“Only hire A players! Fire the B players!”

“If you hire B players, then they will hire C players!”

“Over time, the A players will get frustrated with the B players and will leave to go to other companies and you’ll be left only with B and C players, unless you regularly cull B players.”

Hands up if you’ve read this advice before. Keep your hands up if you’ve believed it. I see that’s all of you still. Now keep your hand up if you think you’re a B player, that it’s your nature to be one, that you’ll never be an A player. Oh, where’d all the hands go?

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

– Albert Einstein (or not)

I was a B player

Once upon a time, I worked for Accenture. I started out fairly motivated, and did some good work (or so it felt) in my first year, and then I got progressively more demotivated. I have no doubt that most of the people I worked with, or at least most of the people who had to rate my performance, rated me as a B player. Not a bad contributor, but not the kind of balls-to-the-walls excellence that they hoped for from a super-keen, motivated Accenture consultant.

I missed two rounds of promotions before I finally left Accenture. In theory this was due to one-off structural stuff happening while I was there (like Accenture taking a $450m write off on the NHS project), but I knew that if I had been rated as one of the top people, they would have figured out a way to promote me even during a promotion freeze (Accenture works like that, with special deals for special people). So I was clearly not at the top. At Accenture, I was a consistent B player.

Even in my two subsequent startups I was a B player. It turns out that I don’t operate at my full potential when I believe someone else will find and fix my mistakes. I play better without a safety net. I also have a burning need to work on stuff that I feel I own completely. The two combined mean that on Vocalix and Woobius, I was working at maybe 10–20% of my capacity at the time (probably less than 5% of my current capacity). I was not in a state of flow. I was easily distracted. I frequently felt demotivated because of what I perceived as unfair ownership/shares split. I still got stuff done, of course, but most people who are not in an absolutely abysmal environment will get shit done.

Long before these events, I was a B player at school, and then at university. I might have been smart, but I never felt like putting in the seemingly unending amounts of largely pointless effort that academic excellence would have required. Add to this that I was undisciplined, didn’t have many friends, and in fact was constantly bullied in my early years of school. For most of school, I was a B player, if not a C player.1

So, shall we consign me to the B-player trash can and forget about this person called “Daniel Tenner”? Or, as my dad suggested, in a skilful reductio ad absurdum, to the headmaster who declared me “unsalvageable” and wanted to expel me, “so do we take him out back and shoot him now?”

People are not cogs

The A/B player mentality comes out of a worldview where people are replaceable cogs in a machine that you’re building to make money. In this context, they are measured mostly by their ability to produce a positive effect on the bottom line. Sure, there may be some qualities or defects that don’t have an immediately apparent effect on profits, but in this worldview, it all comes down to the numbers in the end, to one number in particular: profit.

Within that worldview, the concept of A and B players makes sense. An A player has an outsized positive effect on your profits. A B player has a more moderate positive effect. A C player may have no effect or worse. It stands to reason that the best thing to do in this context is to have only A players: this way you’ll have more revenue, more opportunities being grabbed, and fewer people to share the pot with. If that’s all that matters to you, then please disregard my article: it’s not addressed to you.

If, however, the thought of measuring your entire human output with a single number makes you shudder or at least makes you a little bit uncomfortable, please read on.

Human beings are deep, complex creatures with many subtleties and nuances. They can contribute to a whole variety of endeavours in a whole lot of ways. The key to unlocking this human potential in yourself is to find the stuff you’re good at, that you enjoy doing, and that you think is worth doing to make a positive difference, to find that elusive state of flow where work becomes more like play, where despite dealing with a variety of tasks, some of which may seem boring, you take the time to love what you do and thereby end up doing what you love. When you find that place, you’re an A player.

Everyone seems perfectly willing to accept the above statement when it comes to their own self. Even better, we all breathlessly repeat this pearl of wisdom to friends, family, and sometimes complete strangers that we feel some sympathy towards. We believe in its deeper Truth, on its positive impact on our lives.

And yet when it comes to hiring and firing, we suddenly conclude that some people are hopeless B players to be culled, lest they pollute our precious company by hiring even worse examples of themselves, or setting a low hiring standard for the whole company.

That is elitist crap, merely there as a consequence of a narrow-minded worldview and as an escape hatch to allow us to blame poor performance on other people rather than ourselves. There are no B players, only people whose potential is not being brought to life, fish which are made to climb trees and then told they suck.

A better view of hiring

Pretty much everyone in the world has the potential to make a great contribution to some human endeavour. Sure, some people are cleverer or stronger or faster or more nimble or more diligent or more patient or more helpful or more of a zillion different qualities humans can be evaluated on. However, this contribution is only possible when the said human being is placed in a context that gets the best out of them.

Most of humanity labours in terrible, dehumanising, boring, uninspiring contexts. Too many still are slaves, or toil for survival or safety or comfort rather than for inspiration, fulfilment or any kind of meaningful purpose. That is a tragedy first of all for ourselves as a species, as we miss out on great contributions from billions of people who could give so much more to the world around them. A few of us are lucky to be able to find or fashion an environment which enables us to give our best day after day after day. Calling the latter “A players” and firing the rest is not only callous, it is immensely short-sighted and bone-headed on both a personal, a business, and a societal level.

When it comes to hiring, not everyone is right for your company. Some people will thrive in the open environment we’ve built at GrantTree. Others will excel in a numbers-and-measurements-oriented, strictly hierarchical company. Others yet will thrive in a socially oriented context where they feel part of a family. Others may give their best when surrounded by chaos and relying on themselves alone. To make matters worse, people will shift between these and other categories throughout their life, depending on many factors including personal growth, external demands on their resources, etc. In addition, people have skills, abilities and aspirations that will determine whether there is useful work for them to do within a given company.

Anyone who thrives in the environment you’ve built for your company, and wants and is able to contribute to something important to your company, will be by definition an A player. Your job when recruiting is to find those people who will do well in the environment you’ve built, and who have skills, abilities and aspirations that coincide with the needs of your company. Depending on how different your company is from the norm, there may be no one who fits so well outright. Perhaps they will need some coaching to embrace your unique culture. Perhaps some training to learn the ropes. Your job then becomes to find people with the right potential to thrive in your company, and to coach them and train them and help them to unfold their potential.

Whatever you do, though, don’t make the mistake to think that those who don’t fit your specific environment are unworthy human beings, categorised forever with the “B” brush stroke, unlikely ever to amount to much, and don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking you’re better than them. You’re not better, you’re merely in a better place, and with some humility perhaps you will be able to see that your role is not to sort the deserving from the unworthy, but merely to help those whose way you’re lucky to cross to contribute at their best, whether in your company or somewhere else.

  1. My parents would certainly disagree with this assessment, but then, what are parents for if not to provide this unflagging belief in their children’s abilities, that later forms a solid platform for the self-confidence our world requires of us?