Essay

I believe in A teams over A players

I’ve heard it again and again at work. “We need to hire a real A player for this job, a total rock star.”

CrayolaQA

A software test team I used to belong to, dressed up for Halloween.

This statement usually comes at a time some critical task or function isn’t being done well (or at all) and it’s causing projects to fail. “If we can just bring in a super-skilled specialist,” the thinking goes, “it would solve all of our problems!”

Sometimes this gets stretched into a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring. “Let’s hire only A players,” the thinking goes, “and then get out of their way and let them perform.”

No doubt about it: A players are extremely talented and deeply experienced. They are heavily self-motivated and especially hardworking. They are creative problem solvers who focus on getting the job done.

But don’t assume that putting A players on the job is like sprinkling magic fairy dust that makes problems go away. That’s setting them up to fail – and setting your company up to fail, too. Companies are much better served building high-performing teams.

A players are no substitute for leadership. The most important step in that leadership is to help your people form solid teams. I make software for a living, and I’ve been in leadership roles for more than 15 years now. I’ve delivered many, many successful software projects with teams made mostly of B players. That’s because company leadership:

  • Created a shared, common vision that everybody rallied around and focused on
  • Built a process framework within which team members worked, which set standards for workflow, quality, and completion
  • Praised and rewarded team members for jobs well done
  • Hired for fit within the company culture, as well as for skill

A players are hard to find. A reason why I often hire B players is because most people aren’t A players. I’d say maybe one in ten people I’ve ever worked with are that good. Many of the truly outstanding geeks move to the coasts or to Texas, where the opportunities are greater. Here in Indianapolis, anybody who wants to hire only A players will soon run out of them and will sooner or later be forced to hire B players too. Those B players will work best under strong leadership and in highly functioning teams.

A players often have the biggest egos. A little swagger is part of the A-player territory. If you don’t lead well and help them gel into a team, conflicting egos will put your projects at risk.

A long time ago I used to follow rec.music, a once-popular Internet forum about music. In a recurring discussion thread, members wrote about which musicians they’d put in the best supergroup ever. The debate raged — Eric Clapton on guitar, and Neil Peart on the drums, and Paul McCartney on bass, … no no, Phil Collins on drums and Jeff Beck on guitar! …no! It must be John Paul Jones on bass!

It was fun to fantasize about such things. But do you really think a band with some of the biggest egos in music would gel? I’m reminded of We Are the World, the 1985 charity song recorded by a supergroup of pretty much every popular musician of the time. The famous story goes that someone taped a sign that read, “Check Your Egos At the Door” on the recording-studio entrance – but that didn’t stop arguments over many of the recording’s details, with at least one musician walking out and not returning.

Still, A players can be mighty useful. There are times when it’s right to hire A players. Here are the times when I’ve settled for no less than an A player:

  • Lead roles – I needed someone to figure out some thorny problems, and to set the pace and point the way for the team.
  • Lone wolves – I needed someone for a highly specialized job where I was unlikely to need more people in that role for a long time, especially a role where I lacked the skills to do it myself and therefore would have a hard time managing its details.

Really, I’ve never not hired an A player just because he or she was an A player. Who wouldn’t want their skill and determination on the team? I’ve only passed on A players when they would be a poor cultural fit in my company and in my teams.

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Stories Told

A leader’s character

A long time ago I had a creative job with an energetic entrepreneurial division of a large global firm. They made a killer product that had lots of buzz and made lots of money. When I interviewed for the job, my future bosses told me that their product’s high quality is what made it sell, that my position would be key to delivering that quality, and that they would make sure I had the resources I needed for my work. They said I’d even have my own office, because they believed that in a quiet workspace I could really sweat the details and produce my best work.

I had spent my career cutting corners in cubicles. Their promises charmed me so much that I was unfazed when they said, in the interest of full disclosure, that the CEO would soon defend himself against sexual-harassment charges a former employee had leveled.

