Do We Deserve Our “A-Players”?

To build a great team, we are told, we need to hire the best, or as Mark Suster put it in his terrific post last week: “In my experience B players hire C people.  A begets A,  B begets C. Don’t go there.”  We have also learned through surveys like this one to “hire good people, not skills”, and we have learned that “behavioral interview questions” about the past will help us better predict future performance as we recruit.  We have become pretty good at acquiring top talent.

Three Business People on Mountain Peak

But do we deserve the “A-Players” we have acquired? 

Are we fulfilling our responsibilities to them?

As leaders we have many responsibilities to the people we lead.  While these are common to all our staff, I believe there are 4 Essential Responsibilities to A-Players that we must keep front and center for these high performers.

1.)  Understand Their Expectations – What makes this a “Win” for them?

While our expectations for staff are generally clearly defined in vision & mission statements, job descriptions, employee manuals, bonus plans etc…, their expectations of us aren’t always so clear.

Top talent is typically highly ambitious, mobile, and have a plan for a specific journey.  How does working for your team or organization fit into that plan and journey?  Can you really meet their expectations and will you get what you need from the relationship during your leg of their journey?  Is this going to be a “Win – Win” for them and you?

2.) Don’t Hire Over-Qualified Candidates – Help them find their “Win”

We need to acquire people who want “the job” and not just “a job”.  While I want top talent for my teams, I will actively help sell over-qualified candidates that I find too good to pass up, to other parts of the organization.  If no opportunities exist internally, I will help them get connected with the right opportunities outside the organization. 

Over-qualified people are settling for less for some temporal reason, and you are doing neither them nor yourself a favor by hiring them.  Their heart will be yearning for “the thing I really want”, they won’t be focused on your side of the value equation, and they will disappear on you at the most inopportune time.

3.)  Watch Both Sides of the Value Equation – Manage the “Win – Win”  

Our job is to develop team members towards their full potential and give them a platform to prepare for bigger and better things, while doing the things our team needs to get done.  Our investment in them is not completely selfless, because it prepares them to return a superior value to us for an acceptable period of time.  Both you and your team members must be committed to balancing both sides of the value equation.

While this post touches on many of the questions that crave a positive response according to “First Break All the Rules”, the emphasis here is on positively answering the question: “Does my supervisor or someone at work seem to care about me as a person?”

Many a corporate culture has run afoul because employees feel the company owes them.  You will experience no greater loyalty, dedication and quality of work, than from someone who feels a greater indebtedness to you as a result of your authentic care.

4.)  Set Them Free – Let them pursue a new “Win”

If you do the first three right, you will maximize the time the high performers will commit to you.  They become your most valuable and productive team members.  They make you look good and get things done, and you come to rely on them to pull your toughest challenges out of the fire and they help share your load. 

The time will come when you have given them all the assignments that stretch them and allow them to shine brightly. You will have given them all the professional and personal development opportunities you can, and cheered them on as they grew from tactical executers to strategic thinkers and progressed from individual contributors to leaders. 

Even when we do everything right in a healthy culture and growing organization, at some point some of our A-Players will outgrow us and the opportunities we can make available to them.  We can no longer fulfill our responsibility for keeping their side of the value equation a “Win”. 

Before it turns into a “Win – Lose” relationship, we need to do the difficult and unnatural thing, and willingly release them and maybe even give them a nudge. 

It’s time to Look with satisfaction and pride at the journey behind us, and bless them and look forward with joy and anticipation to the journey that lies ahead for them. 

With the relationship in tact, our paths will cross and again and maybe even intertwine.

Am I missing something? 

Please reply with your thoughts and experiences.

Book References

There are three books that I have discovered invaluable in honing my own staff management style, and that  I regularly recommend to others.  While the post is based on my experiences, it is also influenced by the relational core principles in these books.

The best book I know on the topic of negotiating is Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.The book shifts the paradigm from the traditional self centered “Win-Lose” or “Win-I Don’t Care” approach to a creative and relational approach focused on meeting the essential interests of all the parties, (way beyond a dollar for widget exchange).  The famous and critical “Win – Win”.  Also central to this post are the relational aspects discussed in the book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently  and The Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People (the book on staff management.  Deserves a dedicated post). 

