Common Traits of A-Players

An unscientific observation of what A-Players have in common

We often talk about this elusive "A-Player" – a person that everyone wants to hire but someone people can rarely find.   In this article we'll attempt to discuss how to spot these people and see what they have in common.

A few points up-front:

1. It is almost impossible to determine if someone is an A-Player until you've worked with them for 1-2 months.  Afterwards, it is really easy to determine.  Unfortunately you often don’t get a chance to work with someone in an interview or via observation.

2. Not ALL the below traits are in ALL A-Players.   But every A-Player has some of the traits.  And if you meet someone that has all of them, that person is likely to be an A-Player.

the A-Player janitor

When people think of an A-Player, they often think the person had have gone to Harvard.  Going to a great school – or even going to college at all – is not a good predictor of being an A-Player.

Each position in your company can have an A-Player.  The person who cleans your toilets could be an A-Player cleaner.  That person isn't likely to be an A-Player lawyer … but the A-Player lawyer probably wouldn't do a great job cleaning either.

As a hiring manager, your goal is to fill each position with the very best person in that position.  If you think of a baseball team, it is pretty rare that the catcher is best hitter on the team.  But having a good catcher is really important.  And a baseball team also needs a great doctor, a great ground crew, great secretary to handle the fan mail, and even a great person to do the laundry.  

Relentlessly Resourceful

Paul Graham has written that great entrepreneurs are "relentlessly resourceful".  They are.  But that label doesn't just apply to entrepreneurs … it applies to A-Players as well.  

Great people are consistently finding ways to be great.   They make things happen.   The best teacher I ever encountered was Don Tedesco who taught my fifth grade class.  He wasn't satisfied with the normal curriculum … he needed to reinvent it.  (More on Mr. Tedesco below)

Rules Encourage Mediocrity

A-Players like to be creative.  Actually, they NEED to be creative.  They need to find the best way to accomplish their goals and they cannot be told exactly what to do.  (B and C players often NEED to be told what to do).  And so an A-Player would generally quit rather than follow stupid rules. 

My guess is that you won't find an A-Player teacher that will agree to teach to a test.   They'll just quit and move to a new environment that allows them to educate kids in the best way possible.   The best teacher I ever had, Don Tedesco who taught my fifth and sixth grades, created a whole school-within-a-school (and called it "Actionville") and broke every rule in the system.  

If your company is trying to attract A-Players, you might first want to eliminate some of your rules.  And if you are an entrepreneur of a fast-growing company, you should monitor people that like to create rules for others (generally the general counsel and the HR people).  While those rules are often well-intentioned, they can drive A-Players away from the company. 

Getting Back to People

Most A-Players get back to people quickly.  Usually within 24 hours.  In the few occasions that I have emailed Steve Jobs, he's gotten back to me in about 2 hours.  Ditto for Steve Ballmer, Maria Bartiromo, Marc Benioff, Pete Briger, Eric Cantor, Andy Grove, Vernon Jordan, Bill Kristol, Lenny Mendonca, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Dave Steiner.

The one group of A-Players that are really bad at getting back to people are those that work at Google (though there are plenty of exceptions). I think that is because the culture didn't have many real customers in the early days so people there got in the practice of basically ignoring emails from the outside world.  People like Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, and Mac Benioff, by contrast, grew up needing to quickly respond and engage with customers. 

Good rule of thumb: If you find someone that generally gets back to everyone in a timely way, it is usually a good sign.

Early vs Late

Do A-Players come to events early or late?  
I've personally found that they come to events on the early side.  Certainly it would be a flag if someone was late to an interview or a meeting.  

Founders

A-Players have often founded something.   Maybe they started a student club, an association, a company, a cool web page, a user group, a neighborhood watch association, or a new committee on the PTA.  

Follow-up

A-Players seem to better understand how to manage people – especially their bosses and their colleagues.  They seem to implicitly understand what it means to manage deadlines.