The suit settled as I joined the company, but if anybody said anything to me about the terms, I didn’t hear them. I was too busy happily immersing myself in my work. I had tremendous, almost entrepreneurial, autonomy, and was trusted to shape the company’s products. The tight deadlines only made me sharper. I turned to my smart and focused colleagues for ideas, and those conversations always energized me. I also made connections with interesting people all over the country, some of whom rose to fame and fortune because of our wildly successful product.

The charismatic CEO frequently flew in from his Bay-area office and always stopped by everybody’s office to say hello, calling us all by first name. He’d bring us all into the large conference room, bring in lots of food, and dazzle us with his big vision for the company’s future and for the strong culture he was building to fuel it. The CEO usually brought his guru with him, a psychologist who specialized in coaching top corporate leaders. The two had developed a list of ten core values around teamwork, quality, and work ethic that were supposed to be the platform for that culture. The CEO always asked us to quote from the values and gave prizes for getting them right.

The money kept pouring in. We tripled the number of employees in eighteen months. The Christmastime bonus checks, which the CEO delivered personally with a few kind words about specific projects I had worked on, were generous.

The CEO visited one day to talk about extending the product line, and a huge number of projects it would bring. It seemed to me that this would dilute and devalue the brand, but he had always been right so far, so I went with it. My workload jumped; soon it was double, and then it was triple. I found myself routinely working 60-hour weeks and sometimes more, the quality and timeliness of my work suffering just so I could go home and have a couple hours with my family at night. Management began watching us closely, calling us on the carpet for the smallest missteps. My autonomy eroded; soon I was only shepherding a rigid process. These things stood in contrast to the core values, which were still preached. People started to grumble; those who grumbled too loud were escorted to the door.

Material costs rose and the extended product line didn’t sell as well as before. Stiff cost controls crept in. Christmas bonuses dwindled and raises became paltry. The CEO all but stopped visiting; he was said to be busy on endless sales calls – and I kept hearing troubling stories of extravagance, booze, and sex on these trips while the rest of us were left to do more with less. The CEO sent a series of lesser executives to keep tabs on us, creepy men who made the hair on my neck stand on end. Then, the last Christmas I worked there, the CEO came to the office to hand out tiny bonus checks with the a look in his eye like my addicted uncle used to get when he’d been snorting God knows what. He couldn’t remember my name and praised me for a project I hadn’t worked on.

What had been an energizing workplace had become a culture of fear and control. I denied it for months, but the intense pressure never let up. I reached my limit on one particularly ugly project. I worked late into the night for weeks trying to save it, but failed. I couldn’t deny the changes any more, and I quit in exhaustion and defeat. I took a lesser job with a tiny division of another well-known global firm, relieved to retreat into obscurity and reduced responsibility. Most of my former colleagues, equally miserable, soon escaped as well; even the CEO’s guru moved on.

A few years later, amid news stories of Bill Clinton’s challenges with the truth, the guru wrote an article for Inc. about the consequences when a leader lives a hypocrite’s life. Go read it – it’s about this CEO. Reading it dug at my scabs. I had previously blamed all of management for how badly things turned out, but after reading this article I could see that the blame rested solely on the CEO’s shoulders. Any man who would lie in court about his behavior, because only profits mattered, had to be the root of all that was wrong with that company.

The other day, looking at my LinkedIn network, I was surprised to see this CEO’s name as a third-level connection – he knows somebody who knows somebody who knows me. He now holds a high leadership position in a different division of that same company to which I escaped (for which I no longer work). I Googled his name and that company’s name and one of the first few results mentioned that he was named as a defendant in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct, harassment and intimidation, and internal office sabotage among his executives. The suit even mentioned a particular sex toy. I was not shocked to learn that there has been high turbulence and turnover in the business units he led there. I was shocked to learn that he was just promoted.

I’m left to conclude that this CEO was right. His character hasn’t mattered, just his ability to bring profits. I feel sorry for the people who work under him.

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