What is an A-Player? A Complete Guide on How to Source, Hire, & Retain Them

Posted on February 28, 2023

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According to Professor of Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School and author of Why Startups Fail Tom Eisenmann, “bad bedfellows” is one of the most preventable causes of startup failure. In this group, Eisenmann includes stakeholders, investors, and—notably—employees.

Hiring A-players (also known as top-quality talent) seems like an obvious solution. You’ll have a team of dedicated, knowledgeable, and passionate employees to take your business from strength to strength. It’s the ideal setup for any startup or small business.

But finding these people is easier said than done. In fact, another survey found that 50% of small business owners struggle to find qualified people.

In this article, we’ll talk you through how to find A-player employees. We’ll show you common characteristics to look out for and the steps you need to take to find the right A-players for your business. We’ll also outline how to keep A-player employees (and help them avoid burnout).

Table of contents

What is an A-player?

An A-player is a highly competent employee who excels in their position and aligns with your company culture. They think outside the box, reach company goals, and generally help your business succeed.

Steve Jobs created the concept in the early days of Apple. He describes A-players as “truly gifted people,” and attributes a lot of his success to hiring them.

Hiring gurus Geoff Smart and Randy Street characterize A-players as people in the top 10% of people available for the role you’re looking to fill. Their definition of an A-player is “the right superstar, a talented person who can do the job you need done, while fitting in with the culture of your company.”

To sum it up, A-players are a great addition to any team. They pull their weight, they’re passionate about their work, and they always deliver to the best of their ability. If they make a mistake, they learn from it (though mistakes are rare).

They’re the best of the best, and you’d rehire them in a second if you had the chance.

What are B-players and C-players?

Beyond A-players, companies can also hire B-players and C-players.

B-players are competent and steady performers. They don’t require much attention from management and get the job done. They care about the quality of their work, but they're less concerned with the businesses' long-term growth.

B-players definitely have a place in any successful company. They might not excel in the same way as an A-player, but they’re consistent.

Way back in 1997, a study demonstrated that average performers (B-players) tend to stay at the same company longer than A or C-players. More recently, burnout during the pandemic has likely leveled this trend, with almost 48 million Americans quitting their jobs in 2021. However, it’s worth being aware of this potential turnover-performance curve should the situation ever “return to normal.”

While A and B-players keep the company running efficiently, C-players aren’t the ideal candidates for your business. These employees are underachieving in their roles. They’re not passionate about their work and often leave their employers unsatisfied.

Overachievers who excel in their role. Competent and steady performers.Underachievers not meeting the minimum role requirements.

C-players are often better suited elsewhere or in other roles. In any business, B-players will keep you running while A-players are the ideal candidates. But they can be tricky to find (which leads nicely to our next section).

Top A-player characteristics to look out for

Any business’s definition of an A-player depends on the role and the company.

Attitude, approach, and personality play a large part, but these features are hard to define in a general sense. This is mostly because businesses, and sometimes teams within business, look for different things in their employees.

Let’s look at a hypothetical online therapy company as an example. The company would prefer to hire therapists who are calm, thoughtful, and organized with good listening skills. However, they might want a marketing team who are extroverted, innovative, and knowledgeable about podcast creation.

There do happen to be some common characteristics among top performers. Here are some common A-player characteristics:

  • Hungry to learn
  • Intelligent
  • Self-motivated
  • Goes above and beyond what’s expected of them
  • Passionate about their career and the company
  • Learns from mistakes
  • Willing to try new things
  • An innovative thinker
  • Able to adapt to change

You might have a candidate that fits a lot of these criteria, but that doesn’t mean they’re right for the job. To be a true A-player, they’ll need to fit your company culture.

So, how do you know what these top candidates look like for your business? And how do you find them?

How to find and attract A-players

Everyone would fill their bench with the best team of A-players if they could. But supergroup bands and all-star professional sports teams rarely last. Realistically, you need a mix of A-players and B-players.

For most, the challenges are finding this A-level talent and then attracting them to your organization.

