We all know the old “B-players hire C-Players” mantra, but maintaining an A-Players-only team isn’t easy.
The #1 mistake A-Player leaders make is failing to identify and transition out B-Players quickly enough.
A-Player leaders get a lot of fundamentals right, but invariably make mistakes and hire some B-Player leaders who have an amplified effect and tend to hang around months or even years longer than they should. When B-Players are left in place, it kills organizational performance in that functional area and spills out to tangent functions. The more senior the B-Player, the larger the magnitude of the fallout.
This post is focused on advice for executive level leaders who need to quickly identify and transition out B-Player leaders on their teams, but the advice easily translates to leaders up and down the stack and ought to be useful to anyone who wants to correctly interpret organizational results.
Building and Managing A-Player Teams
“A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” — Steve Jobs
As Steve Jobs points out in this clip, the primary focus of a great CEO is recruiting and vision. If you build a great team and get them aligned around a clear vision, then the team will be largely self-managing.
“The greatest people are self-managing. They don’t need to be managed. Once they know what to do, they’ll go figure out how to do it, and they don’t need to be managed at all. What they need is a common vision, and that’s what leadership is — having a vision, being able to articulate that so the people around you can understand it, and getting a consensus on a common vision.” — Steve Jobs
He talks frequently about self-managing and self-policing teams of A-Players;
“I’ve built a lot of my success off finding these truly gifted people and not settling for B and C players, but really going for the A players, and I found something. I found that when you get enough A players together, when you go to through the incredible work to find you know five of these eight players, they really like working with each other because they’ve never had a chance to do that before, and they don’t want to work with B and C players. So it becomes self policing and they only want to hire more A players.” — Steve Jobs
While there is some self-policing aspect among the core A-Player team, the fog of war sets in and distracts everyone from doing it 100% of the time and with 100% accuracy. B-Player leaders spend most of their time churning up chaos, drama and diversion to distract from their performance. So the crux problem for A-Player leaders is less so the setting of vision and recruiting, and more so the identification and transitioning of B-Players — because setting vision and recruiting top talent aren’t actively working against you, whereas B-Player leaders are by definition actively working against your goals, while also actively working against you identifying them and transitioning them out. Since you can and will make hiring mistakes, the process for identifying B-Players and transitioning them out is just as important as identifying A-Players and recruiting them in. Reiterating for emphasis;
The process for identifying B-Players and transitioning them out is just as important as identifying A-Players and recruiting them in.
If we want to hire only A players, we need to define what it even means to be an A-Player. Once we define what an A-Player is, we need to figure out how to find them, recruit them, interview them, and how to transition B-Players out when we’ve made a mistake.
Defining A-Players and B-Players through Winning, Growth, and Accountability
Everyone will have job-specific criteria that separates the exceptional candidates from those that don’t make the cut.
In addition to job-specific skills, I use a general framework to distinguish A-Players from B-Players based on three important attributes; 1) degree of focus on winning, 2) degree of focus on personal growth, 3) attitude towards accountability.
A-Player: Wants goals for the organization because their #1 priority is winning. Wants goals for themselves because their #2 priority is personal growth and challenging themselves. Because the A-Player wants to win and grow, they want to hold themselves accountable, analyze shortcomings, and focus on getting better. Focus on outcomes above optics. Laser focused on important goals rather than distracted by shiny objects. Heads down on work rather than engaged in internal politics. Not afraid to take some risk in the name of better outcomes.
An A-Player focuses on outcomes over optics and a B-Player focuses on optics over outcomes.
B-Player: Doesn’t want precise goals for themselves or their organization because it eliminates their ability to move goalposts dynamically to create fictitious positive momentum. Doesn’t want a regular cadence of accountability because this makes it even harder to move goal posts, and risks continuous exposure of their shortcomings. Focused on optics above outcomes; increasing their perceived status, alliances, and power within the organization while minimizing risk, outcome focused work, and change to the status quo.
