A-players hire A-players, B-players hire C-players

This is one of those sayings in the startup world that is so accepted that it’s crossed the border of familiarity and become a full-time resident of the land of trite.  

Guess who coined it?  Steve Jobs.  That’s right, Steve Jobs, when he was getting the Macintosh off the ground.  It’s a phrase we used at RealNetworks a lot, and one that my partners and I use as a result. 

But that it’s trite doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant or true.  It is.  Absolutely. 

And it’s a subtle but important concept to really understand.  What do A-players do for you?  Everything.  Most important, it’s the tone they set in the organization and their influence on the behavior and performance of others. The hiring is critical too, but that’s a byproduct of everything else.

  • A-players are at the top of their game.  This means they know the difference between good and great.  In the work they do, and in the standards they set for those around them and those in their organizations.
  • A-players aren’t threatened by someone better than they are.   Rather, they’re relieved.  That stuff they were struggling with?  They’re happy to get that into the hands of someone who can run with it, faster and more nimbly.  How liberating.
  • A-players know what they don’t know.  A corollary to the point above is that A-players know when they don’t know something, and ask questions.  They have the security to not need to know the answer to every question, and know how valuable intellectual curiosity is.
  • A-players can’t tolerate C-players.  So they make sure the C-players are replaced.  And guess what? The rest of the organization is relieved and inspired.  They know who the C-players are, and have felt the drag on performance.  It may sound harsh, but it’s true.

To me the most essential capability A-players bring to an organization is the tone they set for it.  Their definition of “good” is so much greater than a B or a C player’s, it’s as if they’re speaking a different language.  In fact they are, and it’s critical the organization you’re in all speak the same language. 

This is why starting up companies is so liberating for A-players.  I remember when I was at LSI Logic in the early days, fresh out of college with my head spinning in this startup.  The CEO, Wilf Corrigan, made a comment to me once about why he loved being CEO of LSI Logic so much more than being CEO of Fairchild Semiconductor (which he had been before founding LSI).  He said “because I created a company with only people I wanted to have there, not ones I inherited.”  At the time the answer sounded sensible, but now I realize what he meant was he could hire A-players from the start. 

But don’t get me wrong.  A-players are not a homogenous bunch.  There’s a huge, huge spectrum of abilities and characteristics among them.  Some can be incredibly thoughtful and compassionate, others can be intellectual bullies and seemingly heartless.  But the connective tissue that binds them all together?  They know where to set the bar/standard and how to hold themselves and everyone around them to it.

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3 Responses to “A-players hire A-players, B-players hire C-players”

  1. Matthew Trifiro Says:

    Do you know the Guy Kawaski corollary?

    “If A-players hire A-players, and B-players hire C-players, then who hires the B-Players”?

    Like

    • Peter Zaballos Says:

      Actually both the Jobs and Kawasaki quotes betray an arrogance of “the whole world is a startup”. In the world of startups, B players can start companies, and that’s where the cycle begins. But outside startups, I think larger companies hire B players all the time, because (and this is speaking as a lifetime startup veteran) larger companies have roles for B players, and the HR infrastructure in place to make productive use of them (training, policies and procedures to guide them). But in startups, it’s a totally different world.

      Like

  2. Me Says:

    actually……A Players was coined by Brad Smart some 35 years ago based on empricial research not just a hunch.

    Like

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