Work harder and smarter

Great employees work harder than good employees.   Partially it is because they are motivated by their company and those around them.  But it is also because they take pride in what they do.  Jerry Rice outworked every football player.  Tiger Woods outworks every golfer.  They both have some incredible natural talents – but it is their work ethic that sets them apart.   My guess is that both Rice and Woods would be amazing in a business environment if that is what they were passionate about.  

But A-Players also work smarter.   Like Rice and Woods, they don’t just spend a long time practicing, they actually practice in the right way.     

20 thoughts on “Common Traits of A-Players

  1. SortiPreneur

    A Players

    The success of any startup, in my opinion, hinges on the quality of the team. This is a statement I can make very comfortably. The trick is gauging the quality. That’s usually tough, especially since, as a VC, we get…

    Reply
  2. Dan Collins

    Auren,
    Thank you for this summation although all are very insightful I particularly like the A players work harder AND smarter (one of my favorite maxims) and the getting back to people item. You allude to it elsewhere as if they are not getting back to you it’s because you are not respected as well as you need to be. Thanks again
    Dan Collins
    Chief Operating Officer
    AddVenture Products

    Reply
  3. Chase Murdock

    Great post. I especially liked your fifth point about having founded something. It ties very closely to being resourceful – and both are excellent indicators of “A-Players”.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  4. Matthew Roche

    I can’t quite figure out what qualifies someone to be an “A Player”. I don’t know many categories, outside of title, that are commonly held between Steve Jobs and Ballmer. Is an A Player someone who makes something happen, or someone who gets themselves into positions?

    Reply
  5. Cole Ratias

    I agree with many of your observations, however I’d argue most A-Players go to good schools and are obviously A-Players. Of course there are outliers who never graduated high school but they are hard to find and inconsistent and therefore a waste of time.

    Reply
  6. Andre

    adding to your list of A-Player traits: someone who has a track record of seeking new challenges and doesn’t want to repeat previous experiences…why rehash something you’ve already mastered?

    Reply
  7. Chris

    awesome. The google comment generally holds true, but to be all fair, not all out. There are some great exceptions. If that matters 🙂

    Reply
  8. Steve Mock

    I especially like the quick call-back observation. I once sent Mark Cuban an email seeking funding for one of my companies. I didn’t even expect a response since I found his email by goggling around and had zero introduction. To my surprise, he responded in 30 minutes and 2 hours later we realized we wouldn’t come to terms. No deal, but I gained a lot of respect for him in that brief interaction. It falls into your pattern as he’s a hard charging sales guy at heart.

    Reply
  9. Felix Petersen

    great article auren but i think you are focusing a lot on what we call “secondary traits” in germany: punctuality, dilligence, etc.. a lot of a-players i know can be unreliable, unpunctual but yet brilliant. you just have to know what you have in front of you.

    Reply
  10. David

    I’ve been thinking about your email rule of thumb since you mentioned in a few weeks back…
    While I always try to respond to emails within a few hours, I would like to point out that, if you are in a high email volume role (like Business Development) – and not a CEO with a large administrative staff to handle more routine correspondences – it is sometimes just impossible to keep up. We need to change the assumption that sending a follow up email (did you get this?) is a sign of weakness.
    You make a good point, too, that organizations have very different cultures when it comes to their response times. I won’t name names, but Google is not worst offender by any means!

    Reply
  11. Scar

    Thanks for sharing this article; I did enjoy it. It provides some interesting observations pertaining to the perceived characteristics of A players. Although I must say, that it is a shame that the A player janitor usually gets little recognition, as compared to the A player lawyer. It is too bad that societal norms allocate varying levels of inherent worth, irregardless of effort and resourcefulness

    Reply
  12. Alec

    Always good and refreshing to read your posts. And, boy, how right are you about A-players vs. B-players ! “An A recruits A’s, a B recruits C’s”, the saying goes. And it all goes downhill from there.
    I’ve recently experienced something different: Someone you know well and trust recommends what will prove to be a GOOD candidate – not a great one: Because the hire came recommended by a trusted person you rate highly, and the hire is good (and so adds some value obviously), you have your guard down and it takes you much longer to realize where you really stand, giving them too many second chances…
    I’ve been thinking for years (since I started recruiting and making mistakes!) about a systematic filter to apply to detect GREAT people. Not easy. If you come up with the formula, let me know!

