“A players” and redefining your job

credit: nettsu via Flickr

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.

You won’t have to work very hard to eliminate distractions, because the distractions that seemed so sweet and tempting before will taste bitter to you now. The desire to ask permission will be gone.

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.

Samurai funerals and office politics

Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death.”  -Uesugi Kenshin, 16th century

At lunch with a friend last week, we diverged into a subject that got a lot deeper than we’d intended. He asked me, “has anyone ever told you that you’re too emotionally invested in the business… that you care too much?”

Um, yes? This sent back a flood of memories.

If there’s one trait that people will remember me for at the startup I worked for, it was that I was deeply, tragically invested in the ups and downs of the company. Which isn’t ever healthy, but never less so than when your company is a nuclear meltdown of a startup.

I felt as if I might die if the company went under, if I lost my job, or a whole host of other things that were outside my control. I was anxious, I never slept, and I was profoundly depressed almost all of the time.

That company and those feelings are well behind me now. But when I’m honest, I recognize that I never did figure out how to truly divest myself of that need to attach so deeply. It’s been part of the “passion” package that I bring to the table, right?

Back to the conversation: needless to say, my friend had my attention. Another mutual friend (whom I actually knew from the nuclear startup) had relayed a story, which drove home the point in a way neither of us had thought through before:

Before a samurai goes into war, his family holds his funeral. His memory is laid to rest, his family and loved ones grieve, and he is dead for all purposes. All but the purpose of battle. 

What is left to fear? He is already dead. The only thing to gain or lose is grace and dignity in the face of an inevitable death. The samurai is now unbound by attachments and fears of pain, loss, or death, and he fights with an unmatched fearlessness and fierceness. 

I consider this to be apocryphal until I can source it, but it does create a lovely and profound metaphor for office politics.

You probably care a lot about the projects you’re working on. You want them to be done right, but there are obstacles in your way. Managers, red tape, approvals, deadlines. It’s all so bloody important.

But the thing is, you’re already dead.

When you look your boss, coworker, or CEO in the eye, you’re talking to a person that you’ll eventually have an awkward conversation with. One of you will explain to the other, in the politest terms, why you won’t be working there anymore.

All the things that mattered so much: the deadlines, the approvals, the frustrating coworker, none of it matters one whit anymore.

So what do you have left at that point?

You have the relationships you built and nurtured, the lessons you learned, the impact you made, and maybe a little bit of money for your trouble. But that’s pretty much it.

Relationships. Lessons. Impact. Money. That’s pretty much all you get, and I believe in that order.

If you’re worried about things that you don’t get to take out the front door with you, why?

When you leave, will they remember that you beat the deadline, or that you were kind and invested in the people around you?

When you leave, will they hand you a trophy for “doing it right”, or did you learn ways of doing things you’d have never thought of on your own?

When you leave, will they feel remorse for all the bureaucracy that tied you up, or that you always seemed to make things happen?

So before you stress yourself sick for that deadline, talk down to that coworker, blame that boss, or wait for someone else to fix your problems, remember that you’re already dead. You’re going to walk away with a cardboard box and precious little else, so make damn sure you’re investing in things you get to take with you.


P.S. It’s also interesting to note that life, as a whole, is exactly the opposite. You get to keep nothing, but you get to leave behind relationships, lessons, impact, and money… again, I believe, in that order. So as noble as it is to build these things, hoarding them is futile and sharing them is everything.

Grabbing a shovel

“You’re obviously talented and sharp. But I have no idea how to use you”.

About the third time I heard this from different bosses, I felt like an utter failure. Why would someone as capable as I felt be so woefully misunderstood and underutilized?

As it turns out, it was 100% my fault, and the fix isn’t all that hard.

As I outlined in another post, a coworker shared the secret of his relatively stress-free work environment (the same environment that stressed me to the point of physical illness). He was a free agent. He was only there because he wanted to be. He woke up every day and made the decision to come to work because it was what he wanted to do, not what he had to do.

But I couldn’t just be a free agent. I didn’t know where to start to develop that sense.

As it turns out, a different piece of advice he gave me later was the missing piece, the building block that earns you that free agency. I was going around in circles worrying about how I, a brand-new programmer of less than 6 months, could contribute to our large and intimidating project. He told me this: “I’m looking for people who will just grab a shovel and get to work. If you can do that, great.”

