6 Key Characteristics of “A” Players

Everyone wants to be Bruce Lee, but few want to put in the 10,000 (or more) hours of practice and preparation.  It is only when the bar is held high that we can consistently put in the practice and push our skills to the highest levels.

What makes for an ‘A’ Player?

Resilience

Resilience

The simplest possible definition is “somebody you would enthusiastically re-hire”.  Imagine you got to re-hire your team each morning.  Who would be the first people chosen?  These are your “A players”.

What attracts “A” Players?  Two things – other “A” Players and a meaningful challenge.

How do you create a culture of “A” Players?  There is only one path: Zero tolerance of mediocrity.  At the end of this post I describe this leadership attitude.

I was inspired to put this post together by an article on “Learning from the Catalysts at Goldman Sachs”.

I speak in depth about leading A players in the past post “Leading Teams: The 5 Styles of Managing People

The 6 Characteristics of ‘A’ Players

  1. Positive AttitudeResilient; life gives us all blows… some keep moving, some get knocked down.  A players keep moving.
  2. Adaptable – Open to Change, Flexible; what was right yesterday may be wrong today, what worked well yesterday may be ineffective today.
  3. Reliable – write things down, get things done, relentless follow through, do what needs to be done
  4. Big Picture – they know where they and their team are going, they have a personal sense of why they are doing the work that they are doing; building skills not just for today, but for where they want to be tomorrow.
  5. Connected and Influential – Plays well with others, listens actively, open to being influenced and capable of shaping the perspectives and attitudes of others.
  6. Always Learning – reading books, attending seminars, open to culture

 

How to run your talent program like FC Barcelona

At a conference at IESE Business School in 2011, Geoff Smart spoke to the audience about how to source, select and attract top talent to your organization.  He asked “has anyone ever hired someone who looked great on paper, only to find out weeks or months later that it was a terrible decision?”  Many hands were raised in the air.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, says that the very first step of leaders who create massive success in their businesses is “get the right people on the bus”…  and the corollary…  get the wrong people off the bus.

There are 4 parts to hiring well.

  1. Know clearly what you want the person to achieve. Go beyond vague descriptions of skills. eg. “Analytical Thought Process” develop further to “Distinguishes key facts from secondary factors; can follow a progressive thought process from idea to idea; makes sound observations.”
  2. Go to where the best people are. Where are the best people? They are not looking at job adverts.  They are not spending their weekend reading job websites.  They are passionate about their current role.  It is unlikely that those who are actively searching through non-personal channels are top performers.  The top performers are still doing well in their current jobs. How to find the best people? There is only one way: Network. If you want talent: ask who the best people are, get to industry events, meet people at conferences. Watch people in action, know them through their activity, read their books, their tweets, their Quora profiles, their blogs.
  3. Selecting the A players: focus on the past, not the future. Don’t ever ask “how would you solve the problem?”.  Ask “tell me about a time when you solved a similar problem?” Everyone can tell you a great story about what they would do.  The top performers are not smarter, don’t have better to-do list systems, better technology.  The differentiator is that they have found the way to overcome procrastination.  They actually do the things that they say they will do. Give them a present problem and ask them to solve it. See their creative thinking, not necessarily the solution. Look for performance, don’t ask for opinions.
  4. Selling the opportunity, building the culture. Selling the opportunity to an A player does not mean “be their friend”; it means sell them on the personal growth, the professional growth the opportunity to impact the world on a massive scale.  This is what great people want.  Not more friends. They want to be pushed and demanded and be allowed to change the world for the better. Jonathan Davis says that culture is hard to build and easy to destroy. Jonathan turned down a hiring contract recently with a big company.  He told the CEO “You cannot be client of ours.  I’ll tell you why. Your VP of sales is a !@#$%^!. He won’t waste an opportunity to tell you how awesome he is.  We can help you recruit a great employee, but he will leave.” It is the culture that you build that will really attract and keep the top talent.  If you create a great culture, you don’t need to pay employees to bring people in…  they will bring their ambitious, high performing friends in.  The online shoe retailer Zappos pay $2000 for people to leave.

Finding, Recruiting and Retaining Talent is Hard Work

How do you do this without any effort?  You don’t.  Good talent doesn’t just happen because you are showing up.  One of the hardest things in business life is removing a loyal but mediocre performer from your team.  There may be bonds of friendship, there may be many good shared experiences in the past, feelings of connection.  However, the continued presence of mediocrity in your team is a cancer that will eat away at your ability to achieve important goals.  One way to reduce the pain of having to let go of mediocre performers is to get very good at only hiring star performers into your team.

Leadership sometimes means Letting People Go

My father once told me that the greatest service you can do for an unhappy, under performing employee is to let them go – it frees them to search and find a place where they can contribute and find greater meaning.  They won’t thank you in the moment, but this is the service of a leader – it is not about giving – it is about serving; it is not about the easy answers, it is about the right answers.

Highly Demanding, with Love

How would you get Leo Messi to play for your football team?  It would help if you had 3 of the top 5 footballers in the world already on the team.  How do you attract the top talent to your team?  Build a culture of high performance around you.

This starts with a zero tolerance of mediocrity.

A participant on my course last year began his speech “I have often wondered whether it is better as a parent to be permissive or authoritarian.  Which is better?  At a conference a few years ago, I had the opportunity to speak to one of the world guru’s on child development.  I went up to him after his talk.  I congratulated him.  I asked him the question: ‘is it better for a parent to be permissive or authoritarian?’

The guru smiled and said ‘highly demanding with love’.”

It is the same as a leader – can you be highly demanding, with love.  Expect the best from those around you and they rise to the challenge.  Accept the worst, and they will coast in comfort.

8 comments

  1. […] great at what you do – this is the most important thing you can do to get noticed. (Read The 6 key characteristics of A-players) Promote the success of others – your generosity and openness are critical to your success, and […]

  2. […] do you recognise great people? The book Who by Brad Smart is the best resource on identifying and attracting A-player talent to your team. Past performance is the only guide to future performance (not interviews, nor […]

  3. […] a toxic employee can save a company more than twice as much as bringing on a star performer.  The trouble with Toxics is that they are difficult to detect. Often, Toxics are popular with […]

  4. And what if you don’t afford to hire “A Players”?

  5. […] PS You better be very good at establishing a great reputation before you engage seriously in these tactics.  If you are not viewed as a strong performer, if you are not delivering measurable results and if you are not gaining good exposure to senior influencers – fix that first (check out The PIE Model).  These tactics only work if you are perceived as an “A” player… […]

  6. Very impressive article Conor. It’s a little bitter to those who have failed because of their mediocrity in the past. However, it makes it clear in a very direct language how a successful team looks. I believe those who have failed can be A players of the future if they stay resilient and learn from their past.

    1. Yes – I think Bill Gates said that success is a terrible teacher, only failure helps you make changes in your self.

  7. great stuff. keep doing the good works.

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