Why You Must Hire “A” Level Players

by Jobbatical October 27, 2016


Conventional wisdom says startup founders should hire for scale e.g., the top-notch sales manager who can bring in bonanza accounts once you’ve reached cruising altitude. The problem with this approach, says Ben Horowitz, author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, is that the person you’ll need then is not the person you need now:

“You have no idea what your company will need at that mythical future point. It is a different skill set to sell for a fledgling company and a large organization.

“Think of it like a pivotal, tied game four of the World Series. Do you put the ace starter in to close the game, knowing he’ll be wrecked for game five? If you do, you may not win game five. If you don’t, you don’t get to game five.”

This advice is contrary to almost every piece of entrepreneurial guidance most company founders receive. Horowitz is saying, play your ace at each stage of development, rather than waiting for that nebulous big day. And this means you must consistently hire “A” players.

Alphabet Soup Spells Failure

OK, you get the point about using top hitters to win the game. But what about everyday work, such as coding? Surely a “good enough” tech employee can handle the job. Do you really need to sift through endless resumes and job boards in search of the elusive “A”?

Yes. Because A-level players are about much more than skill. Many companies tend to hire A players for skillset, and ignore the importance of being an A player in terms of teamwork/collaboration. Yet this is what sets A-level players apart:

The level at which you hire affects whom your hires will bring on board. A true “A” player will hire A+ players, because they want the company to shine. By contrast, “B” players will hire “C” players, and “C” players will hire “D” players — who will then ruin the company. Since “A” level players have nothing to prove, they’re more humble than those who seek stardom, and will put your business ahead of their ego.

What if you do wind up with an egocentric A? They’re not a true “A” level player, and can damage the whole team. You may be better off firing them.

Look for Leaders

While you can’t compromise too much on skills, role-specific expertise won’t affect productivity significantly after a certain threshold — unless you’re building SpaceX or Tesla! Once the candidate performs well beyond the threshold, hire A players who have:

  • Exceptional communication skills
  • The ability to problem solve
  • A heart for leadership

This trio of characteristics defines a leader. The willingness to continually learn, with humility, is a better indicator of an A level player than skill. Someone who has no fear of working with strong team members who may outshine them will hire other A players.

Advice From the Inside

Here’s how hiring A players looks from the employee side. Michaela Alexis (who, intriguingly, now works for a Canadian managed technology and support services company called Grade A) brought her “A” game to her last job search.

In her LinkedIn blog post on not settling for mediocre, she counsels, “If you want to land a job for life, not just for right now, you need to pause and reflect on what drives you, your values as an employee, and what kind of environment will foster your growth.” Now that she’s landed her dream position, Alexis enumerates the benefits of hiring A-level staff:

  • Sunday nights are spent in anticipation, not despair.
  • There’s no TGIF; every day is awesome.
  • Employees are happier, healthier, and as a result, even more committed to your company.
  • Corollary to the above: they’re more productive.
  • Your people are better equipped to handle life in general.

Commit to hiring only A players. Their effort and commitment is how you’ll spell s-u-c-c-e-s-s!


Originally published at jobbatical.com on October 27, 2016.

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