Related Posts

Common Traits of A-Players  by Auren Hoffman

Shouting Louder

Communication is a critical responsibility of every leader, one typically exercised on a daily basis.  T. Boone Pickens during his Keynote address at the the Project Management Institute (PMI) Global Congress in Orlando this week confirmed what so many of us know to be true.  “There is no such thing as over communication”.  Yet, so often leaders, even very effective communicators who hone and exercise their skill, are caught by surprise when they discover that some of their messages are not received as intended. Make yourself heard

While frequent repetition can reinforce a critical communication, doing so with a message that wasn’t received as intended is analogous to repeating your directions for the subway station at twice the volume to the hand gesturing, guide book toting  tourist.

Are you “shouting louder” when your message isn’t getting through?

Maybe your message recipients aren’t deaf.  Maybe the hours spent determining content and choosing the appropriate form and medium for delivering the message was not all that was necessary to ensure you are communicating.

Frequent and Varied is Not Enough

I have the pleasure of working for a 7,000 person geographically dispersed organization that is more committed to communication than any other I have been a part of to date.  Here is a sampling of very recent communications:

  • Earlier this month Senior divisional leadership stopped by each of the sites to spend time with their staff in “Town Hall” meetings.  A small and intimate forum with a short agenda and the bulk of the time dedicated to face-time for staff directed straight-shooting Q&A on any topic.
  • Each month every staff member receives an update on our progress towards divisional Goals & Objectives.
  • Each Wednesday the divisional communication coordinator launches an email newsletter to our email inboxes, with 5 critical sub-reports on tactical accomplishments, issues and speaking points our top Executive will carry up his chain of command.
  • Earlier this week we received a detailed update on our largest most strategic corporate initiative  
  • Tuesday morning, as each week, I meet with the CIO and several peers for a comprehensive status discussions. 
  • This past Thursday evening I attended our regional Management Development Association event.  A significant part of the evening was dedicated to a Q&A panel of three Senior Vice Presidents.
  • Friday was our monthly extended IT leadership team off-site where 100+ key IT leaders got to hear another Senior Vice President share his divisional strategy. 
  • Before Friday was done everyone had a video message in their  inbox from our Chairman & CEO with a key message.   This is the same CEO who makes a point of meeting with 20 randomly selected employees every other month for candid conversations about whatever is on their minds. 

This and more is normal every day, every week fare that is rooted in a phenomenal commitment to communication.   Form and content is varied and tuned to the audience, our live communicators are passionate, dynamic, transparent, and highly relational.

While most of our communication serves us well most of the time, it apparently was not working for the communication of the very critical Corporate Strategy.

Transmission Does Not Ensure Communication

Communication is not just about preparing great content and delivering it via the best medium in a dynamic way.  We failed to verify that the transmitted message was received by our staff as intended, until we noticed expected behavior changes were not occurring.

We launched a survey to assess understanding of the key strategy concepts.  The survey confirmed that 40% of our staff were not communicated to, despite receiving the message.

Verification is the Missing Key

While this is built into electronic transmission protocols, too often we fail to verify the message we sent is actually received and understood as intended.  If the message is not received as intended, communication did not occur.

While live communication forums lend themselves better to instant verification than say an e-mail blast or webcast, communicators must be intentional to verify all forms and medium as close to the communication event, and then adapt to what they discover.  Even live forms of communication can become a one directional information push if intentional verification isn’t planned in.

When our verification highlighted our shortcoming in communicating the Corporate Strategy, we launched the “Making the Connection” campaign.   Staff supervisors will learn how to communicate the strategy by interactively guiding their staff to co-create the message and group understanding.  Rather than pushing content, the group will participate in putting the strategy into context of business drivers, and connect it to “How does what I do every day connect to the corporate strategy?” in a highly interactive small group forum.

Staff supervisors will focus on intentionally seeking verification of understanding and adapt to lead all members to understanding through active participation.

The Bottom Line

One directional information push is not communication.  Communication requires the interaction between the transmitter and the recipient of the message.

  • First do everything else right
    • Great Content
    • Dynamic Delivery
    • Appropriate Medium
  • During the communication delivery or shortly after, intentionally verify that the message is received as intended and understood
  • Adapt if necessary

The responsibility for ensuring the audience understood the message through intentional verification, rests solely with the communicator of the message.

Only upon verification can we say communication truly occurred.

How recent was your latest e-mail blast from a senior leader and what do you remember of it’s substance?

What communication techniques work best for you?

Strategy Triangle Revival

Right around 1997 Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema released The Discipline of Market Leaders.  It was an exciting book for me and my colleagues at Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) because the book was researched by the CSC Index division.  A few years earlier CSC’s own Michael Hammer and James Champy revolutionized how we think about how to run organizations with their book Reengineering the Corporation.  Building on that book with new research, "Disciplines" shifted the focus from “how” to “what”.


