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Finding A-Players Out in the Wild and Harnessing Their Power

Have you ever been asked if you’re a “high potential”? How about if you’re an “A-player”? Athletic player?

I was recently sent this article by the CEO of a promising startup in marketing about A-players – “We’ll Trade 100 Employees For One A-Player” by Victor Belfor and Ben Smith. Context: the startup’s on the recruiting hunt for various roles, and the biggest trait they’re looking for beyond things like developer or sales is “A-player”. In the startup/ entrepreneurship world, there goes a saying… “Slow to hire, fast to fire.” There’s a reason for this…

Referencing Jim Collins’ book From Good to Great, Belfor and Smith write that A-players are those who possess the unique combination of humility and will. A-players have the will and drive that not only assures motivation, but enables them with the drive to run through walls, and not just see “no” as a reason for turning back. A-players are proactive. “The buck” stops with them. They may not be the brightest, necessarily, but you better believe that they will execute beautifully, and will have learned the skills and knowledge they didn’t have before.

Sadly (and rightly), you aren’t going to find “A-player” written on resumes. You ask a recruiter to find A-players, and they’ll say, “of course! Yeah, we can find those. Definitely.” However, it’s hard to really “filter” for A-players. Instead, it usually takes connections to find them. Here are some thoughts on A-players that I’ve noticed and found via articles I’ve been reading:
  • A-players can be anywhere and everywhere. They don’t come from Ivy League schools only, nor are Ivy League students all A-players. They aren’t exclusively found in Silicon Valley, Seattle, or otherwise. They surely don’t all drive fancy cars because they make a boatload of money. There could be a higher concentration in the Valley or in top tier schools, but they can be found anywhere. They can be young like 16-year-old Kelvin Doe of Sierra Leone who built a battery out of acid, soda, and metal scraps to help power the homes of his neighbors. (See article here.)
  • Connections know the A-players. Like I said before, A-players aren’t going to have “A-player” written on their resumes and CV’s. It’s difficult to really showcase that quality on paper. However, those who know A-players know why they’re A-players. Given a task, those guys (gals) hit it out of the park. Connections know the subtle cues of hardwork, execution, and humility that comes from knowing that A-player rather than reading about that person on a piece of paper.
  • A stands for Athletic. My former boss used to look for A-players, too, though, not necessarily using that term. Instead, he used the term “athletic”. That is, when we recruited at my previous company, we looked for those consultants who could move from project to project, industry to industry, or business to business, and be able to pick things up quickly and unfazed. We looked for the kind of people who were “adaptable” and could pass the airport test.
  • A-players yearn for challenges. A-players aren’t motivated just for money. In fact, Zappos offered $2,000 for anyone to quit; the company believed A-players would rebuke the offer and stick around. Instead, they’re motivated by the challenges and the opportunities. They want to be in the room surrounded by more A-players. If you aren’t challenging this person mentally, socially, etc., you’ll bore them, and they’ll seek new challenges.
  • A-players have options. It’s rare that an A-player doesn’t have an alternative. Through connections, A-players probably have a host of opportunities, and it’s just figuring out which opportunities to pursue. Thinking that they don’t have options or worry about that person leaving is… silly. If you want them, why wouldn’t they be wanted by others? Treat them well to keep them!
  • A-players have the will to win. A former consulting Partner told me about how he hated getting flat “no’s” from clients and consultants during implementations. It wasn’t so much the rejection as much as it was that most times, people saw obstacles, and found reason to turn around. There was no thought or creativity for a solution. When asked a question, it was a “no, I can’t help with that”. A-players would say, “I don’t know that, but I’ll find out or find someone who does know, and get back to you.”

Richard Branson once said, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” In general, he’s talking about employee satisfaction, but it’s very applicable to A-players. You want to attract A-players with challenges and opportunities. To keep them, you have to continue challenging them while continually building the momentum with culture (environment full of A-players, vertical job loading, etc.).

What are your thoughts on A-players? How do you view the importance of A-players in a startup? How about in a large corporation?


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