Finding, recruiting and interviewing A-Players
The #2 mistake A-Player leaders make is not treating recruiting and retaining A-Players as their #1 priority. Again referring to the above Steve Jobs clip where he states that recruiting is his most important role;
“So I consider the most important job of someone like myself is recruiting. We agonized over hiring. We had interviews. I’d go back and look at some of the interviews again. They would start at 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning and go through dinner. A new interviewee would talk to everybody in the building at least once and maybe a couple times, and then come back for another round of interviews, and then we’d all get together and talk about it. We wanted people that were insanely great at what they did, but were not necessarily those seasoned professionals. We went through that stage in Apple where we went out and thought oh, we’re gonna be a big company, let’s hire professional management. We went out and hired a bunch of professional management — it didn’t work at all. Most of them were bozos. They knew how to manage, but they didn’t know how to do anything! And so, if you’re a great person, why do you want to work for somebody you can’t learn anything from? And you know what’s interesting, you know who the best managers are? They’re the great individual contributors, who never ever want to be a manager, but decide they have to be a manager because no one else is going to be able to do as good a job as them.”
He’s talking about one the the most challenging aspects of recruiting, which is that you are looking for the high trajectory people that will grow into the role you are hiring for. If you optimize for pedigree and optics, you aren’t going to get the folks that are best at execution. If you try to find someone who already knows how to do the job you are hiring for perfectly, then why would they possibly want to take this job if they care about personal growth? Who do you know that is outstanding at what they do and doesn’t care about personal growth? This chain of reasoning shows why you always want to hire high-growth trajectory people to grow into roles, rather than to find people that you think are already pedigreed.
It’s important to identify the skills needed for the job, then extrapolate out profile, and work backwards to places they can be to source them. I won’t get into detail here, but I’ll probably do a whole series on recruiting.
Selling your opportunity is about making yourself a great fit for people — have an awesome team and opportunity. Build a place they can win and grow better than anywhere else, and then you don’t have to be slick about selling it, you just have to show them the opportunity.
Speed wins — have an awesome recruiting and interview process with a minimum number of steps. Use clear tests against skills as a way to impress candidates that you know what you are looking for and competent enough to test for the right stuff. Note that compressing the timeline means cutting out logistical bottlenecks, not watering down the interview. I once had an initial screening call with an outstanding design candidate. We really needed a designer and this guy had another offer from one of the top agencies in the world. I flew him out to San Francisco for an all day interview the next day, which he rocked. We made him a spot offer on site, which he accepted. He attended our office warming party that night, since we’d just moved into a new office to accommodate our growth. We never cut the interview down, in fact we spent more time with him. Speed wins.
The Allergic Reaction; Identifying when you’ve made a mistake and hired a B-Player
When a B-Player senses they are at risk of being exposed, they tend to have extreme allergic reactions aimed at diverting attention from their performance. This is what makes detecting and transitioning them out so challenging.
Ultimately, B-Players can’t deal with accountability — this is what triggers them, but it’s also their kryptonite. The way to cut through their noise is with clear goals, milestones, and accountability. B-players are always finding a way to belittle goal setting, roadmapping, and a steady cadence of accountability — they want everything to be fuzzy with movable goal posts, which allows them to attempt to define wins dynamically in a way that maximizes their status. So the hardest job of the A-Player leader is to just remain calm, rational, not get drawn into the chaos and drama, and just keep returning to the goals.
A common move is to avoid accountability for outcomes by stirring up resentment and flight risk among the team, and surfacing it as a hostage play — the only way to retain the team is to let the B-Player leader address their grievances. The steady A-Player leader responds with “Well that’s unfortunate that Kim, Michael, and Jessica are all on the edge of leaving, and that’s something we should address. Let’s come back to it after we’ve finished looking at why we’re missing our goals so badly and what we can be doing about that. Why do you think we’re behind on our marketing goals so badly? What could we be doing better?”
