How To Build a Culture of A-Players

“If companies are truly serious about attracting, retaining, and developing high-quality talent, they need to view themselves as growth platforms for talent where people can develop themselves faster than they could elsewhere. This, in turn, can create a self-reinforcing cycle as talent creates more opportunities for growth.” — John Hagel

In today’s hyper-competitive environment, quality of talent is perhaps the most important driver of innovation, performance and growth. While everything else can be copied or disrupted, talent cannot. Quite simply, quality of talent is how you win.

Consider Netflix’s famous culture of freedom and responsibility-it is Silicon Valley’s hallmark of innovation, agility and performance. What makes it work? Not the company’s culture deck, although that’s brilliant. It’s Netflix’s relentless focus on talent density-quality of talent — that guarantees the win.

How can you build high quality talent in your company? The kind of talent that takes on ever bigger challenges, bounces back quickly when needed, and ultimately delivers results far beyond what’s considered possible?

Five developmental priorities, five critical capabilities, must be built inside your organization. I focus on them in all of my engagements.

1. Build Don’t Buy Talent

Everyone wants A-level talent, but few know how to grow it internally. Most companies focus on hiring rather than developing A-talent, an expensive strategy prone to market swings. The reason for this stems mainly from the pervasive belief that talent is largely fixed, that you can’t turn B- and C-players into A-players. This simply is not true.

For example, Carol Sanford, a renowned organizational consultant and author with whom I’ve been partnering for years, has dozens of proven case stories that demonstrate the successful growth of A-players throughout an organization, generating double- and triple-digit growth and even disrupting entire industries as a result. Carol and I have recently been working together on this at T-Mobile, building an internal talent factory that grows passionate and loyal A-talent reliably and at scale. This work isn’t easy and it requires special know-how, but the benefits to the business and its people are enormous and lasting.

2. Developmental Leadership (for Growth)

Command-and-control leadership is a thing of the past. New, more participative forms of leadership have emerged, but they often suffer from a major limitation. They invite people to make decisions without growing their thinking and personal capacity to do so. While employees might feel more engaged, the quality of individual and collective thinking, and thus business outcomes, rarely improve.

What I strive to build is developmental leadership. My aim is to grow critical thinking skills and personal mastery in everyone, while challenging people to become increasingly self-directing and self-managing as they take on bigger strategic challenges. Leaders become development catalysts and thinking partners to their teams, helping design processes and cultures where people grow their ableness to lead every day. Not simply because they enjoy it, but because they want to uplift customer lives-and grow the business as a result.

3. Mind of a CEO in Everyone

Industry-disrupting innovation and breakthrough growth are possible when people at every level of a business understand (and care!) how their everyday work impacts customer lives and how it contributes to earnings, margins and cashflow. This is what it means to grow the mind of a CEO in everyone.

By engaging in a deliberate and ongoing development process, my work is to grow people’s capacity to think more holistically and systemically about their businesses and their customers-to understand systemic effects and thus become increasingly more able to produce meaningful innovation, higher margins, and a non-displaceable position in the industry.

4. Agility Inside Out

Agility is a hot trend these days, but most companies focus on its external aspects — the company’s processes, systems and structures — often copying best practices from elsewhere. A new generation of consulting firms even promises to “upgrade your company’s Operating System” touting this as a transformation of work as we know it.

While the idea of a quick remake might seem enticing, I have found that in order to take hold, agility must be built in minds first and foremost. Otherwise, people tend to recreate the same old patterns of thinking and working within the new agile-upgraded environment, thus making the investment largely a waste.

Developing agile minds takes time, but it’s a worthy investment. People with agile minds can then design a truly agile working environment that is suited to their unique work culture, something the teams can truly own and evolve over time.

5. Strong Developmental Culture

Marshall Goldsmith once noted that showing people what good leadership looks like does not make them good leaders. A lot more is required for real development to occur. This is a keen observation.

In most companies, development and work are two separate activities. Development usually amounts to exposing people to new content and behaviors-be it through a cool learning app or an in-person workshop or training. While the curriculum and facilitation might be world-class, the benefits usually dissipate shortly after people return to their workplace.

In working with Carol Sanford, I have embraced a much more organic and integrated approach. I design development as an ongoing process, pulled by real work challenges. Rather than starting with content, this approach draws people out by awakening them to what they aspire to do but are not yet able to. It recognizes that each person has a unique essence and potential, and engages them from that place. Rather than providing answers, it uses systemic frameworks to ask better questions that evoke reflection.

The result? Development gradually becomes woven into everyday work (and life.) People learn to work developmentally, growing their contributions to customer and business every day.


You might have noticed that the five areas of focus above have a lot of overlap. This is intentional. They are a system, and one would not work well without the other. What they all have in common is that they are elements of a powerful, living-systems-based developmental technology that grows self-motivating, self-directing and self-managing workforce capable of achieving real moonshots-in service of both customers and business growth. This work has given me and those I work with a sense of purpose and meaning beyond measure, and I’m excited to continue bringing it into organizations and the world at large.

NOTE: I am forever indebted and deeply grateful to Carol Sanford-my teacher and partner-for introducing me to the Regenerative Approach to people and business development. Carol’s motto is, “To grow the business, you have to grow the people.” I could not agree more.

Originally published at on April 11, 2017.