The timelessness of what they wrote became clearly evident earlier this year, when I saw a slightly reworded version “Disciplines” at the foundation of a culture change initiative.

Though not cutting edge, exciting and new, I thought it might be worth revisiting the strategic wisdom that rings as true today as it did more than 20 years ago.


The basic premise of the book is that a corporation that wants to be a market leader in their field needs to commit itself to become #1 in one of these disciplines, and no less than #3 in the two others.

Operational Excellence

The value proposition is to be the low or lowest price in the market.  This is achieved by eliminating all waste and inefficiency.   These are fine tuned process machines seeking economies of scale, and optimization is a science.

Aldi, Wal-Mart and UPS jump out.  UPS, for example, trains their drivers how to walk and even how to best hold their vehicle key.

Product leadership

These are companies that offer products or services that push performance and innovation boundaries.  They will sacrifice price and lead the customer rather than be lead by them.

Intel and Nike made a good showing in the past but 3M is a mainstay and today no one stands out like Apple and maybe Bose.

Customer Intimacy

These companies are all about delivering what specific customers want.  It’s all about the customer.  Often these are niche company’s but it has also been achieved at a large scale.

Airborne Express and Nordstrom once dominated the category but today think Virgin Limited Edition vacations.

Nothing to Nobody

When I recently saw the recycled version of this “oldy but goody”, the triangle had a hole in the middle labeled “Nothing to Nobody”.   The visual clarity was new, the concept wasn’t.

Those companies that are hovering in the middle of the triangle, not exceptional in any of the three disciplines, are doomed to mediocrity and find themselves small in the rear view mirror of their competitors.  Even those that excel at just one discipline and ignore the other two, end up fighting for survival from the back of the pack.

Defining it is one thing.  Strategic and tactical decisions must be driven by the course set forth by the strategy.  Are you a product leader?  Then let go of price constraints as your target market is not the cost conscious crowd.  If customer intimacy is your game, then don’t hold on to self serving efficiencies in options, features, designs or delivery methods.  Are you competing with operational excellence?  Quality, selection, and esthetics of your brick and mortar will be secondary.

You have to pick one.  Just one.  It must be the tie breaker for your critical decisions and only then should you strive to be very good at the other two.

While not expressed in these words, the concept should be evident in the strategies of most successful corporation running at the front of the pack.

Can you identify which corner of the triangle your organization driving towards?

How about the organizations you work with?

Are either hovering in the middle of the triangle and does it show?

It’s not Business, it’s Personal! Part 1

Friday evening I walked into Jeremiah’s Tavern and made eye contact with the group at the bar.  There were shouts of “Hey Mike!”, smiles and hugs all around.  It had been almost 2 years since the last time we saw each other like this.  Too long, but we picked up like it was yesterday, just as we always had and will again.

We spent several wonderful hours catching up on kids.  “Wow!  Adrianna won the championship in Soul, Korea?” and “How is “Maddy doing with her Division I basketball?”  We inquired about the spouses and others that we had hoped would make it tonight.

This may sound and awful lot like a reunion high school or college friend, but it wasn’t.  We all had the joy and privilege of working for a start-up that most of us will consider the best little company we ever worked for.Group of happy business people laughing

Besides having a team that loved to work together, the business was also highly successful.  Founded by 2 brothers and a friend, humble beginnings and sacrificial dedication through the “Five guys and a Coffee pot” phase lead to flourishing organic growth and a respectable 35 man, $6 million revenue start-up.  The company would go on to obtain 3 rounds of Venture Capital funding, the last of which was the single largest round issued by any VC firm that year.  Then there were mergers and rebranding, and the boom and bust of the telecom bubble.  But I digress and get ahead of myself.

The reunion reminded me that this company did corporate culture right.

In this multi-part series I will share about practices that just beg to be emulated.  I will cover how this company thrived by building a team with great and passionate people and having fun together.

This was an enviable place where:

  • colleagues were friends
  • work was a fun adventure, and
  • authenticity, trust, loyalty, productivity, innovation, and growth reigned

The series will wrap up with lessons learned.  I will include thoughts about why and how our little slice of corporate heaven came to an end and what you can do to gain what we unfortunately lost.

Come back soon to see the next part in this multi-part series.

Have early thoughts on this post?  Leave a comment.