The B-Player allergic reaction is serious and requires immediate attention because they are not going to sit inactively waiting for the other shoe to drop, they are going to actively create damaging diversions.
How to transition B-Players out of the team
The #1 mistake A-Player leaders make is in failing to identify and transition out B-Players quickly enough.
Check for symptoms and when you find them, understand the second and third order effects, then act immediately. B-Players spend more time on optics than outcomes — so they tend to make a big investment in politics and alliances. When a senior B-player leader feels exposed, they will immediately begin to leverage their social engineering skills and internal network to foment discontent and distract from productive work.The important thing when it comes to transitioning these leaders out is understanding the political context and alliances they’ve created so that you can quickly defuse drama.
Don’t get drawn into reacting to various specific dramas the B-Player leader tries to churn up, just have some 1:1s with relevant folks, get an understanding of what’s going on, and act quickly to remove the leader and replace them with whoever is the best manager to get everyone focused on productive work toward clear goals, and how they should each be growing professionally as individuals. Don’t spend time on the drama, spend it on the work. This lets your actions do the talking.
Reinforce this in 1:1s that you take over from the B-Player leader. Validate the feelings and concerns that the team raises based on discontent fomented by the removed B-Player leader. Thank them for sharing, then bring it back to the work. “Yeah it’s a bummer that Kim, Michael, and Jessica were all talking about leaving. I’m talking to them and listening actively for sure. I think part of it is always just when we lose focus on the goals and how we want to grow. So back to that, how are you feeling about your team’s goals and what’s the kind of stuff you’re looking to accomplish yourself this year personally and professionally? Let me get to know what’s on your mind a little better since you’re reporting to me for now.”
You want to make some space to air grievances, but not really probe in and spend time there, which is because there’s just too much noise in this feedback until after the dust settles when the B-Player leader is gone. In a month or so, the dust starts to settle a bit and anytime between one to three months after the leader is gone, you can start doing rounds of 1:1s more actively probing in for issues and getting critical feedback that’s more focused on operational reality than synthetic drama.
I’ve assembled a list of interesting links about firing senior managers — especially geared toward CEOs faced with firing their direct reports, but I think the same applies up and down the chain — and I’ve summarized what I think are the key points below.
- Executives need to grow their skills and solve problems through a support network and mentorship in their field. So if they can’t do it on their own, it’s not the CEOs job to help develop them. CEOs and cross-functional leaders can not master every craft, so they need leaders that can execute in their function. There’s a bit more space for coaching as you move down the leadership chain into specialized skills where senior managers can help grow their reports.
- Confirmation bias makes us want to hold on to leaders we’ve hired. We feel like firing a leader we’ve hired is an admission of failure. We are willing to go to great lengths to try to fix the situation, reconfigure it, and wiggle our way out of admitting failure. In a way hiring the wrong leader is a failure, but in a way it’s just normal — depending on the study and probably the stage of the business, 20-50% of executive hires fail. So as CEOs, we should be a lot more open about making executive hiring mistakes and learning from them.
- It’s often the case that you might have a round A-Player leader and a square A-Player leader role. The CEO needed someone with really strong product marketing skills, and thought their new marketing exec’s skills would translate, but it turns out that the products and markets they are used to are too different, and the leader just isn’t effective and they know it. The leader is performing as a B-Player, and actually they are miserable doing it and will be relieved to talk about it with the CEO and find something new. The CEO can help them, sometimes even with a role pivot inside the company if the company is big enough, but often in another company. If the CEO and exec are aligned on why they missed a fit, then they have a clearer idea of where the exec does fit and the CEO can help.
- CEOs are sometimes happier focusing on achieving goals than on untangling drama. This is why a lot of vision and execution focused CEOs want to work with other execs who are strong people managers. If one of these people managers turns out to be a B-Player though, then impact is reversed — they’ve spent time building alliances and setting up socially engineered drama rather than spending their time getting alignment and defusing drama. The CEO knows this and has approach avoidance about stepping in to untangle the mess, which will only distract focus from execution, but they know it has to be done. They let it stew and the situation only gets worse and distracts even more over time.
