When & Why “A” Players Get Fired

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The majority of the time, it pays to be an “A” player — a superstar achiever — in your company. However, there are some times when being an A player is a liability.

In a moment, I will share with you the specific circumstances where being an A player is problematic. My intent is not to suggest that you shouldn't be an A player, but rather for you to be able to recognize the specific circumstances where being an A player is not welcome.

This topic is inspired by two questions I recently received regarding my thoughts on job performance:

Question: Does every employer want to have A players on the team? They can be a threat. If only A players are on the team, who does the mindless, mundane chores that are the bulk of work in most places?

Question: I recently quit my job because I tried to be an A player and my company did not value it. (This is really more of a comment than a question, but I included it because it is relevant.)

"A" players thrive in corporate cultures that value A players. Generally speaking, these are firms that are themselves high performers, where the CEO is a high performer, and she has hired high performers to report to her.

When a company is laggard (a “C” player in its industry, especially if it has a “C” player mentality and culture), quite often "A" players are not welcome.

To understand this dynamic, it's important to understand the differences between the psychological biases of someone who is an “A” player vs. a “C” player. This is especially true if this person is going to be your BOSS.

Think of an A player as an Olympic caliber athlete who is determined to be the best that she can be. Let me ask you, what kind of other athletes does this Olympian want to train with? Intuitively, most of us grasp that an Olympic hopeful would want to train with THE BEST athletes in her sport.

The #1 person wants to train with the #2 person — knowing full well the #2 person will push her to be even better. This is the mentality of A players. They want to work with best. They want to hire the best (to make their lives easier).

When your boss is an A player, working in a company full of other A players, where the company culture values the A player, this is THE place for an A player to work. I would consider McKinsey, Bain and BCG, generally speaking, as meeting these criteria.

Now let's understand how a C player thinks, and why you want to AVOID having a C player as a boss.

A C player isn’t very good at what he does and is deeply afraid that others will figure out that he’s not very good. Such a person is not motivated by the opportunity to win a “gold medal” (and achieve the most possible). Instead, he is motivated by FEAR of getting FIRED.

To a C player, having an A player around him is a THREAT.

A "C” player never deliberately hires an “A” player because he’s afraid the A player will take over his job someday. A "C” player doesn’t like having A players as colleagues, because he’s afraid the A players will show him up, expose him, or through performance disparity reveal the C player's actual capability level (which is almost always worse than what’s currently perceived by others).

(In contrast, a boss who is an “A” player deliberately hires people who one day can take over his job. That’s because by the time that happens, the boss expects to be promoted himself and will need someone to fill his current job anyways.)

As a result, the C player attempts to NOT hire A players, and if he accidentally does so he will make the A player miserable until she quits, or will find some way to make sure the A player can’t embarrass him.

In short, C players tend to hire D players so they’ll never feel threatened. When a C player leads a team of D players, he can rest comfortably knowing that on a relative basis he is more talented than his team. This is psychologically extremely reassuring to the C player as he’ll never feel threatened.

In contrast, the A player boss tries to hire staff members that are A+ players. The rationale is: if my team consists of people who are more talented and skilled than me, then my job gets so much easier AND my team’s overall performance improves, which reflects extremely well on me. This is how A player bosses think. They see other A players as precious ASSETS.

If you are an A player, do you want to work for a company (or boss) that sees you as a threat or an asset? Clearly, it’s the latter — you want to be the ASSET.

The key to doing so is to evaluate both the company you’re working for (or considering working for) and the specific boss you’ll be working for to see how they treat A players.

Now let me respond to one of the previous questions where someone asked, “If only A players are on the team, who does the mindless, mundane chores that are the bulk of work in most places?”

First of all, it is absurdly difficult to recruit a team that consists exclusively of A players. This NEVER happens by accident. Even when it is attempted deliberately, it is exceptionally difficult to pull off.

Second, if your employer's work only consists of mindless, mundane chores, then I would personally argue that it is NOT a place you want to work. When the work is boring, easy and mindless, it doesn’t take a talented person to do it. That kind of work is perpetually at risk of being outsourced, off shored, or automated.

While job security really doesn’t exist anymore, career security very much does. You obtain career security (e.g., the ability to always be employable, though not necessarily with the same employer) by being an A player working for an A player company, working for a boss who is herself an A player.

If the work you are doing adds very little value to the company, that work is AT RISK of going away. It is foolish to not appreciate and fully value this risk. If the work is too easy, it can go away too easily too. If the work is extremely challenging, that kind of work does not disappear very easily.

I’ll write more about risk management in the future, but here’s the key thing to realize: Risk has a very real cost — even if it is not obvious in the present. If you continue to pursue a career whose work is at risk of disappearing, don’t be surprised one day when the work disappears.

One of the things I stress in my writings is that the essence of being strategic is anticipating likely and longer-term consequences of your potential decisions before you make them.

Don’t think just about your current job. Think two and three jobs ahead. Consider what you should do (or not do) NOW to help set up your career in the future.

Here’s one really simple rule of thumb to follow:

If you are or aspire to be an A player, then work for other A players, and avoid working for C players. In terms of 80/20 high leverage career management opportunities, working for an A player boss is most certainly one of them.

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