The Mythical “A” Player and The CEO’s Real Job
Every venture-backed CEO wants “A” players at every executive position.
“A” players are executives that are 10x more productive than their peers. They are equally excellent strategically and operationally. They are equally capable at rolling up their sleeves or leading others. They thrive – with or without direction. They are big picture and detailed. They are the perfect mix of confidence and humility. They fit into any team culture, thrive under any leadership style, and raise the game of everyone around them, while befriending them all at the same time. Best of all, they miraculously fit within your pay scale, and you can retain them despite brutal competition for their services. “A” players are perfect – except for one small issue – as defined here, they don’t really exist.
In reality, all human beings have strengths and weaknesses. There are certain support structures and cultures within which we will thrive, and others in which we will not. It’s the rare person who is a persistent “A” player across any and all circumstances. A more realistic assessment is that many of us are “B” players who could perform like the “A” player in certain environments and perhaps even function like “C” players in other environments. We are profoundly influenced by co-workers, firm cultures, leadership styles and roles – rather than completely set apart from them. We are not robotic in the execution of our talents.
Therein lies one of the most important roles of the CEO. Many CEOs come with the emphasis that they’re trying to hire “A” players at every role. It’s an admirable goal, but may have a misplaced emphasis. The supposed “A” player arrives and 6 months later they are functioning like a “C+” player. The natural conclusion is that it was a hiring mistake – stoke up the recruiting engine and go out looking for that “A” player again. This might still be the right answer, but it may miss an important point.
The point is that a CEO’s job is to build a championship team, and that may be distinctly different than building a team of champions. A CEO’s job, when it comes to human capital, is to create the environment which will get the best out of people. Some of that is around hiring the right people. But, there are important elements to the equation that are completely distinct from hiring. There are important ingredients like firm culture, organizational structure, leadership style, delineation of roles, team dynamics, development, and others – which can be the difference between the same person functioning like an “A” player or a “C” player.
While I am loathe to use overused sports analogies – this dynamic shows itself very clearly in sports. It is not uncommon at all for a player of average historical performance to change teams – with a different system, different set of teammates, different culture, etc. – and to perform like an All-Star (e.g. Patriots’ WR Wes Welker). And, it is not uncommon at all for an All-Star to change teams – and perform like a mediocre player for the exact same reasons (e.g. Red Sox OF Carl Crawford). This dynamic plays itself out just as frequently in the corporate world.
Therefore, it is important for leaders of companies to not only hire excellent people, but to create a culture and system where the people they hire can and are likely to excel. For whether an executive becomes an “A” player may have as much dependency on the talents of that executive as it does the leader they’re working for and the environment they’re working within.