We all have them—those rockstar employees who are the “go-to” for every hairy problem and on the short-list for every succession plan.
Many of us can rattle off 10 of these “A-players,” with little trouble differentiating between them and the “B-players” who are solid employees and coming along nicely but clearly in a different league. All of us could likely accomplish more if we had more A-players in our organizations. But how do we increase the proportion of A-players?
I could spout off a bunch of advice, but let’s face it: I don’t really know. These A-players are like the Great White Buffalo—we stumble across them every now and then and thank our lucky stars when we find them. But we don’t really know what we did to get so lucky.
But while I can’t answer the question, what I can do is ask a bunch more questions that might help you answer it for your organization. This is the old executive coaching trick: keep asking your client questions until they solve their own problems!
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that there are two ways to get an A-player: You can hire her, or you can hire a person and turn her into one.
Consider how quickly your A-players became impactful. The ones who were impactful right out of the gate were probably A-players you hired. The ones who took 18-months to emerge were probably folks you hired and then turned into A-players. Both are incredibly valuable, but each group can teach you different things. This post focuses on the subset of A-players that you hired directly, but you can do the same exercise evaluating folks you turned into A-players.
For those you hired directly, let’s consider some questions that could help you hire more, organized by each of the three phases of recruiting:
Sourcing (Getting people interested in applying):
- From where did you source your A-players? Did some sources produce higher proportions of A-players than other sources? How can you double-down on those sources in the future?
- What struck these A-players about your company’s outreach? Which words in the description were they most interested in? Which company characteristics were they most drawn to? How can you emphasize those points more moving forward?
- Note: the best way to understand the Great White Buffalo is to ask them questions about their rare existence.
Selecting (Sifting through the applicants to pick the best ones):
- How did the interview notes for your A-players compare with the notes from other candidates you ultimately hired? What words or attributes or experiences did interviewers mention regarding the A-players that weren’t necessarily discussed with the B and C players you hired?
- How did the A-players perform on your special interview techniques (e.g., case interviews, group interviews, assessments, etc.) and how does that data compare to the B and C players you hired? Are those special interview techniques indeed predictive?
- If not, what sort of interview technique would these A-players have scored highly on that the B-players would not have?
- Who interviewed the A-players and advocated for them strongly? Did those interviewers also advocate for a bunch of B and C players, or might they just have a more accurate intuition? If some had a more accurate intuition, what can you learn about their approach, and how can you get them more involved in future interviews?
Closing (Convincing the people you want to hire to come work here):
- By now you get the point—we’re comparing the closing of the A-players with the closings of B and C players, to see if there was a difference.
- In what factors seemed most important to the A-players? In what additional questions they asked once they were issued an offer? In who made the offers (e.g., are some in your organization just better “closers” than others?)
All these questions can provide answers to help you hire more A-players. You can conduct a similar analysis on those folks you hired and turned into A-players. For that subset of A-players, you can assess which managers they worked for, and whether there were certain training courses, projects, divisions, that the A-players all shared. You can assess which attributes you’d describe that set them apart from the B and C players, and then figure out how to measure and encourage those attributes in others.
These A-players could hold the secret to finding more of their rare breed. But it’s up to you to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know about them, and ask the right questions to unlock the mystery.
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!