Thinking About Thinking

The Mythical “A” Player and The CEO’s Real Job

Posted in Founder-Owned Businesses, Growth Equity, Venture Capital by larrycheng on June 1, 2012

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.

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4 Responses

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  1. Yair Riemer (@YairR) said, on June 1, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Spot on. Continuing to overuse sports analogies – the hiring process doesn’t stop when the free agent puts pen to paper on a lucrative deal and you’ve signed your prized target. That’s actually just when the process starts. The playbook. Practice. Teamwork. A great post and one that startup founders should bookmark in their team building.

  2. Nick Mehta said, on June 4, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Really enjoyed this piece, Larry. As a CEO, I’ve found the concept of people being permanently sorted into A/B/C/D/F buckets both false as well as egotistical. I’ve seen too many examples of people move from Cs to As or As to Cs through changes in management. It’s true that some people are inherently motivated and self-directed but I think as an organization scales, the CEO’s challenge is to get the most out of the organization that’s there and to put the people into the right roles that take advantage of their skills. And I’m also a sucker for sports analogies and specifically football ones. I think companies are much more like NFL teams than they are like NBA clubs, in that leadership, chemistry, roles, character, etc. matter as much to winning as does raw talent. Just see Harbaugh’s effect on the 9ers or Dan Snyder’s failed attempts with the Redskins to buy teams as two good examples.

  3. [...] The Mythical “A” Player and The CEO’s Real Job « Thinking About Thinking. Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  4. […] Bottom line: There is no such thing as a true ‘A’ player in the startup world. […]


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