Monday Mornings with Madison

How to Spot and Hire A Players for Key Positions

Word Count:  1857

Estimated Read Time:  7 ½ min.

When organizations hire employees for key positions, they want superstars.  They want rainmakers and movers-and-shakers.  Basically, they want A Players.  They certainly don’t set out to hire 10 % A Players, 80% B Players and 10% C Players.  But that’s what most companies have.  Still, it is fair to say that no recruiter ever hired someone knowing he would be a C Player, nor could he have known with certainty who was an A Player and who was a B Player.   If only 10% of the employees at most companies are A Players, then clearly HR departments are hiring lots of B and C Players.   That implies that it must be hard (or should we say nearly impossible) to distinguish between A, B and C Players.

The truth is that it is a challenge to distinguish between A, B and C Players.  But when hiring for key positions, spotting A Players is essential.  Certainly, companies more capable of spotting and hiring A Players for key positions will likely grow and thrive.  A Players are the ones most likely to deliver creativity and innovation.  They are the ones most likely to drive productivity, growth, and sales.  They produce results.  By the same token, it is reasonable to conclude that companies that have trouble identifying, hiring and keeping A Players will likely be less successful.  So how does a manager spot and hire the A-list for his roster when they are not only hard to spot, but also when every other company is vying for the same top talent?

To Find A Players, Know Thyself First

First, it is important to understand that there are more A Players in the marketplace than meets the eye.  That’s because often A Players rise to the occasion in the right settings.  In practical terms, what does that mean?  It means someone who is a B Player at one company might thrive and soar in another organization.   By the same token, an A Player for one company might end up being a B Player somewhere else.  So finding A Players is as much about finding people who fit with the organizational culture as it is about finding people with exceptional abilities.   Spotting and hiring A Players is not really a search for needles in the haystack.  It is about finding the puzzle pieces that fit a particular company’s picture, instead of trying to shove square pegs into round holes.  Arguably, there are more B Players than A Players at many companies, in part, because there are many employees whose talents, qualities and personality are mismatched with their employer’s culture and management philosophy.   Likewise, many C Players are likely people who are not just in the wrong company, but probably in the wrong industry or sector.  They are unmotivated because they simply don’t connect with their job.

For recruiters and managers, this means they must know and understand their own organization’s identity and culture before they can be successful not just at spotting and hiring A Players but also keeping them.  Even the best recruiter might be able to lure A Players to join an organization by offering a great salary or amazing perks but will ultimately fail to keep them long-term if the new hires don’t fit with the company culture.  The idea is to hire for organizational cultural fit first, and skills and personality second.   While in theory companies say they value hiring employees who are an organizational culture fit, in truth most hiring managers regularly put skills in front of fit.  The result is that basically half of all new hires who fail within the first year, fail because they don’t fit the company culture, not because they lack the skills needed to do the job.

For example, at Southwest Airlines, they recruit first for fit and then for skill.  In their case, they look for people with creativity, individuality, irreverence and humor, as well as a deep commitment to “positively outrageous customer service.”   They also look for people who think outside the box, prefer a team approach, and take their jobs seriously but not themselves.  They look for organizational fit first, and then look for skills (or will teach skills if necessary).

So how does a particular company determine what traits it most values?  Mark Murphy, a leadership trainer and author of “Hiring for Attitude” suggests hiring managers make a list of the specific cultural traits valued at that company.  Each company is different and what is valued at one organization is not necessarily important at another.  It’s important for the hiring manager to know the precise motivations, attitudes and behaviors that would make someone succeed at that organization.

To do that, Murphy suggests doing a 333 exercise. In this exercise, the hiring manager takes the three best and three worst performers in the past three months.  First, he makes a list of situations where the three best employees showed themselves to be great, by answering “What’s an example where this person was a poster child for having the right attitude for this organization, and what was their behavior or attitude that made a huge difference?”  Does the company value when a person is flexible and able to shift gears easily?  Or do they value someone who has a can-do attitude even in tough situations?  Then the hiring manager does the same exercise with the three worst people in the organization in order to figure out what traits are not desirable in a candidate, such as negativity, being too outspoken, or not being a strong team player.

To Find A Players, Look for….

