How to Spot an “A Player”

One concept used nearly universally by companies is that of the “A player.” Companies love to tout their efforts to hire and retain A players, and improve B and C players to A player status; it’s often core to a company’s talent management efforts. The problem is, in most companies it’s really just talk. The reason? Most companies and managers don’t know how to routinely spot an A player in their midst, or during interviews. That’s because most A players aren’t the ones touting themselves as A players – they let their actions speak for themselves, and expect to be recognized and rewarded as a result. It’s often when companies and managers overlook the accomplishments and contributions of A players, or A players feel that they are being overwhelmed by the performance of the B/C players around them, that they feel underappreciated and elect to take their talents elsewhere (they’re the ones who can most easily obtain other employment). An A player’s departure can reveal other problems within a company that are considerably more costly to rectify than keeping the A player happy, employed, and contributing to the success of the company.

Here are three core traits I believe most A players share, but many HR departments and managers tend to overlook:

  • They’re smart workers (not just hard workers). One major reason it’s often hard to spot an A player is that companies tend to equate working harder with A players. A players don’t just work hard – they work smart. They work very efficiently, seek to create replicable, optimized processes for accomplishing work, and often leverage technology to generate more high quality work product in less time. Companies like to promote a good work-life balance, but often look at the employees who prioritize work first above all else as the top performers. A players often achieve a good work-life balance by working smarter, while still turning out more than their share of work product and results. (They’re also often the ones working late or on weekends, but using technology to be efficient about it so it minimizes intrusion into their personal time.)
  • They share ideas without always seeking recognition. A players are often the ones who don’t stay in their wheelhouse – they often are the ones who get to know the areas of the business outside of their normal job functions, as they believe that a full understanding of the business is critical to their success. If they have ideas or suggestions for another department based on their insights or expertise, they’re often not shy about sharing them, but don’t always seek recognition for the idea – they’re happy to contribute process improvements and other ideas simply because it could help the company. They’re often some of the most loyal company employees with firm grasps of the company’s value proposition.
  • They spot and fix the small problems before they grow. A players often have a strong ability to see the root of a problem, not just the problem. They tend to be adept at spotting business disconnects, business decisions based on faulty or missing facts or assumptions, and the like. They tend to recognize that big problems have small beginnings, and seek to be the one to stop the problem before it starts.

By working smarter (not harder), sharing ideas, and helping to spot and fix problems (whether or not in their area), A players also have the tendency to mask the poor performance of the B/C players around them. This can lead companies into thinking that their overall employee base is operating at a higher level than they really are. It’s often when an A player departs that many more problems start coming to light – sometimes taking weeks or months – for which the A player had been compensating while he/she was still employed. It can often require considerably more attention and resources than a company realizes to clean up the messes uncovered by an A player’s departure.

Any effort by a company to build and retain a large pool of A players, and by managers to identify the A players on their team, must start with knowing how to spot them. Companies should look to these traits, and others, to try to spot the diamonds in the rough. Only then can they truly promote and seek to retain the rank-and-file employees that provide the greatest ROI, both tangibly and intangibly, to the company.

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