- Have conversations with relevant stakeholders such as the board and figure out the separation package before discussing with the executive you are firing. You want this conversation to be short and to the point, not leaving the door open to trial periods and separation package negotiation — you’ve already spoken to the board and gotten everything approved. I agree with Ben Horowitz that all these discussions should be done as 1:1s, because you’re building gradual alignment on a very sensitive topic and want to hear everyone out. I also agree you generally want to inform the departing exec first, the CEOs reports and the departing execs reports next, and then the rest of the company. That said, there are complex edge cases here, such as operating conditions that require someone to take on the departing executive’s reports immediately, but the decision requires discussions with other executives and the board, and they must know that the departing leader is out before you can have the discussions. This chicken and egg problem is normal and you usually want to wait until after you transition out the departing exec, but in practice sometimes there are edge cases, so if your situation feels uncomfortably complex, find yourself a really senior advisor who has seen decades of battle to help you out.
Symptoms of B-Players
I’m adding a special section on this because, in practice, this is really the most difficult part of the matter. The trickiest part of B-Player leaders is that they spend more time making it difficult to identify them than they do on trying to win, so I’m sharing some patterns to be on the alert for.
Optics over outcomes; unwillingness to take goals seriously
B-Player leaders downplay focus on measurable goals because they focus on status over performance, or as I like to call it, optics over outcomes. B-Players just want their teams to feel good and serve as chess pieces in their social engineering endeavors, and this is impossible if we’re looking at the scoreboard and focusing on the work we need to do to hit our goals.
You’ll normally see a certain peculiar disdain for goals from B-Player leaders right at the outset. You’ll run a goal setting exercise as a leadership team, and they’ll be skeptical, claiming high uncertainty makes it difficult and so on. While the rest of the leadership team comes up with even more aggressive and rigorously defined goals that you’d have thought of, the B-Player leader just has one slide with some high level numbers like sign up 10 new accounts. When pressed, they don’t have much thinking behind this number, or how it ties to the company’s overall objectives. They aren’t mindful of the business context — if it’s a startup, what stage is it at, how much does it need to grow to raise the next round of funding or get to profitability. They don’t think about leading indicators that we obviously need to monitor to see if we’re on track to sign up as many accounts as we need. They are cynical about goal setting, feeling that they are somehow above it, and so they just don’t take it seriously enough to invest the amount of rigorous thought it requires to set direction for the chunk of the company that they are supposed to own.
The Roadmap to Nowhere
The hardest part about good strategy is the place where strategy meets tactics — it’s why so many companies that have totally reasonable high level strategies fail to execute them.
A good strategy and a good team doesn’t imply good execution. The place where strategy translates to tactics requires real mastery in order to ensure good strategy is carried by good execution.
B-Players create horrible roadmaps. It’s an even worse manifestation of all the same issues as the goal setting. A roadmap is only useful if you know where you’re going and intend to get there, neither of which are interesting to B-Players. Moreover, defining milestones and a cadence of accountability to check in on them makes it way harder to move the goalposts to suit whatever social engineering the B-Player needs to achieve at any given moment.
“This document was clearly written by the B team. Can someone get me the A team document?” — Jeff Bezos
A roadmap with a sequence of milestones is only one step away from a cadence of accountability to check in on the milestones, and this is anathema to the B-player leader. Without bothering to know what our goals should be, working backwards from there to define milestones, and building out a detailed roadmap around these milestones, we can conveniently avoid knowing if we’re executing well along the way. This creates a fertile environment to move the goalposts around dynamically to make sure everyone feels like they’re doing things right.
Like goal setting exercises, you will see telltale signs of B-Player roadmapping.
- A single slide straight out of the underpants gnomes school of roadmapping with a handful of dates leading to something nebulous.