To lead you in the right direction, we’ve outlined some practical advice to help you discover your A-players.

Figure out what an A-player looks like for your business

As mentioned above, A-players may share some common characteristics, but the best fit is different for every business. To know what your goals are when hiring, or promoting within, set aside time to outline exactly what you’re looking for in a top-quality candidate.

A great way to do this is with a job scorecard.

A job scorecard (or employee scorecard) is an internal document that outlines what you want an employee to accomplish in their role. It defines the mission, outcomes, deliverables, and competencies of a job.

Here’s how you can create an effective job scorecard:

  • Describe the mission. The mission is an executive summary of the job’s core purpose. It should be one sentence that describes the essence of the job so everybody understands why you’re hiring someone for this role. For example, a graphic designer’s statement could be “to represent the company’s brand in a visually engaging way.”
  • Define the outcomes. Outcomes describe what an employee needs to accomplish in their role. For example, meeting (or exceeding) revenue growth targets. An A-player will have no problem reaching the desired outcomes, but a B or C-player might.
  • Detail the competencies. The core competencies describe the skills your ideal candidate needs to do the job well. For instance, being able to confidently lead a team or make data-driven suggestions to your top executives.
  • Pressure-test your scorecard. Compare your scorecard with your business plan to ensure consistency and alignment across the business. If the scorecard doesn’t align with your business goals, you need to make changes.
  • Share the scorecard. An A-player needs to fit both your mission and company culture, so involve your team in the scorecard building process. This will increase your chances of attracting and retaining welcome additions to your business.

When your scorecard is complete, you’ll have a clear picture of what your ideal employee (A-player) looks like. You can use this throughout the interview and hiring process to make sure your top candidates align with your vision.

Create a clear and detailed job description

A-players have good judgment and high expectations of employers. They deliver top-quality work and expect the same dedication from the company they work for. As a result, they’re looking for detailed, considerately created job descriptions.

A clear and detailed job description shows A-players that you’re a company worth working for. It also implies that you put a lot of thought into the role. You’re a company that knows what it wants and what direction it’s heading.

Here are a few areas to think about when writing your job descriptions:

  • Introduce the company. Set the scene by introducing your company, what you do, and why you’re different from your competitors (because of what you offer to customers and employees).
  • Outline the role. Explain what the core responsibilities look like and how the role fits into the company’s bigger picture. This will help A-players visualize the role and whether they’re the right fit.
  • Detail any niche requirements. If there are any unique or specific skills you need from an applicant, include them in your job description. For example, if you’re hiring a senior manager, they might need years of experience with specific tools and platforms. Or, if you’re working in a niche industry, you might need applicants to have specific experience within the same industry.
  • Talk about career progression. High performers want something to work towards (more on this later). If they think it’s a role with no career progression, they won’t have any incentive to apply.

Reach out to potential hires and industry connections

Finding top talent is hard, but not impossible. To give yourself a better chance at finding A-players, get proactive by seeking and reaching out to potential candidates.

This process is known as systematic sourcing. It involves creating a roster of high-quality candidates for when you have a position available. It can be time-consuming, but worth it if you find the right fit.

There are a few ways to approach systematic sourcing:

  • Use social media. Social media platforms are a great source for potential candidates. With LinkedIn, for example, you can get insight into someone's character and personality (if they post), which can help you identify good culture-fits. You can even view profiles based on whether people are looking for work, so you know who might be available sooner rather than later.
  • Contact industry connections. Connections (such as peers, colleagues, partners, and clients) can put you in touch with some high-quality candidates. They might not be available, but you can still put the feelers out there to see if they might be a good fit.
  • Search online. Job sites like Indeed and Monster have endless candidates looking for work. But you might have better luck finding high-quality candidates on industry-specific candidate curation sites like Pallet, Lean Hire, and Dice. For example, Pallet groups job seekers by characteristics into “Collectives.”
Screenshot of Pallet Website Grouping Job Seekers by Characteristics
Source: https://www.pallet.com/spotlight

When you start finding suitable candidates, you need to create a talent pool. This will host all the information about your potential hires, their experience, and any contact you’ve had with them.

