A Players: Attracting, Engaging and Keeping Topgrading A Players

By Jessica Wishart

dateWed, Mar 31, 2021 @ 12:00 PM

If you read our blog often, you know that we are fans of Topgrading, and we frequently talk about hiring and developing A Players. In a previous post, I gave an example of one of our clients who did an audit of all of their employees and created a KPI for “% of A Players.” If you aren’t familiar with Topgrading, you might be wondering about this term - “A Players.” What does it mean?

One definition of A players is your team members who are performing very well and living the company's core values. A more technical definition is that they are the top 10% of talent available in the pay range for that position. If you decide to use this term in your organization, get clear about your own definition so that everyone can be on the same page when you talk about A Players.

Even if you’re familiar with A Players, you may not be familiar with the different types of A Players. Topgrading expert Jenny Vargas taught our consultants these levels in one of our weekly Keep Smart sessions: 

  • A1: These team members have very high potential. They could be promoted 2+ levels in your organization.
  • A2: These players are also performing well and promotable, but probably only one level up from their current position.
  • A3: These are your team members who are a great fit for their current position. Maybe they have no desire to be promoted to a different role because their current position suits them perfectly.
  • A Potential: This is someone who has the potential to function at an A level in the foreseeable future, like within the next 6-12 months, depending on the situation. This might be the case for brand new hires still training for their new positions. 
  • Non-A Player: These are team members who do not exhibit the potential to function at an A level in the foreseeable future.

For all the types of A Players, it is critical to provide ongoing developmental opportunities to keep them engaged and happy and give them the skills to attain their career goals. It is especially important to provide the right training and resources to team members who have “A Potential.” These people need coaching and support to function at their highest level.  A players always want an employee scorecard (or job scorecard) so that they know how their work will be evaluated.

What about these non-A Players?

  • C players are not performing and not living the core values. Ideally, these should be screened out in the interview process and never make it to your team. If you conduct an audit of your talent and find that you do have C Players on your team, it is usually best to “free up their futures” so that they can pursue other opportunities that could be a better fit for them.
  • B+ players are living the core values but not performing well. Dig in a little to find out what’s going on here. Is it a skill gap; do they genuinely not know how to perform well in their current role? Do they love the company but find the work draining, tedious, etc.? These team members may need to switch to a different role in the organization that they have the skill and desire to master. With some coaching and skill development, some of these players may actually have “A Potential” in their current role.
  • B- players may be highly skilled and top performers, but they don’t live your core values. It can be especially challenging to work with these people because culture is far more difficult to change than skill. And, it is usually very difficult to let go of someone who is performing well and producing results.

While it is pretty clear what to do with A Players (grow them) and C Players (fire them), it can be tricky determining the right path for B Players. B Players are what Jenny called “Revenue Vampires” because it takes two B Players to do the work of one A Player. B Players also suck a lot of time and energy from the A Players around them.

Here’s what to do with your B Players:

  • Address the problem quickly. According to an HBR article by Sull, Homkes and Sull, "A majority of the companies we have studied delay action (33%), address underperformance inconsistently (34%), or tolerate poor performance (11%).” Waiting to address issues with team members only compounds the problem by negatively impacting the A Players who work with these B Players and by making the conversation more difficult.
  • Have an honest conversation about the specific results they are not delivering successfully. Clarify your expectations about their performance, and assess for a skill gap that could be causing them to under-perform.
  • Coach them to develop new skills or habits that will make them more successful in their current role.
  • Determine whether their current role is a poor fit not because of skill but because of the person’s particular strengths and interests.
  • If the person is a good fit culturally, you may be able to move them to a different position that is a better fit for them where they would have A Potential.
  • If you don’t have a performance issue, but you do have a culture fit or core values issue, have an honest conversation about that, too. (You may find Crucial Conversations skills helpful in initiating a difficult conversation like this one.) Having a Job Scorecard that includes your Core Values may make a conversation like this one easier.
  • Determine whether the person is willing and humble enough to work on the specific issues that are clashing with your core values. With an awareness of exactly how their behavior does not match your expectations based on core values, the person may be able to work on developing some interpersonal skills to help them fit better in your company culture.
  • If the core values misfit is not one that can be remedied with coaching and skill development, then it is usually best to let this person go, even though it can be difficult to say goodbye to a top performer. The good news is that if you replace them with an A Player, that person will be twice as productive without harming the morale of the rest of the team.

If you do audit your team and find that you have mostly A Players, that’s great! Prevent your A Players from becoming B Players by creating a safe way for them to talk about skill, knowledge, and leadership gaps that could arise as your company grows. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and it is best to be open with each other about what those are.  This way, we can be able to give each other feedback on potential blind spots so that we are constantly improving and sharpening our saws as Stephen Covey taught.

Commitment to ongoing development is the only way to avoid becoming a B Player over time as the company grows and your role within it changes.

Download Free  Job Scorecard Template

Looking for more information to help get you started finding and keeping Topgrading A Players? Check out our additional employee scorecard resources:

A Real-Life Job Scorecard Example [SlideShare]

Use Job Scorecards to Build Team Accountability

Don't Get Stuck on Your Job Scorecard

Use Your Core Values and Job Scorecards in Your Hiring Process

How to Roll Out Job Scorecards in Your Organization

The Staggering Cost of a Mis-Hire: Use Job Scorecards Instead

The 5 C's of Team Accountability

Why Traditional Performance Appraisals Might Be A Big Mistake (And What To Do Instead)

Use Topgrading and Job Scorecards Together to Attract and Retain A Players

Rhythm Systems Employee Engagement Resource Center

Jessica Wishart


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images