- A constantly changing roadmap, and the need to extend time to be able to complete the roadmap. They just can’t facilitate among their team and get a sane draft roadmap, the format of the artifact keeps changing, and there’s analysis paralysis on some topics among their team.
- A sloppy roadmap — its complex with links all over the place to different internal systems, and nobody is comfortable following it.
- A massively over-engineered roadmap — the roadmap has everything you could possibly imagine in it, and obviously can’t be completed during our lifetimes. It’s structure is a very complex spreadsheet with loads of color coding and columns for various attributes of the work.
The blow-up and blow-out; avoiding accountability and creating distractions by blaming leadership and surrounding teams
Blow-ups and blow-outs are the two most pathological responses from B-Player leaders because they are most damaging to the team and hence have the largest impact. Blow-ups work by blaming problems on more senior leaders, and blow-outs work by blaming peers, their own teams, or other neighboring teams. These responses tend to be carried out by narcissist B-Player leaders, and they are both forms of gaslighting, so if you haven’t studied narcissism and gaslighting, add them to your reading list. The essence of gaslighting is a crazy person doing crazy things while manipulating you into questioning whether you might be the crazy one.
B-Players are concerned with being exposed and held accountable for their results. They don’t like leaders who want them to set aggressive goals and hold themselves accountable. Their response to exercises that try to set goals, define roadmaps, or establish a cadence of accountability is to create maximum chaos by stirring up drama and blaming others.
Blow-up: blaming their leaders. The B-Player’s manager is the one driving accountability and therefore must be discredited to preserve the image of the B-Player. This type of melt down can do real damage. The B-Player will try to discredit their manager in the mind of their manager themselves, and in as many of their allies as they can. It’s not the B-Player leader’s failure to focus on goals and make progress, no, it’s their manager’s insistence on measurable progress and annoying failure to make everyone on their team happy. It’s critical that the leader who is overseeing the B-Player has strong self-confidence and an understanding of narcissism and gaslighting, otherwise they will be asking themselves “Am I crazy? Am I somehow the problem like he is saying? It does seem like they are pointing out some people who are frustrated.”
Blow-out: blaming everyone else around. B-players tend to manage up really well. They’ll often posture as BFFs with their manager, assuring them that they are in the right, and proceed to blame performance issues on everyone else. It’s their team, they need to make some layoffs. It’s a neighboring leader and their team — those folks are causing distractions. It’s a set of people demanding change because something is broken but it doesn’t really need to be fixed. Whatever it is, it will conveniently be people that are shining the light of critical feedback and accountability in some way.
“Thousand Fingers Pointing” — the deity of blockers and excuses
Imagine a deity with 1000 arms pointing all over the place. That’s the B-Player leader creating a thousandfold diversions to avoid accountability.
This playbook rolls out when it’s too difficult politically or operationally to stir up drama and chaos by blaming others and inciting conflict, so the blow-up and blow-out playbooks won’t work. The next target is to point to as many other factors as possible, preferably conditions outside the company outside our control.
For example the issues become driven by market circumstances, sales cycles in the space, a shift in consumer trends, unforeseeable regulatory blockers, the timing of the holiday break, the team is burned out, the customer is mean, we’re under-resourced, we don’t have budget, we need some time to ramp up, etc. The true master B-Player leader also converts their allies into thousand-armed deities of blockers and excuses, and gets them pointing all over the place to add to the cloud of dust.
“I already know what I’m doing”
When you hire in “professional management” or “really senior people in the space” you will tend to find people that think they know what they are doing to such an extent that they actually can’t focus on the goals that matter, so it feels like they can’t get anything done.
They seem busy, but they are just busy congratulating themselves for knowing what they are doing while driving as fast as possible into a brick wall. They’ll burn all the time and money on ancillary stuff that’s not needed to achieve the goals at hand.
