You Can’t Always Hire “A” Players

There is a myth in recruiting that, given the right tools and processes, we can hire only “A” players ó those who generate the most revenue or who contribute the most to our overall success ó and that this is what we want to do. I believe, instead, that “A” players more often emerge from within your organization, or are made by it, because of the systems and processes you have in place. I also believe that you may not want to have an organization full of competing “A” players ó especially from outside your organization. One characteristic of these players is that they do not always perform well, compromise well, or blend in well with others. Jeffrey Pfeffer, the co-author of Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results With Ordinary People, and a professor at Stanford, notes that Michael Jordon was cut from his high school basketball team and that other high performers have all sorts of issues when it comes to both performance and teamwork. Manfred Kets De Vries, an INSEAD professor and leadership consultant, has written a number of books documenting the dysfunctional behaviors of top-level people. Great people are best scattered throughout an organization and surrounded by more ordinary “B” players who support their efforts and put their ideas into action. The difficulty is in striking the balance and knowing who is an “A” player. I think it is almost impossible to find “A” players outside your firm and then insert them successfully into it. However, when organizations combine rigorous development activities and provide continuous new job opportunities to their employees, they produce a large number of “A” players. IBM and General Electric are companies that I immediately think about when I look for organizations that have what appears to be more than their share of competent employees who are sought after by everyone. These are firms that have spent billions on development programs, that have established internal rotations, and that encourage employees to move frequently internally to gain knowledge and exposure. On the other hand, companies that have spent huge amounts of money and time on competency analysis and in developing complex selection systems, including a lengthy interview process, do not necessarily have creative or above average workforces. There are many analogies in the sports world. Many top major league players were considered poor choices or weak as rookies. They excelled, however, when challenged and when they were part of a well-functioning machine. Great players tend to emerge over time, rather than appear fully formed at the interview. Here are three ways to improve your hiring and development systems. 1. Don’t look for “A” players, because you don’t really know who they are. Those that you think are the best, the brightest, or the smartest may not be. The problem in looking for the best is that you are always using criteria that are suspect. The fatal flaw inherent in all competency systems is change. What has been successful or what is successful in a particular place may not be in another. What was a winning competency set here, may be a losing one in a different time or environment. Take General Electric’s CEOs as examples. Jack Welch’s predecessor, Reginald Jones, was a detail-oriented systems guy. He required elaborate strategic plans from each of his business units. He focused on developing a smooth running machine. Jack Welch, however, had a very different skill set. He was a “big picture” guy who focused on vision and then on developing managers who could execute that vision with little need for Jack’s daily handholding. He encouraged and empowered. Each of these skill sets was equally right for the time and place it existed, but neither would have been as successful at another time. Even our current performance management systems tend to restrict creativity and reward only those who do yesterday’s work well. We need to build reward systems that focus on team and work groups, not individuals, so we encourage everyone to participate and grow. When this happens, unlikely people often emerge as the best. 2. Provide development opportunities broadly for everyone and reward and promote those who take advantage of the opportunities. If we believe that talent often emerges where we least expect it, we cannot afford to limit development opportunities only to certain levels or types of employees. Firms that take an open view of development and let people find their own levels of competence and interest often produce “A” players from those others consider only “B” players. 3. Have recruiters aggressively monitor and source internally. Most of the very best talent comes from within and from below. We are all enamored with the outside “guru,” and frequently pass on the person right in front of us who is equipped with the skills, the cultural understanding, and the motivation to excel. Recruiters need to use (or develop) internal networks and referrals programs, and encourage and educate managers on the need to give people opportunities even when the exact skills are not a match. 4. Look at selecting people for broad-based competencies. We should be looking to hire people with motivation to learn, with team experience and success, with cultural compatibility, and with a basic technical skill set that can be developed by experiential opportunities and good mentoring. We need to move away from rigorous narrow competency definitions and reliance on experience as an indicator of performance. “A” players are hard to define, impossible to recruit consistently, and need to be “dug” from within the firm or built through experimentation and education. While these tactics are time consuming, they are also successful. I have seen hundred-thousand-dollar, six-months-to-find so-called “A” players go up in flames very quickly and at great cost to the organization.

Article Continues Below

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *