The Myth of the A-Player

The trouble with identifying A-Players is that everyone thinks they’re an A-Player.

We've been told never to compromise in hiring. Everyone interprets that kind of statement differently (Google has mastered the dispensing of deceptively simple advice). The hiring philosophy of “no compromises” has spawned a bevy of posts that borrow the term “A-player” and fail to define it. (The term was seemingly popularized by Steve Jobs, who probably knew what he meant, and a legion of disciples, who probably didn’t.)

For the uninitiated, an A-player is top notch (the “A” refers to their grade as a human being) and they will hire other A-players because they, being singularly perfect, will identify, attract, and hire additional flawless beings to populate their workplace. Meanwhile, if you make compromises and hire B-players, they will (out of pettiness, incompetence, or lack of interpersonal appeal) go off and hire C-players, and pretty soon your org will be chock full of mediocrity. This is interesting and probably true, but in a vacuum, meaningless. It’s the old Lake Wobegon effect — everyone believes their team is above-average.

The A-player thing has become ubiquitous in startups, but based on a few years of observation, I’m not sure we know quite what it means. People are not so easily summed up into a tidy grade — you might be an A at piloting new initiatives, but a B- at taking constructive feedback (see? you’re bristling. calm down). Most people are a little spiky, and even those who are really good on the aggregate have significant room for improvement.

One caveat: the self-fulfilling prophecy. For anyone who’s played team sports, you might be familiar with the difference between a winning and a losing locker room. In a winning locker room, everyone seems to like each other, shares credit, and puts the team first. In a losing one, everyone’s pointing fingers and thinking only about themselves. Basically, if your company is doing great, everyone looks like an A player, and if it’s hard times, it’s a lot harder to hold it together. Thus, there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg when it comes to all of this.

That’s why, to me, being an A-player is about personal character, sound judgment, and mental agility; everything else is negotiable. People with those attributes will fit in on most any team. It’s the workplace equivalent of a basketball player who prefers wins over stats, takes high-percentage shots, and studies the opposing team before a game. You can’t go wrong with that type of person.

So how are we supposed to turn a resume and an interview into a sense of character, judgment and agility? Have ten interviews and build consensus? Create an elaborate rubric? Hire slow/fire fast AKA treat finding a new account manager like finding a soulmate? Totally give up and shoot from the hip?

Don’t be silly; this is the internet, we’ll just make a list! I’m including what I think you can compromise on, and how to gauge the things you can’t in an interview.

What can I compromise on?

  1. Skills. As long as they can learn them — ask about past examples of learning a new skill on the job. Paying someone to mostly learn for a couple months is less painful than spending those months searching in vain.
  2. Past roles. Instead of screening only for people who held a similar title at a different organization (boring!), try to distill a job down to the personal attributes it requires and the kinds of problems they had to solve.
  3. Five year plan. You don’t know where you’ll be in five years, either.

What shouldn’t I compromise on?

  1. Entitlement. Early signs of ego, expectations, and aloofness are bad. An effective team player knows what they’re capable of, and knows they’ll sometimes need to do rote tasks, even if only for the sake of learning how the team works, or building camaraderie. Don’t ask a leading question like “are you willing to do grunt work?” Instead, suggest one at a time a few things they might have to do — some cool, some shitty — and ask for their experience doing each.
  2. Commitment. The person has to clearly want to join your specific team and organization. Successful organizations often fuck up here, hiring people who say, “I’m excited about your growth/this role/this cool office” and mistake that for being excited about the work you do. Beware job-hoppers, boilerplate cover letters, and people who think ping pong tables equal culture. When you interview someone, have a really detailed answer for “what does a typical day look like?” and see if they’re comfortable with how it sounds.
  3. Self awareness. Ask after past mistakes and difficult situations they’ve been in, and see if they blame others and exhibit negativity, or acknowledge responsibility and share lessons learned. Everyone has fucked up. If they can’t bring up examples, they’re going to do it on your watch. Typically, a more senior person has fucked up on a larger scale.
  4. Parallel experience. You’re best served by finding someone who’s operated in an environment similar to yours, even if it’s not identical. Are you a startup? Best if they’ve worked in an unstructured environment with tight timelines (like, say, a political campaign). A smart person will draw these parallels in their cover letter.
  5. Self interest. This one’s a doozy. Everyone’s self-interested; you just have to figure out who’s going to be self-interested to the point of toxicity. Typically the signs of a self-interested person are either an ingratiating nature or an MBA. Just kidding, MBA’s! Kind of.
  6. Processing speed. Sorry, no way around it. You need someone who can grasp concepts quickly and weigh multiple variables. Talk with them about a process or challenge that exists in your department and see how they dissect it and how quickly they pick up on the subtleties, plus whether they’re fun to work with to brainstorm a solution.

Easy, right?! Okay, so it’s still a bear to sort through all this stuff. Hiring well is the hardest thing to do at a startup. Dig in, treat it like your #1 priority, trust your gut feelings about someone’s character, and things will work out more often than not. To be fair, the A-player maxim gets it right in the end — it really does take an A player to hire another one. It’s the definition of an A-player that differs: we’re not out looking for Michael Jordan or Kobe; we’re looking for Mike Miller or Shane Battier, a person who does all the little-but-big things right and makes everyone around them better. The true A-player is the person who can figure out what your team needs, and has the capacity and desire to deliver it.

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