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A-players matter less than C-players in a world class company

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Blog - Didier Elzinga, author profile

Didier Elzinga

Founder & CEO, Culture Amp

@didierelzinga

Many modern organizations talk a lot about A, B, and C players. The concept of an A-player is they produce outsized results, conforming to the Pareto principle, where 20% of people generate 80% of the value.

A-players are more relative than we like to think

A-players exist, but they're more relative than people think. 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 managing 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 this culture.

The modern workplace is a team sport

Traditionally, companies have poured resources into the As; if two of the ten salespeople are amazing, then the whole system is to 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. Bs will perform given the right environment and opportunities.

In knowledge work, one of the fascinating things is a group of Bs with a really well set up culture, environment, systems and processes will relentlessly outperform a place that has a couple of As 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

At the same time as maximizing productivity across As and Bs, you have to be relentless about moving Cs.

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

Every year we ask hundreds of thousands of people to agree with the statement “when somebody's not performing well, we do something about it”. From thousands of organisations and hundreds of thousands of employees, only about 35% of respondents agree with that statement.

Letting these Cs 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 the Cs, the first step should be determining whether there is another role or place 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 As, but a system that encourages and grows your Bs and stops you from hiring or keeping Cs.

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

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