    Reply
  13. Danny Oppenheimer

    As luck would have it, I was just giving a lecture today in introductory psychology on the personality/situation debate. The main question is whether behaviors and effectiveness can best be explained by who the person doing the action is, or the situation/task itself. The ultimate conclusion is that both matter to some degree, but importantly there is an interaction – that some people only shine in some situations.
    To that end, I noticed that you mentioned how an A-player lawyer wouldn’t thrive as a janitor, and an A-player janitor wouldn’t thrive as a lawyer. That is, excellence is constrained by the situation a person is in. You also note that rules and regulations can lead A-players to quit or otherwise reduce their efficacy. This is a situational feature.
    While you discuss how it might be used to help screen for talent, it is interesting how the situations can actually be used to create (or inhibit) talent.
    That is, can B-players be turned into A-players? I think a good place to look at this is football. The New England Patriots have created a situation in which players can thrive. Matt Cassel never started a game in college, but when he was made quarterback of the Patriots he promptly led them to 10 wins in one season. Upon being traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, he stopped being effective, and has won only 2 games since.
    One could reasonably think that the Patriots took a B-Player and turned him into an A-player by creating a situation he could thrive in. While your analysis looks mostly at recruitment and identification of talent, it may be worth thinking about how one could construct work environments that create talent.

    Reply
  14. Sal Russo

    Let me share one more trait that I have found indicative of quality employees.
    When I was 20 year old kid working in Governor Reagan’s Office, Mike Deaver was the Deputy Chief of Staff. He use to say, “If you can’t do the best job that can be done for Ronald Reagan, then get the f*** out of the way and I will get someone who can. Doing the best you can do isn’t good enough; I want the best that can be done.”
    Most people were offended, but I actually responded positively in believing that Reagan did deserve the best. So I killed myself to make sure everything I did was the best possible. I was the first person in the office in the morning and the last to leave, soaking up everything I could so that I could be the best.
    Many years later when I was putting together Jack Kemp’s prospective presidential campaign, I would regularly have breakfast with Deaver in Washington DC and kick around ideas for the campaign. I mentioned to him once that I had often quoted him from the past, always duly giving him credit. Mike was astounded that he had been such an ass and had no recollection of it. I was equally astounded since I had been living under that guidance for these many years.
    I have found that those who aspire to do the best that can be done are motivated to do the job best. When they default to, “I did the best I could,” I know they don’t measure up.

    Reply
  15. Pamela Hawley

    Auren, I always appreciate your astute articles. My only comment here is that I’d say it takes 6 months to truly see and verify that someone is a consistent A player. Some people can start off strong — and taper off. Or be hampered by emotional challenges in their lives with disrupt their productivity. Or seem to be A players, but then not have the decorum or character to handle people relationships very well.
    I’d say A players and success can have multiple definitions. Sometimes we define too much based on accomplishments and funding, rather than on who people are and the success they achieve through character and values. All are different and important metrics.
    A fascinating topic!
    Sincerely,
    Pamela
    Pamela Hawley
    Founder and CEO
    UniversalGiving
    http://www.universalgiving.org
    Living and Giving Blog:
    http://www.pamelahawley.wordpress.com

    Reply
  16. Eric Herrenkohl

    Hi Auren –
    Thanks for this post. I like your point about the “A-Player janitor.” In have found that the executives who consistently build A-player teams emphasize how important it is to avoid settling for just “filling positions,” no matter what the job. They always want their management team to recruit and hire with a vision for creating the best team possible. I have clients that hold every department manager accountable for having a “farm team” of qualified potential candidates at all times. Whether they oversee sales or a manufacturing facility, they always know where their next A-players could come from. This helps them stop settling for warm bodies and instead proactively seek and recruit the most talented people – even janitors.
    Thanks for good food for thought.
    Eric Herrenkohl
    author of How to Hire A-Players: Finding the Top People for Your Team – Even if You Don’t Have a Recruiting Department (Wiley, April 2010)

    Reply

Leave a Reply