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A-players matter less than C-players at the top companies
Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp


Many modern organizations talk a lot about A, B, and C players. An A-player is someone who produces outsized results, thus conforming to the Pareto principle, which stipulates that 20% of people generate 80% of the value.

Whether someone is an A-player is relative

Ye, A-players are more relative than we'd generally like to believe. Whether someone is an A, B or C is specific to the situation rather than being an inherent trait.

There is a quote, sometimes attributed to Einstein, that says “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will go its entire life believing it is a failure.”

An A-player is only an A-player in the right environment. If you grab one hundred people, chances are one of them is a superstar, and ninety-nine of them are not. But it depends on what you want them to do. If you ask them to paint a picture, Sara might be the A-player. If you ask them to build a database, suddenly it is Sam who stands out. Somebody who is successful in sales may struggle to manage a team. The successful salesperson in one culture may not be an A-player in a different culture.

The trick is to identify who can be an A-Player doing this job within your specific workplace.

It takes more than a few A-players to make a world-class company

Traditionally, companies have poured resources into the A players. If two of the ten salespeople are amazing, then the whole system is optimized for those two people. But in knowledge work, organizations are generally better placed seeing what they can do to elevate their Bs.

A-players are going to perform in any circumstances. That’s part of being an A-player. On the other hand, B's can also perform exceptionally given the right environment and opportunities.

In knowledge work, one of the fascinating things is a group of B's with a really well set up culture, environment, systems, and processes will relentlessly outperform a company in which a couple of A players are doing all the work.

In a standalone environment, there is such a thing as a 10x engineer (or salesperson, or designer). But modern business isn’t a standalone environment. Collaboration, environment, and culture all exert huge forces on productivity.

The modern workplace is a team sport.

You must deal with the C-players

While you're maximizing productivity across A's and B's, you also have to be relentless about helping your low-performing employees: the C-players.

Across companies around the world, leaders are universally bad at dealing with their C-performers.  

Every year we ask hundreds of thousands of people whether they agree with the statement “When somebody's not performing well, we do something about it”. We've found that in thousands of organizations and hundreds of thousands of employees, only about 35% of respondents agree with that statement.

Letting these C's stay somewhere they don’t fit is not good for them, and it's not good for the company. It's very hard for anyone to work productively with someone they feel is underperforming.

When moving on to the C's, the first step should be determining whether there is another role or place at the company in which they're not a C anymore. They could be a B or an A somewhere else in your company. That's what you want. If not, then you need to have a hard conversation with them.

What you should focus on is not just creating a system that identifies and promotes A's, but a system that encourages and grows your B's and stops you from hiring or keeping C's.

Because ultimately, people love working with people who are good at their job.

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