Using a hiring platform makes this process easier to manage. With Polymer, for example, you can manage all of your candidates in one location.

You can build candidate relationships by messaging them directly from within the platform. Not to mention, you can also add notes and tags to potential hires to keep track of how the relationship is going.

Screenshot of Direct Messaging Candidate within the hiring platform

It’s an efficient way to manage all the candidates you’ve earmarked for a future role.

Manage the hiring process with an applicant tracking system

Similar to your job description, the hiring process reflects your business. If your hiring process isn’t smooth and professional, A-player candidates might not apply.

To encourage A-players to apply, the process needs to be streamlined, easy to understand, and professional.

This is where an applicant tracking system (ATS) can help.

An ATS is a system that streamlines your talent acquisition and hiring process. You can track candidates at every stage, from the number of submissions to how well the applicants fit the role.

In short, you have full visibility of the entire application process.

With some ATS platforms, you can also customize your recruitment process. An example, with Polymer you can add new stages to the hiring process, edit your job boards, and create custom email templates.

Screenshot of Direct Messaging Candidate within the hiring platform

An ATS will also be the candidate’s first point of contact with your business. It shows them that you’re taking yourself seriously by offering an efficient, clear, and professional hiring process.

Using an ATS makes your life easier, and it gives a good impression to your applicants. It’s a win-win.

Learn more about how to identify the right ATS platform for your business.

Ask the right interview questions

An interview is your chance to find out as much as possible about your applicants. The answers they give (and how they give them) tell a lot about the type of person they are and whether they’re A-players.

Unfortunately, we can’t tell you the right questions to ask. It all depends on the role you’re hiring for and what you’re looking for from a candidate. However, we can offer some model questions that you can tweak for your own interviews.

QuestionIdeal answer
Can you tell us about a time when you had to think on your feet? The candidate should happily offer an example. They should sound excited and proud about what they did and how they overcame the challenge.
What’s a mistake you’ve made professionally and how’d you learn from it? A-players are human, so mistakes happen. What you’re looking for is how they learned from the mistake and how it influenced their skills going forward.
Why do you want this job? Get to the root of why they want to work with you (and why they’re leaving their previous role). This should show you where their motivation lies and what they expect from the job.

On top of finding out as much as you can about the candidates, remember that the candidate is also interviewing you.

Interviews are a two-way gig. A-players want to work for great companies and now’s their chance to find out if that’s what you are. To help candidates decide, tell them about your business.

Tell them about the job, the employees, the company culture, and how joining your company will benefit them. Offering career progression, competitive salaries, and flexible working are a few examples. The aim is to show them why they should work with you.

Some of this information will have been in your job ad, but it’ll help them get a feel for the company if they hear it from you.

Your A-players are on board: What next?

If you want A-players to stick around, you need to give them several reasons to stay. Recognizing their hard work, managing them effectively, and giving them something to work towards can help you boost retention.

Let’s look at these areas in more detail.

Give them something to work towards in their career

Top performers thrive when they have career goals within reach. Here are two ways you can motivate A-players:

  • Set goals and rewards. Goals give your star performers something tangible and measurable to work towards. The goal-setting theory of motivation says that this can boost employee engagement and increase commitment. Why? Because they can see the results of their hard work. You can also offer rewards for reaching goals (like bonuses or trips) to boost motivation.
  • Offer career progression. If an A-player is working in a job without progression, it’s unlikely they’ll stick around for long. Go over their goals in a one-to-one meeting and outline specific steps to get there. This will help them see that they’re supported at your company.
  • Keep their work reasonably challenging. A-players like stimulating work. Help them feel like they’re continuously learning and growing in their role by giving A-players new challenges or responsibilities, and changing things up from time to time. Of course, keep it within reason. There’s a difference between challenging and overwhelming.