1. Promotions

A Players are great at what they do and are usually open to taking on more work.  Smart managers will recognize that quickly and offer A Players more opportunities and responsibilities.  This often leads to a more challenging role.  Check out their resume or online profile to see if the candidate had been promoted at any previous jobs.  Or, during an interview, ask:  Were you promoted in a previous role? One promotion is excellent.  Two promotions means this person is likely an A Player.  Three promotions says that this person is a rock star.

2. Projects or Special Tasks

A Players are movers and shakers.  They are inclined to take on more responsibility over time.  They are willing to do projects that are above and beyond their job description.   Check their resume or online profile to see if they were tapped to lead a big project in a previous role.  What was the outcome?  Or, during an interview, ask: Was a previous manager so confident in your abilities that you were given a large or important project to run on your own?

3.  Changes in Job Title, Responsibilities or Industries

A Players get bored easily, love challenges and love to learn.  A Players are more likely to change roles rather than change companies.  Or if they change companies, they are evolving from one industry to another that is related but new to them.  Or their job may have evolved because of changes in the sector.  A Players want to keep growing and learning.  To find A Players, check their resumes or online profiles to see if they’ve changed job titles, job responsibilities, or industries.  Were they looking to keep growing and learning?  Or were they happy doing the same thing at the same place year after year.  If they’re complacent, then those candidates are likely B players.   To be sure, in an interview, ask:  When you changed job from your last employer to your current one, are you in the same role or is it somewhat or completely different?

4.  Research

A Players research a company before an interview.  In very high level positions, they will also research competitors and the state of the industry.  They will seek to understand the company’s strategy, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.  To the extent that they can, they will try to know what’s going well and what’s not for the company.  Given the abundance of information that is available about practically every company and industry online, for applicants it has never been easier to do in-depth research about a particular organization.   To determine if a candidate is an A Player and did his homework, review his cover letter for evidence that he understands the company’s mission and values.  During an interview, ask him to explain clearly what he likes about the company.  Also ask for some constructive feedback on something he might want to change?

5.  Confident Humility

Striking a balance between confidence and humility is challenging.  A Players generally are adept at both.  Because A Players usually have accomplished a lot, they have every reason to be confident.  But the key is for the A Player to be self-assured without being arrogant.  Resumes and cover letters should state facts and results without a lot of self-praise.   During an interview, ask a candidate to describe a project he worked on as part of a team.  The candidate should explain what the team accomplished as a whole, mentioning contributions by managers, direct reports and colleagues.  The best A Players are those who aren’t all about “Me, Myself and I”.

6.  New Knowledge or Skills

A Players love to learn.  New jobs.  New skills.  New products.  New services.  Probe candidates to find out if they really are committed to continual learning.  Ask them what they learned in their previous role. Talk about a book they’re currently reading.  Discuss the last TED Talk they enjoyed.  Ask what they would like to learn in the next year and how they plan to do that.  Those candidates who light up talking about what they learned are likely to be A Players.

7.  Curiosity

The interview process should never be one-sided.  It should be a dialogue.  The top candidates will have as many questions for the hiring manager as the hiring manager had for them.  Consider not just the quantity of questions asked, but also the quality. A Players care about the team they’ll be working with, who they will be reporting to, what the company culture is like, and the direction the company is pursuing.  The A Player candidate should be interviewing the hiring manager as much as the hiring manager is interviewing the candidate.

Here’s the final word about recruiting A Players.  When new employees are hired, the environment will begin to affect them, one way or another.  A Players behave the way they do because they are striving for something they want – money, power, prestige. If A Players get what they want from the company, they may stay. If they don’t, they will look for it elsewhere, or – and this is the interesting part – they will stay and begin to behave like B players.   If their risk-taking (such as daring to challenge direction or proposing new ideas) is punished or ignored too often by a senior manager or their efforts go unnoticed and unrewarded — and they are simply making too much money to risk leaving — they shift down from being driven, dynamic A Players to reliable, by-the-clock B Players.  Perhaps that’s why B Players outnumber A Players 8 to 1?  Food for thought.

Quote of the Week

“If I were running a company today, I would have one priority above all others: to acquire as many of the best people as I could [because] the single biggest constraint on the success of my organization is the ability to get and to hang on to enough of the right people.” Jim Collins


© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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