On the marketing side, I’d spent so much time trying to convince people that I had good ideas that I never bothered to just get things done. It didn’t help that the department didn’t have any clue of what we should be getting done. We just knew we needed big ideas that could recoup our ever-expanding millions in losses.

But in my interactions with the development team, they weren’t interested in ideas. They were interested in execution.

This flipped my whole world upside down. Actually, it had been upside down my whole life, and this flipped it right side up. I realized that I could simply “grab a shovel” and start helping the customers by adding small improvements to the code. I would just dig in and add copy changes in one place, fix small things in another, or add features.

I had needed decent e-mail support as a member of the Marketing team for years. So I set about adding it in myself, and had it done in a matter of a couple of weeks. I asked our lead developer, “This was so easy. Why didn’t we have this sooner?”

His reply was a bit coy: “Because we didn’t have you to build it.”

That was the most liberating feeling in the world, because I was proving value to myself and to anyone who cared to pay attention.

The same fear that kept me from achieving at work now holds me back from contributing to open-source projects: I spend so much time being intimidated or hoping someone will tell me what to do that I would rather wait than start trying to contribute any way I can. I still let this happen too often, but from here, I plan to just dig in, find something to fix, and get it done.

In my new day job, I come in every day and try to grab a shovel and get to work. No one has expressed a lack of knowledge of what to “use me for”. Rather, they know that I am going to be digging, so now the only concern is to make sure that I’m doing so in the right place.

The process isn’t complex: I keep a list of the things I want to get done. I check in with my coworkers and tell them what I want to do for the day. At the end of every day, I know how I feel about what I accomplished. There’s no technique, I just know whether I feel good or bad about a day’s efforts, and so I strive to push a little harder so I can feel good at the end of every day.

I also keep my eyes peeled for places I can get things done and just go for it. I spent so much of my life waiting for permission that it’s a bit jarring to just start doing. But here’s what I learned: if you require permission for everything, I can guarantee you’re going to waste your talents and your life waiting.

So now, I try to take a risk, go out on a limb, and do something good without permission once in a while. It gets my heart racing to know there could be some negative reaction, but it seems like those are the times where I get real traction on the most important things.

If I’m hiring someone, I’d rather pick up someone holding a shovel than someone with a sign that says “I have some great ideas about digging if someone will just give me a chance.”

Stop talking about it. Grab a shovel and get to work. I promise you’ll be happier.

If you don’t like blah blah blah, leave.

Some pretty tough talk from the You The User blog basically states that if your job isn’t making you happy, excited, engaged, challenged, etc., then it’s time to walk out the door.

Most reactions were along the lines of “you must not have kids”, or “that’s fine if your job is a plaything”.

The thing is, Matt (Matthew hates being called Matt, apparently) is in large part correct. So while it does tend to engage the automatic-eye-rolling mechanism in my brain, there’s something valuable here to investigate.

Imagine one semantic tweak to his list. Instead of

If you aren’t being challenged in your job – leave.

I read it as

If you aren’t being challenged in your job – What are you still doing there?

And rather than

If you think you are successful – leave and find something or somewhere where you aren’t. When you become successful again – leave again.

I see

If you think you are successful – why aren’t you looking for somewhere you aren’t?

Then, rather than the “15 commandments of walking out in a huff”, we have some serious points to consider.

This way, if the answer is “I can’t get another job” or “I need this paycheck”, you at least have a graceful way to beg out of the discussion. However, you’re most likely wrong. I don’t meet many people these days who leave a job, never to find another source of income.

This idea of being a free agent was impressed on me by a dear friend. And the idea is career- (and life-) changing, because instead of a wage slave, you’re free to be the absolute best. If you’re undervalued, underused, or underappreciated, you can be confident that it you can go be the best somewhere else. Why settle for less if you don’t have to?

The trick is realizing you don’t have to. Let me share one piece of wisdom that this friend gave to me in my darkest hour:

If you feel like you are trapped in your job, you’re not, and it really is probably time to leave.

Life is too short to not soak up every challenge. And as I’ve come to learn, it’s also too short to spend in a job you hate but fear to lose.

And unless you work for the government, if you hate your job, you’re going to lose it sooner than you think.

So yes, the post may sound like it’s being dictated from an ivory tower, but there’s a solid foundation beneath that tower. My advice is that if you find yourself disagreeing violently, you may want to give some thought to your current situation.