The myth of the “A-Player”

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I was on a conference call a few days ago with someone who kept using the term ‘A-Player.’ In funnier news, another person on the conference call sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown. It was hard not to laugh, but I digress.

I ran through this ‘A-Player’ thing in my head a couple of times later that day. I’ve heard that term used maybe 103,838 times in my life — and while that’s hardly a scientific estimate, it might actually be a little bit low in the grand scheme of things.

All this said: what is this person? And are we even thinking about the concept correctly?

What An A-Player Is And/Or Should Be

The title A-Player mostly says it all. It’s a great hire. It’s a top dog. It’s a guy (or girl) who really gets out there and gets it done professionally. I guess you could use the term personally, but I haven’t heard that version as much.

So, the A-Player represents the best your team (or company) has to offer. It’s essentially the superstar. Good, got it. That’s the definition we should be embracing and looking for. Unfortunately, that definition is pretty fraught.

How The A-Player Erodes, V1: The Innovation Myth

There’s a huge belief among not-so-good managers. I’ve seen this almost everywhere I’ve worked. Many managers, themselves not having a clue what’s going on, will rush around screeching about how great their team is. I’ve never understood this. I think, psychologically, that they think constantly repeating it will help them believe it — or they think constantly saying it will mean a top dog will pay attention and assume, “That’s a good leader.” I might be wrong there.

The problem is, not everyone on your team will be innovative. They can’t be. It’s impossible and it defies basic notions of work, which has to be a mix of logistical bullshit and innovation. When you start thinking your whole team is great (“I’ve got a boat of A-Players, Tommy!”), by definition you’re entirely missing the point.

How The A-Player Erodes, V2: Protect your perch management

Here’s the dirty little secret about the A-Player idea: to most managers, an A-Player is really a C-Player who’s ‘safe’ to them or ‘handles’ stuff for them. It’s all part of the seven circles of managerial hell.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s get philosophical for a second. A manager can’t have an A-Player for long because, by definition, that person would advance and achieve new success fairly quickly. But oftentimes, you’ll meet managers who have a supposed A-Player on their team — and have had ’em for 10 years. What? That makes no sense.

Why does that happen? Because that person really isn’t/wasn’t an A-Player. That person is an employee who’s good for that manager. It’s probably a M-Player (barely-ranked) who will step on the neck of anyone who crosses said manager. The manager keeps calling him/her an A-Player because the manager is now looking alright and putting out fires. But that employee ain’t no A-Player.

How The A-Player Erodes, V3: They become a manager

This one is a little bit of Peter Principle and a little bit of management isn’t intuitive, but sometimes an A-Player becomes a manager. Because they were an A-Player over deliverables and task deadlines, they may have absolutely no clue how to manage people. Often a top dog as a target-hitter is a F-Player as a manager. This is partially because we don’t train managers/leaders worth a damn, sadly.

How The A-Player Erodes, V4: Priority and philosophy

Research has repeatedly shown that many organizations exist in a priority vacuum. (Here’s another example.) If that’s true — and most places I’ve worked, it is — then the A-Player doesn’t even exist. If all you do is hit targets on invented tasks that no one really prioritized, well, how are you an A-Player? You’re just a person good at knocking down meaningless deliverables like it’s a pinata birthday party. That’s not an A-Player to me; that’s a target-chaser.

Now look: the A-Player does exist, and it’s a special, unique create. (“I’m chasing unicorn hires, baby!” is what some middle management flack in HR just yelped.) But the entire way we think about the ‘performance management life cycle’ or whatever other buzzword you want to use is wrong. We construe people wrong, we put them in boxes, we look at their talents wrong, we wrongly assume all hires can ‘hit the ground running,’ and a host of other things.

Work is a mix of smart people and dumb people. Work is a mix of go-getters and drones. Work is a mix of pointless projects and cool ones. Rather than rushing around attempting to define every last second down to the millimeter in the name of process, let’s embrace the ambiguity and ride from there. The A-Player does exist, but the way we treat the concept is a farce and a fallacy.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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