How a C Player Becomes an A Player

I recently wrote an article on How to Be a Corporate Superstar. In particular, I described how important it was to be an “A” player in your company.

I received a number of follow up questions that I wanted to address, including the following:

Question: What would you suggest to help a C player grow into a B player and then an A player?

My Reply:

This is a fascinating question with so many layers and perspectives to it. First, if you are currently a C player, then you will want to pay attention to my answer. If you are an A player, and can never imagine that you would be a C player, you should still read. That’s because someday you may be managing a C player and will need to know what your options are in terms of managing him.

Not all C players are created equally.

If you’re performing at a C level, you want to ascertain why you are performing at such a level.

If you have the raw talent and work ethic, but are simply inexperienced, that’s very different than if you are experienced (in terms of years worked), but just can’t seem to do a good job.

In assessing career performance, I tend to look at three factors underlying performance (the first two came from my McKinsey days, the latter something I observed on my own):

1) SKILL

Do you have the skills necessary to succeed in your current role? If not, can you acquire these skills in a timeframe acceptable to you and your employer?

If you can, develop a plan to acquire these skills and take action to do so. If it would take too long, then consider quitting and taking on a different role (because at some point your employer will figure it out and fire you anyway).

I have taken on numerous jobs in industry where I frankly was in over my head. Coming out of consulting, I knew a little about a lot of things. However, I did not know a lot about any one thing — like sales, finance or technology.

In my first few steps into industry, I found that I gravitated towards the product management functional area — a hybrid between business, customers, technology and strategy. I liked the area a lot, but I was inexperienced in it.

I made deliberate efforts around professional development — reading books, attending seminars, learning from others on the job, etc… I knew what I knew, and I knew what I didn’t… and made darn sure that what I didn’t know was only temporary.

If you’re in consulting or use consulting-type skills in industry, you might want to take a look at my Ultimate Consultant Toolkit. If you’re pursuing a career in industry, my Ultimate Industry Toolkit is another relevant resource to consider for skill building.

A Players have better skills than C players, end of story. There is no way around this “law.” Go acquire the skills you need, or pursue a career where growing those skills comes more easily and naturally to you.

2) WILL

Are you motivated? Do you have the right work ethic? Work ethic is not strictly a personality trait. It is also situationally dependent. For most of my time at McKinsey I was highly motivated and it showed.

However, in my last 3 months at McKinsey when I had mentally already decided to quit, but hadn’t actually done so, I was not motivated at all. My work performance on my second to last project was objectively terrible. It’s the only project at McKinsey that I regret because I did not do my best. In hindsight, I should have quit 3 months earlier than I did.

If you are skilled enough to do the job, but not motivated, you need to figure out why you’re not motivated. Whatever your reasons for lack of motivation, it is important to honor those reasons — as opposed to beating yourself up and trying to force yourself to be motivated when you genuinely are not.

It is important to recognize what you are motivated by, and not what you should be motivated by. The two are NOT the same. Maybe you think you should be motivated by working for a prestigious company, but if you genuinely are not — it’s foolish to keep lying to yourself about it.

The simple rule of thumb is if you find yourself in an unmotivating situation, change it. If you can’t change it immediately, make sure it’s temporary and use the unmotivating situation as a stepping stone to a better one.

3) FIT

Is the role a good fit for you? In particular, does it match your inherent strengths and your interests? It is possible to be skilled in a role, be motivated in the short run, but be in a role that’s a poor fit for you.

I’m a huge proponent of pursuing careers where you have a competitive advantage of some sort. You want a career that takes advantage of your strengths, not one where your weaknesses are a liability every day.

Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. There is no such thing as someone who only has strengths. It’s just not possible.

THE key to becoming an A player is to be in a role where your strengths are a huge asset, and your weaknesses aren’t relevant. I genuinely believe that most people are capable of being an A player in a job that’s well suited to them.

Most C players are not inherently unskilled or unmotivated necessarily. Most are simply in the wrong kind of job given their strengths and weaknesses. They put themselves in roles where their strengths are irrelevant to the job, and the skills they are weak in are required every day on the job.

For example, if you're a brilliant intuitive thinker (and by contrast not a particularly linear and logical thinker), then being a management consultant is a terrible idea. Go where your strengths are valued.

Think of the late Steve Jobs. He would have made a terrible management consultant. He’s not linearly logical. He had terrible people skills. He was a tyrant (certainly not “client friendly”). He can’t justify any of his decisions with data or facts. BUT the man was BRILLIANT.

He was a visionary. He saw things as they should be, not as they are. As an inventor and entrepreneur, these strengths are massive assets. As a management consultant, these tendencies will get you fired.

Can you imagine the loss the world would have endured had Steve Jobs decided that he had to work for McKinsey instead of founding Apple?

WHAT NOW?

The premise of the original question was (I suspect): How do I start as a C player and become an A player in the SAME job?

In general, if the job is a good fit where you’re motivated (and the situation is motivating), then moving from C to A performance is mainly a function of skill acquisition. Simply focus on acquiring skills faster in this situation.

However, I find in many cases where someone is a C player, there are other factors at play — either fit, motivation or both — which makes any skill shortfall even worse.

My big message here is to consider the possibility of becoming an A player in a different job — a job where being an A player comes more easily, naturally, and with much less effort (based on your particular profile of strengths and weaknesses). This line of reasoning is severely underutilized by the professionals I come across.

Good strategy (whether in business, for clients or for your own career) entails picking a place to “play” where you’re favored to succeed. Good strategy is Michael Jordan deciding to pursue basketball as a career as opposed to being say an engineer or competitive chess player. What’s your equivalent of Michael Jordan’s basketball?

THAT is the key question.

If you aren’t playing “basketball” in your current job, then keep looking or trying other areas until you figure out what’s best for you. If you don’t know what that is, but you do know the current job is not it, that's a sign to move on and/or explore other options.

To go from being a C player to an A player, find your equivalent of Michael Jordan’s “basketball.”

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