The biggest tell here is that these leaders are rolling out their established playbooks from the past without regard to present conditions. They set up all sorts of infrastructure that they don’t need yet, and that isn’t dictated by any of the near term goals. They can be seen demanding budget to buy tools that they aren’t really even leveraging to any material extent, or going through the motions with some mechanical process that’s yielding meaningless results while claiming that “we just need to get this in place and then we’ll ramp it up.”
These leaders are pattern-matchers; always going on gut feel and reasoning based on analogy, never starting from goals or working backwards reasoning on how to get there from first principles.
Another tell is that these leaders are hardcore luddites; in response to suggestions or new ideas, they just scoff. They don’t need to try or learn anything new, they already know the playbook, and they just need you to give them the time, resources, and space to roll it out. There’s no growth mindset. This is why strong, curious fast-growing mid level folks will quickly be better than more senior folks with a complacent mindset, and you are better off to bet on growth trajectory than seniority.
The only people they want to fire are the good ones
B-Players don’t assess who is stronger or weaker in their positions based on skill and impact, but on their strength of alliance and utility for social engineering.
The B-Player leaders performance meter is literally inverted to protect themselves; those who want a culture of aggressive goals and critical feedback are seen as problems, and those who like dynamic goal posts and constant socializing are favored. They want to keep the weak players and fire the strong ones.
They want to build up alliances to increase their staying power and ability to cause drama, so they keep all the weaker players around that will come into their fold, especially ones who are very social, and they get these folks to act as their little social engineering chess pieces. They love to get their weaker inner circle socially intermingling with the stronger players. When you start to see this behavior, it’s a sure sign of a B-Player manager getting the hooks in, and the longer you want to transition them out, the worse the fallout is going to be, and the higher the risk of losing A-players in the course of the transition.
B-Players can’t handle feedback and critique. Team members who point out issues within the B-Player leader’s organization are automatically seen as a threat, and they are the ones treated as weak performers, because they risk exposing the B-Players performance. This is why the B-Players will get aggressive about other high performing players that are sharp and vocal with their critical feedback and focus on goals.
Benign vs Pathological B-Players and the impact of narcissism
The attributes of B-Player leaders often look a lot like attributes of narcissists — being incapable of self-reflection and uninterested in personal growth, requiring loyalty without critique, building their sense of self through churning up chaos and drama in their social sphere, maintaining the center of attention through social engineering.
The benign B-Player is just lazy — they set the stage but only in order to do the minimum they can to get by. They just don’t get much done, and their damage isn’t so bad; it’s more what’s undone than what’s done. They are focused on optics to the extent that they don’t need to be seen as making things worse, but not to the extent that they need to be seen as making things better. Rather than being the center of attention, they are happiest hiding out in the shadows of the status quo.
Pathological B-Players are pathological narcissists — they set the stage and want to absorb as much energy from everyone as possible by playing the star of the show. They are very proactive in churning up drama. They don’t just react negatively to accountability, they proactively stir up chaos and drama as an end in itself. Pathological B-Players are incredibly toxic and I recommend that once you recognize one, you should have the 1:1s you need to have and act to transition them out within a week.
Regardless of how good you are at recruiting and interviewing, somewhere between 20-50% of your leadership hires will fail. The process for identifying B-Players and transitioning them out is just as important as identifying A-Players and recruiting them in. Spend time defining a clear check-in process every month after a new leader starts and every quarter thereafter so that you act early when you find B-Players. Don’t let yourself kick the can down the road.
Use a general framework to distinguish A-Players from B-Players based on three important attributes; 1) degree of focus on winning, 2) degree of focus on personal growth, 3) attitude towards accountability. If you’re worried you’ve made a hiring mistake and have a B-Player leader onboard, review the symptoms listed above and follow the guidelines for transitioning them out of the team as soon as possible if they are benign and immediately if they are pathological. Always remember; the #1 mistake A-Player leaders make is failing to identify and transition out B-Players quickly enough.