Only Hire ‘A’ Players

“Only Hire A Players” said the immensely successful woman on stage.  I was at the Web Summit, a few years ago – back when it was still in Dublin. But this wasn’t the first time I’d heard the advice. It had become so standard in the tech industry that it was the mantra of everyone who’d exited for north of €100 Million.

This advice just serves to show how far these CEOs have travelled. The advice is so lacking in empathy with the typical startup that it can only be described as out of touch and useless.

This isn’t surprising. In general successful CEOs who have managed to exit their company have come a long way. The early years are a blur of endlessly retold, self serving narratives that makes the reality of those years elusive even for the most grounded of CEOs. That’s why the best advice from other CEOs comes from people who are at the next stage of growth to you – the memory of where you are is still fresh.

Back to the main theme – why is ‘Only Hire A Players’ such bad advice?

  • A Players don’t want to work for most startups. We represent high risk, low immediate reward and long hours and to top it all of  the history of successful Irish exits making employees rich is less than stellar.
  • Startups are in a hurry. We can’t spend forever hiring – sometimes the right person to hire is the only one that’s in front of us. Unfortunately, it’s frequently better to do the job now moderately well than brilliantly in 6 months – because if we don’t do it now …. We’re dead!
  • Finally, if your company requires A Players to be successful then you’ve built a shit company.

It is your job as CEO to build a company that brings the best out of B and heaven forbid C Players (whoever those unfortunate souls are) so the overall performance is at the top of your field. Of course, this is difficult and it’d be a lot easier if you just had A Players – but that’s dreaming.

We’ve all seen great talent destroyed by poisonous working conditions and similarly seen mediocre talent shine brighter than the brightest lights when incentives, opportunity, culture and support is aligned. We want everybody to have the right culture and ‘can do’ attitude but that is at least as much a factor of the culture that you create as of their core personality or skills.

There are no extraordinary people out there – there are only people that do extraordinary things. If you put in place the right environment you’ll be surprised how many people can do extraordinary things.

A huge win for startups can be deliberately targeting B Players that have obvious failings that make them unattractive to companies looking for A Players and bringing out the very best in them.  The challenge then becomes “How many of my B and C Players can I make A Players?”.

What can Startups do?

  • Hire the best you can in a reasonable time frame
  • Provide a working environment and create a culture that brings out the best in people
  • Zero tolerance for negativity and undermining

When you’ve done that then maybe one day you’ll be on stage saying you only hired A Players. Then you’ll have made all of your employees feel special – after all, that’s a much simpler narrative..