There’s a moment in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs where the legendary Apple co-founder describes what kind of talent he looks for.
“You have to be ruthless if you want to build a team of A players. It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players,” he recalled. “The Macintosh experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge B players.”
It should be no surprise, then, that founders and business executives latched on and now frequently emphasize the importance of recruiting and retaining A players — as if there is a standardized grading system like the SATs.
Talent is without a doubt the most important aspect of a modern business and every organization should strive to operate with the best employees possible. But, when taken out of the context of a specific environment, the notion of raw talent — or of A players and B players — is seriously flawed and counterproductive. Talent is a function of a person in an environment or system; in isolation, neither performs well or poorly. Put a “high performer” in the wrong role or organization, and you’ll see them flounder.
Instead of relying on oversimplified rankings, companies should determine what systems and processes will lead to success in their specific situations, identify their gaps and needs and find talent that fits the bill. Often, businesses will find that their prematurely ranked B players will actually outperform traditional definitions of A players.
The Real World Doesn’t Have Standardized Testing
Working in a fast-paced startup doesn’t have many objectively and verifiably right or wrong answers. There’s a spectrum of options, and you often don’t know until years later (if ever) which was the optimal choice.
Startup environments also change exponentially faster than other sectors. In the past two decades, the field of mathematics has changed relatively little compared to the disruption seen in industries like telecommunications and financial services. Suffice to say, if you’re good at math, you’ll continue to be good at math with minimal maintenance because the foundations aren’t changing. But that’s absolutely not the case for software developers and account executives.
Sure, there are core fundamentals for each, but growth mindsets and the ability to adapt are infinitely more important over time, and both are difficult to measure quantitatively. The best mainframe developer won’t be of much value in today’s startup if they haven’t learned anything new since the 1970s.
Not only do industries and roles change, but each business is unique. A high performer at one company may be a low performer at another. A fantastic software developer at Google may needlessly over-engineer every feature at an early stage startup, where shipping half-baked features for the purpose of learning is far more valuable. Consider that industries are commonly disrupted by outsiders, not the A players within the current status quo.
It’s quite rare that the hiring strategy of “Let’s find someone who has done this before and can apply their playbook here” actually works. In fact, the opposite is usually true for such hires: They try to brute-force what’s worked for them before, completely ignoring any aspects that may be different in subsequent situations. Further, the highest performers within an organization frequently don’t have the pedigree or background that would have led you to predict that they’d end up being A players.
Systems Are More Important Than Players
So if there’s no universal definition of an A player, what should companies recruit for? The short answer is that it depends. Begin your search internally, not externally. Your company’s existing culture, people, objectives and environment make up a system that new hires must perform in.
In sports, the best players in the world won’t win a championship in a broken system. That’s why three-time NBA leading scorer James Harden never even made it to a championship on the Houston Rockets, while a team like the San Antonio Spurs has a system that works so well that they can excel over multiple decades with players long disregarded by other teams. Systems are even more important in business.
Similarly, the widespread notion of a “10x developer” is a misnomer — if not altogether mythical. Studies show that performance is much more correlated with the workplace environment than the individual. A good system means you’re developing people toward their potential, you’re removing people who are creating drag, and you’re continuously reinventing your business as you navigate each phase of growth.
Early on at Feedback Loop, we hired generalists who could wear numerous hats, even if they didn’t excel at any one particular function. They were critical to our success. But as we grew and needed to hire specialist functional leaders, they found themselves without roles they enjoyed or could succeed at, and we had to part ways.
So not only is there no such thing as a universal definition for an A player or an A system, but even within one business, the ideal version of each changes over time. This degree of nuance is generally not present in most vague references to finding more A players. Yesterday’s A player may be tomorrow’s dud.
The KPIs of Key Performers
Throughout my career, I’ve been shocked to watch people who had previously performed well suddenly struggle and vice versa. I’ve tried to identify patterns and commonalities amongst our highest performers at any given time. For example, in our company, iteration is one of the most important activities, so I developed methods for measuring iteration.
No matter what activities and skills are important for your organization, teams and specific roles, find ways to identify them in the hiring process. Instead of trying to find A players, here are three techniques I use.
1. Go Beyond the Playbook
Many interviews focus on what candidates have done and accomplished before. But what worked elsewhere may not work here, so I zero in on whether the candidate executed a playbook that was handed to them, or if they developed the playbook. If the latter, what unique aspects of the situation informed their approach? People who adapt will generally outperform ‘raw talent.’ I try to avoid people who defend their decisions or rationale by saying that it’s worked for them in the past rather than because they have fresh evidence.
2. Create Artificial Ambiguity
The real world is ambiguous: There’s rarely any clarity in a fast-paced business environment, from identifying customer needs to budgeting for next quarter’s headcount. Instead of playing well within the rules of a game, the better approach might be to change the game.
I try to replicate that within the interview process. We send final candidates a take-home project with an ambiguous prompt with critical information missing (e.g. “consider our product strategy when designing your solution,” even though they couldn’t possibly know our product strategy). Rather than focusing on the completed projects, I look for candidates that ask questions and seek more context. Frequently, perfectionists who would widely be considered A players, at least in school, digest our prompts, make assumptions because they fear that asking questions would be a sign of weakness and then quickly deliver impressive-looking solutions and presentations — but these solutions are likely based on faulty speculation.
3. Consensus Can Be a Red Flag
I’ve never found hiring processes where every interviewer has to agree to be effective. Why would they be? Decisions made with consensus are usually bad. Reasonable disagreement and tension creates better outcomes. When everyone agrees on a candidate, it usually means they interviewed well by telling interviewers what they wanted to hear and that they effectively hid their flaws. Our best candidates challenge the status quo and will often generate strong and sometimes negative reactions from interviewers (who may have their own flaws or gaps).
While employees are the most valuable part of virtually every business, be careful not to oversimplify the complex dynamics of teamwork and performance into A players and B players. The reality is more nuanced and fluid, and that’s a good thing. It’s why we’re building businesses instead of playing games.