You don’t just FIND ‘A’ players, you DEVELOP them

The start-up blogosphere has been buzzing recently with posts on talent and the nirvana of the ‘A’ player. For some good ‘A’ player porn see Eric Paley’s The Curve of Talent. Eric defines ‘A’ player as, “folks who can write the book and not just read it.” This implies an extremely uncommon level of creativity, independent thought and leadership. Because start-ups by definition challenge the status quo and invent a new future out of nothing but a vision and a technical possibility, they require revolutionary thinkers and actors. We worship figures like Jobs, Zuckerberg and Brin and we understand the ruthlessness of start-up culture, where only ‘A’ players can be tolerated.

However, one thing that gets lost in all this is that it is a more pragmatic and rational strategy for start-up leaders to DEVELOP ‘A’ players than to try to FIND them. We should spend less time looking for the unicorn and more time making our existing horses run very, very fast.

Am I arguing for reducing one’s hiring standards? Certainly not. The primary function of a start-up CEO is to marshal the resources necessary to execute the vision; having great people is a, if not the, critical piece of that. However, I would guess that the percentage of people in our society to whom the ‘A’ player definition above truly applies is closer to 0.001% than 1%. George Washington was one of tens or hundreds of thousands in the Continental Army. Martin Luther King was one of millions of black men outraged by racial injustice. Maybe these standards are too high, but for every Mark Zuckerberg in Silicon Valley there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of aspiring ‘B’ players. If you spend your time looking for those ‘A’ needles, your start-up will die from a lack of execution. As Eric says in his post,
Those who suggest that startups should only hire A players are grade inflators.  They’re calling B players A players.  The actual A players are too rare for this to be a practical hiring plan.
I would also posit that a larger percentage of the population have the ability to become ‘A’ players, even temporarily, and that you can build an ‘A’ group out of a mix of ‘A’ and ‘B’ players, if the conditions are right. How to create the right conditions? Here are some thoughts:
  1. Start with a group of really good start-up professionals (yes, ‘B’ players, but don’t call them that to their faces!). Notice that I didn’t write ‘executives’ or ‘industry experts,’ but rather ‘start-up professionals,’ those rare people who understand start-ups (see my post on Chops vs. Flops);
  2. Create a culture where people are on a mission to achieve something great (see Theresa Ambile’s book “Cultivating Genius” for more on this). People will go through walls when truly motivated and sometimes the sum of that hard work is the difference between success and failure;
  3. Take the time to develop them into better professionals. You don’t need (and start-ups can’t afford) long training classes or an official Learning & Development department but you’d be surprised what you can achieve with good old fashioned real-time feedback and a quarterly one-on-one lunch to check progress against goals and career development;
  4. Encourage them to learn and to lead. ‘A’ players need to innovate in their function so they need to be exposed to new ideas, thoughts and techniques – set this as an expectation. Without an HR department to help you, you need to give your team the time  to read regularly from the latest industry rags, attend events and expand their horizons. Help define what it means to lead. Encourage independent thought, development of values and time each day to map out priorities.
Much has been made recently of the lower barriers to starting a company (cloud, open source, lean methodology etc.). Here’s to principled, inspirational leaders who find good and great people and make them ALL great – perhaps the last true barrier to developing a meaningful start-up.
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