Position Players verses All-Around Athletes

(This blog was first featured on VentureBeat)

Hiring managers face a dilemma similar to coaches: Should you hire someone who’s really good at one particular thing – or someone who is more of an all-around player?

The question is: should you optimize on experience (people you are confident that will get a specific task done) or on potential (people who are great all-around athletes but not as good at a task you need to get done now)?

Above all else, you should always hire A-Players exclusively.  Never hire people that are “good-enough.” You want GREAT people in your organization — people that you love work with and people you’d walk through walls for.

The Position Player
Kicker The position player is someone who is amazing at one core thing that your company needs.  A professional football team has a ton of position players.  These are some of the best people in the world at their position (and they are highly compensated because of it).  When building a great football team, you need a great quarterback, linebacker, wide receiver, kicker, coach, groundsperson, doctor, and more.  You need people that are incredibly good at one key role and do it great consistently.

The All-Around Athlete
BoKnows The all-around athlete is someone that is good at many positions but may not the very best at any particular position (like a winner of the Olympic decathlon).  A great athlete on the field is someone that has burst speed, endurance, hand-eye coordination, court-sense, and is a team-player.  In a company, a great all-around athlete is likely someone who is crazy smart, works really hard, has a great attitude, communicates well, and is a team-player.

So should your organization recruit the Position Player or the All-Around Athlete?
Answer: it depends on where your company is now.

Scaling mode
Growth If your company is in scaling mode and you know what you are going to be doing for the next three years, you should optimize for position players.  While great position players are usually very expensive, they know how to do get their thing done extremely well.

If you are putting together the world’s best football team, you know you are going to need a great kicker.  It is going to be extremely hard to win without someone who can kick long field goals consistently, so it is extremely important that you find this person.  A kicker is highly specialized (they are probably not going to play any other position) and would be extremely difficult to retrain.  So you only want to invest in getting a kicker if you are sure you will need one for the years to come. 

Suppose your company is an ad network looking to build a portfolio of publishers. Someone who’s extremely familiar with the internet advertising space (perhaps someone who has helped build publisher networks in their last two jobs) would be the ideal choice. They won’t come cheap, but they may have the experience to attract world-class publishers.

Change mode (pivoting)
Change When you are in start-up mode (which might be for many years depending on the company), your business model is likely to change frequently as you pivot based on customer research and an evolving market. 

When you are in change mode, it’s best to optimize for hiring all-around athletes. There’s no sense spending time and effort recruiting the best field-goal kicker if next year you decide you want to play basketball instead of football.

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Avoiding early mistakes — and how to step on the gas

One of the common mistakes start-ups make is to immediately bring position players on board. It’s a risky proposition. While hiring position players will significantly increase the chance of success for your current model, it gives you little room to pivot. Any significant change in your business model might force you to swap out your team.

If you are tech company in change mode (or even if you are developing a “start-up” within a large company), start by finding talented software engineers. (Regardless of the company’s shifts, it’s a safe bet  you’ll need people that can write great code.)

Don’t get too specialized, though. If you hire a killer iPhone developer, that may backfire if you end up building back-end billing systems for large businesses.

For non-engineers, change-mode companies should optimize for people who are really smart, get stuff done, and can easily communicate complicated concepts. These people are likely going to be valuable in any setting.

When you finally enter scaling mode, you’ll be well-positioned to accelerate by hiring key position players. You’ll also likely have found that many of your all-around athletes have morphed into position players themselves. With a few additional hires, you can augment their strengths.

If your company is on a straight road and you want to accelerate growth and propel the company forward, add position players.  If the road ahead is cloudy, optimize for all-around athletes.

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11 thoughts on “Position Players verses All-Around Athletes

  1. Ted Hulsy

    Great post Auren. Really helpful for the CEO in hiring mode. My hunch is that more startups are in pivot mode, even when they don’t know it yet. Therefore, the all-around athletes are vital.

  2. Tom Stratford

    Great post. My company is definitely in scaling made (we know our business plan and can see straight into the future), so we’re focused on hiring key position players. I love the analogies … especially the football one. Good stuff and keep it coming!

  3. Fred

    Dear Auren, always enjoy your summations …thanks for including me. This one got me thinking about the ‘Good vs. Great’ when hiring…because you referenced sports in this scenario I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ‘Money Ball’ concept. The difference between a .300 hitter and a .250 hitter is only 5 hits per 100 at bats…not that much really but the difference in salary could easily be in the millions of dollars. I know this is a little off topic to your summation article but still thought it had some relevence…plus is just food for thought.

  4. Lanka79

    Could not agree more: always hire A-Players. The challenge though is that as a startup you are often very scarce on financial resources. What if you are bootstrapping your startup? What incentives you think would work best?

  5. Bow

    Thanks for keeping me in your loop. As usual, let me present a slight alternative to your Position Player vs. All Around Athlete proposition (good stuff). I call it hiring “Fighter Pilots” vs. “Quarterbacks”. Having received a Bronze Star in Vietnam and getting a contract from the Green Bay Packers to play ball…I like this analogy.
    Fighter Pilots are “mission critical”…which assumes you have a clear mission. When your company is at a stage that it has a clear mission “Fighter Pilots” can be hired…and/or outsourced. Fighter pilots are focused on one objective. Fighter pilots prove their worth via “kills”. Harsh sounding but true. Hire proven fighter pilots when the mission is clear and objectives are well defined. Outsource more fighter pilots when “Reconnaissance” plays a larger role in determining a company’s next project or direction.
    Quarterbacks see the big picture…they see the whole playing field, not just the guy 1 yard in front of their face. Quarterbacks are team players…they get their reward by working with and through other players. You don’t want too many quarterbacks on a team but a few are “really” worth investing in…providing they believe in and want to work from the same “play book” as you.

  6. Hitesh

    Agree with what is said in the article but that is only one aspect.
    Another aspect in this is the team composition. I don’t think that a team of all position players would do well compared to a mix of position players and a few all round players. There should be someone to fall back to be able to handle anything in temporary unplanned situations. Also like Bow mentioned generally all round players are good at looking at the bigger picture and dynamically adjusting to the need.

  7. web design Landon

    I call it hiring “Fighter Pilots” vs. “Quarterbacks”. Having received a Bronze Star in Vietnam and getting a contract from the Green Bay Packers to play ball…I like this analogy. I don’t think that a team of all position players would do well compared to a mix of position players and a few all round players.


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