A-Players aren’t all that

Take a look at your clothes. Unless it’s cosplay day, chances are you’re not a ninja. You’re not a rockstar. You’re not a superhero, though I must say that’s a pretty snazzy cape you’ve got on.

You may not even be that most valuable of human resources: an A-Player.” Or at least, you’re probably not what Netflix thinks of as an A-Player.

To hear some businesses talk about hiring, you’d think the world’s working population could be neatly divided into alphabetic ratings. The Ds and Es quietly drooling in the corner while the Bs and Cs stumble behind the mighty A-Players. They slam down bulletproof coffee while growth-hacking their morning routines to crush it.”

Even if it were true, it’s self-evident that not every business could be full of this sort of A-Player. Yet no company is going to say we hire C-players!”

Peter Drucker identified this problem more than 50 years ago in The Effective Executive”:

What seems to be wanted is universal genius, and universal genius has always been in scarce supply. The experience of the human race indicates strongly that the only person in abundant supply is the universal incompetent. We will therefore have to staff our organizations with people who at best excel in one of these abilities. And then they are more than likely to lack any but the most modest endowment in the others.”

Was Drucker saying you should not hire a genius if you find one? Of course not. He’s merely speaking the reality that few people excel in every facet of business. Not only that, human beings are not Westworld hosts, with sets of clearly labeled attributes set to particular levels. They are infinitely variable beings, heavily influenced by the company, culture and context surrounding them.

The obsession with hiring purely the narrowly defined ambitious, competitive and highly driven A-Player” is costly in time, money, and in talent. The world is full of smart, talented, effective and reliable contributors who don’t fit into that mold (or who don’t want to live that lifestyle).

Not only can you build a successful business with a wider variety of people, you should do so. Netflix likens themselves to a pro sports team, yet pro teams full of individual superstars tend to underperform expectations. Moneyball author Michael Lewis said of the star-filled but championship losing 2010 Miami Heat team:

The stars are overrated and the role players are underrated. The role players, the people we think of not as stars, might be doing sometimes things that are extremely valuable, but that don’t get the attention that the stars do.”

The research backs Lewis up. Roderick Swaab and colleagues showed in their 2014 study that teams with too many stars” struggle to maintain the coordination needed to achieve complex tasks.

Should we as customer service leaders therefore lower our standards and give up on the idea of hiring great people? Of course not. Exceptional customer service absolutely requires smart, engaged team members. It just doesn’t require that every one of those team members be the support equivalent of LeBron James; a dominant, driven leader.

It does mean that more effort should be spent on creating an environment in which different types of people will be able to perform well.

We need to spend more time and effort on training ourselves as leaders and building systems that support and encourage the kind of behaviors that lead to better service.

A person who is an A-Player for someone else’s team will not necessarily perform in your team. There is no universal test or measure for the best people”. Our teams should be filled with a diverse range of people who share core values like accountability, integrity, craftsmanship and honesty, and who beyond that have the right mix of skills to contribute to the team.

Customer service is a perfect home for vibrant, talented, hardworking people who want to do an exceptional job, but aren’t willing to work 100-hour weeks. People who value their lives outside of work. Who want to make a difference, but don’t want to be owned by their jobs.

The nature of customer service work allows for more flexibility and diversity than many careers. It’s why you see so many artists, parents, travelers and psychology majors in the ranks of high-performing customer service departments.

Building a team that’s explicitly broader than superstars only” is a more achievable model than the Netflix approach. It opens up a broader pool of applicants and creates roles to which people will commit for longer periods.

Of course we should not fool ourselves. Success with such a team is not guaranteed any more than drafting a bunch of superstars guarantees a championship. It requires deliberate effort, attention and maintenance.

Your team culture matters; your team’s influence and respect within the larger company matters. The leadership you show and the leadership you develop from within your team matters.

You could not build an effective support team out of prototypical A-Players even if you wanted to. Hire your traditional A-Players, certainly. They may well be your future leaders. But don’t stop there. Surround those few with a well trained, well supported team full of dedicated, rounded, highly engaged people who will form the heart of your organization for years to come.


October 26, 2020