The Definitive Definition of an A Player
Perhaps no element of human resources and talent management is more misunderstood, and in some cases controversial, than the notion of an “A player,” or top-performing employee. Once the subject is broached, the conversation immediately turns to questions about whether it is possible to build a team entirely of A players — and if doing so is even a good idea. After all, doesn’t a team need its B (and C) players, too?
Today, I’m here to set the record straight!
The Definitive Definition of an A Player
My 2017 book, The A Player, opens with this definitive definition:
/ ā plā-ər/
Also spelled “A-Player”
- An employee who is in the top 10 percent of their profession on an industry-wide basis for the salary paid.
- A person on your team whom you would enthusiastically rehire.
- The employees at an enterprise who drive all the profitability and growth.
- A person of high integrity who delivers on commitments.
- The employee every organization covets.
— synonyms: awesome employee, top performer, high performer, rock star, all-star, superstar, team player, game changer
Pretty straightforward, right? Who wouldn’t want their entire team 100 percent filled with these top performers acting with high integrity? The A player needs to be a great cultural fit for your organization, and I cover this extensively in The A Player.
However, after the first printing of the book, I wanted to be crystal clear that A players are team players everyone wants and values on the team, so I added a sixth point to the definition:
- The employee who fits your company culture and models your core values and behaviors.
In fact, A players are the role models of your firm’s core values. They walk the talk with their actions and behaviors.
The Incredible True Value of Hiring A Players
As illustrated above, A players are the most productive people in your organization. A little-known axiom in business is you win with the best team money can buy, meaning your available salary budget needs to be optimized with the absolute best talent at each and every position. Said another way, A players deliver 2-3 times the productivity of B players for similar compensation. While lesser managers fret about paying a validated A player 10 percent more than a B player, simple math dictates that having one A player instead of two B players creates at least a 45-50 percent savings in salaries. Combined with the 2-3 times increase in productivity, there is an incredible value increase of around 700-1,000 percent!
These are stunning numbers that sports teams understand as they build their teams in pursuit of championships. However, for reasons I will explain in a moment, such numbers elude the vast majority of businesses. These businesses don’t have the gumption to make the hard calls regarding performance and talent management. As I like to muse, “When it really matters — like in sports and our kids’ academic grades — we take no chances and load the teams with A players.” Unfortunately, when it comes to business, we make a lot of excuses as to why we should tolerate B and C players.
Common Misconceptions and Hang-Ups About A Players
Part of the reason why B and C players are tolerated in the business environment stems from the misconception that A players all have type-A personalities. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, A players possess all personality types, ranging from shy and introverted to assertive and extroverted. If this misconception is harbored within your organization, be sure to suppress it quickly, as it is prejudices your view of top talent.
The next myth purports that you can’t have a team of nothing but A players. This myth is born from foggy high-school memories of Gaussian statistical distributions, which say that if we have a few A players, then statistics dictate it is our destiny to employ the statistically appropriate number of B and C players on our teams. The moral of the story is to forget the bell curve distribution and focus on populating only the right side of the curve with top talent.
Remember, a standard bell curve of employees, which most firms have, dictates that 66.6 percent of your team will be average performers at best! Teams don’t win by being average, and you can’t win either if you believe it is your lot in life to have B and C players on your team. Think about building an all-star team instead. You can!
Also, where do you draw the line? If B players suddenly become okay, then when do C players and, even worse, D and F players become acceptable?
The third major hang-up about A players revolves around recruiting and coaching. For brevity’s sake, let me say this: Unless you are identifying, pursuing, recruiting, vetting, and developing the best talent like a top NCAA coach, you will have shortfalls here. Most managers think they are great coaches and can save or develop people, but the data shows their performance is severely lacking in this area.
Lest you dispute this point, take a hard, honest look at who is truly an A player versus those B and C players in your organization. Companies are notoriously poor at developing people or even measuring the success of employees. This is an area where a professional business coach can provide a lot of value to your firm by helping you coach-up talent.
The final hang-up about having a team of 100 percent A players centers on the perceived fate of B and C players. I think this hang-up stems from a bit of guilt around the flawed notion that everyone deserves a job. Remember that protecting incompetent people is a recipe for bankrupting your business. Simply said, it is unconscionable not to remove B and C players. If you don’t, you put the jobs of everybody else on the team at risk, as these B and C players are sucking precious resources from your company. Protect the few and you may have to lay off the many.
Finally, it is dishonest to the B and C players not to be candid about their underperformance and leaving them in jobs where they are failing. Despite professing the opposite, most managers are not good coaches. The majority of the time, the crucial conversations about specific employee weaknesses and the developmental opportunities needed to improve performance never occur.
What About B Players and C Players?
Yes, what about them? In short, B and C Players have 6-9 months to improve to A player performance before they should be redeployed, demoted, or exited.
Remember the last underperformer you exited? Did your entire management team wonder why it hadn’t been done earlier? That is exactly the feeling and passion you must possess about upgrading — and better yet, topgrading — your team. (Topgrading dictates that everyone gets to the A player level). Obviously, coaching-up employees to higher levels of performance is the best for all involved. Everyone ends up feeling better. However, that takes extreme coaching skill, which is extremely rare. If coaching-up is not achievable, then addition by subtraction is your best option.
The guiding principle in the companies I coach is that everybody has the opportunity to be an A player somewhere — it just may not be at your company. Instill and enforce an A-player culture in your organization, and inevitably, you will find that many B and C players quietly opt out of their own accord. Fortunately, when they find an opportunity where they can perform as an A player, they will be much happier. After all, who wants to work in a job where they cannot perform at the highest level and fulfill their core purpose?
A Players Drive Employee Engagement
On the off chance I have not yet made a compelling enough case for A players, consider this: According to the oft-quoted figure from Gallup, two-thirds of employees are not engaged at work. Many managers incorrectly interpret this data as a company problem, not an employee problem. The fact is that only the employee can choose to be engaged.
According to Gregg Lederman’s insightful book, Crave, employee engagement equals motivation plus commitment to act in the best interest of your organization. Therefore, these B and C players are costing your company dearly in terms of lost engagement and commitment. A players are the ones who are engaged and who drive all of the value in your company. They seek to work in the company of other A players. What are you doing to retain them by surrounding them with other A players?