Recognize high performance

Studies have found that 63% of people who are recognized at work are “very unlikely” to seek a new job. The same study shows that 43% of people who don’t get recognition are “extremely likely” to leave their jobs.

If you want to keep your A-players happy, you need to recognize and reward their performance. It’ll validate their hard work and motivate them to keep delivering.

There are different ways to offer employee recognition. There’s no right or wrong; it’s simply what works best for you and your employees.

To give you some inspiration, here are some common employee recognition tactics:

  • Offer a personal thank you. A face-to-face thank you shows the A-player that you notice their hard work and you appreciate them for it. It also strengthens your relationship with that employee, which can help them feel valued.
  • Provide incentives. Whether that’s a bonus scheme or a commission-based reward, incentivizing good results shows that you value their performance.
  • Give more responsibility. For some employees, this might not seem like a reward. But for A-players, more responsibility is a challenge. It’s an opportunity for them to learn new skills and develop a deeper understanding of the business.

Manage A-players how they want to be managed

Steve Jobs says that A-players manage themselves. They’re drawn to other A-players, and they work together without being micromanaged. In his vision, the role of leadership is to simply guide the team and nothing more.

It was good enough for Jobs, but will this hands-off advice work for your team?

There’s one way to find out: talk to them. Find out how each player prefers to be managed and see what works best. They might want to be left alone with minimal guidance, or they might prefer more support with regular feedback and rewards.

If you’re managing A-players with a lighter management approach, you might need to scale down your catchup meetings (e.g., bi-weekly or monthly). Although the meetings are less frequent, chances are they’ll be longer and more detailed than frequent meetings.

Employees that want more support will want one-to-one meetings or performance reviews more frequently, so they know they’re going in the right direction.

The last thing you want to do is poorly manage your A-players. If they don’t feel supported (or if they feel micromanaged), you risk losing them.

How to save A-players from burnout

In the Steve Jobs interview we mentioned above, you’ll notice the interviewer comment on how working for the Mackintosh team took its toll on the team members. He says:

“They’re also people who now say, they don’t have the energy to work for you anymore.”

These team members might have enjoyed their time working on the Mackintosh computer—but at what cost?

A-players often get taken for granted. They work hard, deliver results, and seem happy while doing it. But it’s important to acknowledge that A-players are people, not machines. They have limits, and pushing them too hard can easily lead to burnout.

A 2022 Harris Poll survey found that 51% of employees are currently burned out. If you want your A-players to stick around, be proactive and prevent burnout before it’s too late.

Here’s some food for thought:

  • Offer flexible working. Giving your A-players flexibility with their work schedule gives them a better work-life balance. Whether you're fully remote, hybrid, or in-office, flexible working is better for their overall mental health. In fact, studies have found that employees without flexible work are twice as likely to have poor mental health.
  • Use productivity tools to manage workloads. Productivity tools are a great way to manage workloads and automate repetitive tasks, which takes some pressure off your employees. They allow leaders to spot heavy workloads and organize them before anyone burns out and before bottlenecks arise. Work management platforms like Linear (great for software companies in particular), ClickUp, and Asana are all good examples.
  • Encourage downtime. A-players are dedicated. Many even believe they need to put the company ahead of other life priorities (such as family, health, appointments, etc.). Reassure them that downtime is okay—in fact, you should encourage it and leaders should model it themselves. A well-rested employee is far less likely to suffer from burnout.

Expecting A-players to continuously overdeliver isn’t sustainable. Yes, you want your A-players to feel challenged and motivated. But you need to toe the line between encouraging them to grow and overloading them with work.

Implementing some of these tactics can relieve some pressure from their workload but still give them the push they need to excel.

Start your A-player search with Polymer

Finding A-players isn’t easy. It takes time, dedication, and patience. But when you find the right talent, the benefits outweigh the lengthy hiring process.

Looking for A-player talent? Not a problem. With Polymer, you can filter applications to find the best possible talent for your business. Sign up for a free trial to get started.

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