Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Beware Of The Company Which Only Hires "A" Players

This was advice given to me by a person I once worked for.  He went on to say, the problem with “A” players is that they may be great, smart and strategic, but are rarely doers and a company always needs someone to do the work and get it out. "A" players, as defined here, are those top tier players who are aggressive, upwardly mobile and exude the fact that they will be successful, no matter what; mostly, they are thinkers and doers only of those things which appeal to them and will advance their careers.

Here’s the back story.

There were four account supervisors working on a major package goods account.  I was one of them.  Two of the others were really smart and aggressive and were, like me, very much a star.  The other one was ”steady Eddie.” (He was unexciting, and rather like a drone, but would show up during a blizzard, stay late, rarely entertained clients and was the group historian; everyone liked him and he could always be relied on to get the work out.) I got promoted to what was then a Management Supervisor; the three account supervisors had to report to me.  I knew that the two stars began looking for new jobs since they were passed over (I couldn’t blame them).

About six or eight weeks later, the client cut back budgets and, as a consequence, I was asked to think about which supervisor I would let go (Yes, those were the days when the account group actually managed its accounts and the people in them.).  I spent an anguished weekend trying to figure out what to do. I decided to keep the stars and let go of the drone. My boss said that I had chosen the exact wrong person.  This was an account which required a lot of tedious work and Eddie did it with a smile.  My boss pointed out that, when the time came, with careful screening, I could replace either of the stars with another potential star.  

So I let one of the stars go and, sure enough, six weeks later the second one left on his own. I needed to hire; and my boss was absolutely right.  I told human resources who and what I was looking for and saw a number of qualified candidates - all "A" players.  Over the years, when someone like Eddie needed to be replaced, it was actually a much harder search.    

I lost track of Eddie, but as a recruiter, I meet many like him.  Most often, clients ask us to find a potential star (clients will rarely give me a job spec that is for anything less than an "A" player).  But people like Eddie get hired all the time by hiring managers who have previously worked with them or who are really looking for someone they can trust and rely on to get work out.  I wrote about this a while ago in a post entitled, “The best job specs I ever had.” (If only companies would be honest with us and with themselves.)

Why is it that most job specs require us to find a finding a star?  We have even gotten this spec on the most tedious of retail jobs. Part of the answer is that asking us to find a star feeds corporate ego. Everyone wants to hire a winner.  (And, it is always good to be able to tell a client that the person who is being hired is a star.)  Companies love to be able to tell a prospective employee that he or she will be surrounded by exceptional people.

As you may expect, with the sole exception of the person I wrote about, referenced above, I have never gotten a job spec for a “doer.”  Yet plenty of them get hired. And, at the end of the day, someone has to get the work done.  Companies need to assess their needs in an honest way to insure that they can get accounts and service them properly.

Over the years we have seen really good ad agencies lose accounts where they appeared to have been doing great work.  While not said publicly, I often find out that the agency did a great campaign but couldn’t get out the day-to-day stuff – trade ads, price ads, dealer or local ads, etc.  They also couldn’t fulfill the daily requests for minor things, which end up being really important or they become a thorn in the side of the agency.  Those lapses drove the clients crazy and ultimately cost the agency the account.

None of this is to say that the people getting the work out shouldn't be top-rate and excellent at what they do. But what it does mean is that everyone doesn't have to be the president.


  1. "Lots a chiefs, no injuns" does not a great agency make. Three cheers for Eddie.

  2. All "stars" were and are "doers"! That's how they became and remain stars. It's just a question of what and how they do what they do that sets them apart from those just plodding along and collecting a check.

    1. At junior levels, everyone is a doer. As people become more senior, they are does, but of a different kind. No employee should just plod along and collect a check and I was not suggesting that people who are not stars are plodders. The whole point, and I thought I made it clearly, is that good doers are necessary and beneficial.

  3. Great post, Paul. However, I think it's up to managers to define and promote what a "star" is. Steady Eddie's can be positioned as stars (just as functional products can be successfully positioned as indispensable). My clients always loved the ones they could count on.

    1. Philip: You are totally right. Every client wants to know who they can count on to get the work out.


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