interested in gossip: A players view “office drama” as a needless source of distraction rather than fodder for conversation.
Helps others succeed: A players are inspired, rather than threatened, by the success of their peers. They actively seek to help others become successful.
By this definition, B and C players are often insecure, complaining about office politics or “playing the game” against their successful peers. They hide their work, rarely shipping, in fear of criticism. They tend to wait for permission to move forward. They tend to wait for a lot of things to be in place before moving forward.
Redefining your role: How to become an A player
I believe that A players are generally B players who figured out that they alone are in charge of when they ship, what they ship, and the quality of their work.
The most important factor in becoming an A player is whether you can attach to a goal that is larger than your ego and insecurities. One that is worth risking failure for. One that is worth breaking the cycle of permission-seeking for. Preferably one that can be accomplished in a matter of a few weeks, lest you burn out before completing the goal.
With this goal burned into your brain, you’ll pull together the resources you need to accomplish it. You’ll naturally find someone to help you with gaps in your skills, because you’ll want to see this through.
And once you’ve accomplished it, you’ll never want to go back to B-player-style work again. You simply won’t be able to tolerate it. It’ll drive you crazy.
Then, the work begins again of finding the next goal that is similarly motivating.
Yes, finding that goal is easier said than done, but I’ll bet you can find it if you pay attention to what is around you.
How to lose your A players
Many organizations don’t actively identify their A players until they start to leave, and management staff, in a panic, begins some misguided effort to get the remaining A players to stay.
Steve Jobs famously said “A players like to work with A players. B players hire C players.” This, of course, comes back to the fact that B and C players aren’t confident in their abilities, and need to hire people that won’t show them up.
A players form ad-hoc alliances whose goal is to ship, while B and C players tend to form committees whose goal is to prevent things from being done wrong.
A players don’t react well to committees, forms, or bureaucratic processes that add friction to the act of building and shipping.
Each point of friction adds up until A players realize that they aren’t able to operate at their full capacity. They may even verbally warn their management (who often aren’t receptive, or make empty promises of change). And being high-value employees, they know they can succeed somewhere else that promises less friction.
It’s a lifelong process
Some of the A players I’ve met seem as if they were born that way, but for most of us, it’s a lifelong process of self-refinement. A lot of my struggle is to subjugate my ego long enough to really seek and apply feedback.
But to individuals, I can promise that the benefits of developing yourself into an A player are abundant. No one has the world in front of them quite like high-performing individuals.
And to organizations, the benefits of cultivating an environment that rewards A-player behavior are even greater. If you’ll identify and reward your A players, they will drive a culture of results and shipping that defines the best companies in the world.
After posting this, I realized that people may take the wrong message from all this. If you’re reading this, you’re probably an introspective person. If you’re introspective, you have a leg up on 95% of the population. You’re well on your way and very well could be an A player already. Just because there’s still room to grow doesn’t mean you aren’t amazing already.
So take any self-criticism with a grain of salt, and realize that the fact that you’re even evaluating yourself puts you in the category of people I’ve defined above as A players.