The A-player: Everyone wants one, but not everybody knows how to find one.

The A-player: Everyone wants one, but not everybody knows how to find one.

By Tim Hewat, Partner, Amrop Knightsbridge Executive Search & Dr. Mehrdad Derayeh, Managing Consultant, Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions

Top PerformersAccording to the Corporate Executive Board, “Superstars” produce up to 12 times more than the average employee.

A-players are top contributors, consistently outpacing their peers on the performance ladder. But there is so much more to a bona fide A-player.

They are leaders willing to support and encourage the success of others. In fact, A-players surround themselves with other top producers, and aren’t afraid to share credit. They are not only concerned about their own success; they are passionately dedicated to the success of others and the organizations they work for. And most remarkably given their own record of success, A-players aren’t afraid to ask questions and admit when they don’t know something.

Bradford D. Smart, author of the best-selling Topgrading, 3rd Edition: The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method That Turbocharges Company Performance, captures the many facets and skills of the true A-player: “A-players contribute more, innovate more, work smarter, earn more trust, display more resourcefulness, take more initiative, develop better business strategies, articulate their vision more passionately, implement change more effectively, deliver higher quality of work, demonstrate greater teamwork, and find ways to get the job done in less time for less money.”

The advantages of finding and recruiting real A-players

The advantages of finding and recruiting real A-players go beyond individual performance. A-players tend to find and attract other A-players, just as lower performing managers have been found to attract and hire more C-players.

If you consider the total array of qualities that go into making a true A-player, you can also understand why it’s extremely difficult to identify one through a conventional talent search process.  To find a well-rounded A-player – the person who is not only going to boost sales but improve the overall culture and performance of an organization – there must be some very deep digging.

In many cases, people responsible for recruitment work almost entirely off the resume and references provided by the candidate. Although that is a valuable source of information, it simply isn’t probative enough to determine whether the candidate is a true A-player, or just someone who was lucky enough to ride someone else’s momentum and success.

So how do you get beneath the veneer of resumes and references?

One of the best approaches is to go into interviews looking for opportunities to “go off the board” for additional references. This process starts with an in-depth interview that reviews a candidate’s record of success with an eye towards finding other sources (with the candidate’s permission) to confirm not only the work that was completed, but also how it was completed and how the candidate interacted with others. This could include other members of the candidate’s team or the executive that oversaw a particular project.

For example, going off the board for additional references is particularly important when the talent search involves sales professionals. Top salespeople are not, as a general rule, afflicted with self-esteem problems. They can sell anything, including themselves. But, it is important to make sure your recruitment process goes beyond the candidate’s initial pitch to get a more holistic picture. You want to make sure you’re hiring someone who is very good at their job, and not just someone who excels at job interviews.

Take a holistic approach with professional assessment

Broadening the array of references is, however, only one method a good search firm will use to identify a true A-player. The use of professional assessment is another. Assessment can help identify the qualities the candidate brings to the job, whether he or she is a good match for the job being offered and the organization offering it, and how to get the best out of them once hired.

In no particular order, there are three major areas that a thorough search process will examine when conducting a candidate assessment:

Capabilities. Skill assessment is a very important part of any candidate review. Here we’re talking about relevant technical knowledge and skills, as well as a wide array of broader leadership and soft skills. A highly effective way of telling whether someone can take on a job with a new organization is to find out if they have successfully undertaken similar jobs with other organizations and overcome challenges similar to those they are expected to face in the new role. However, it’s not just about what they’ve been able to do to that point in their career, one must also consider the types of scenarios they can face and environments they are able to conquer whether they’ve lived through them yet or not. If the job being offered is different in fundamental ways to the ones they’ve held to date, the use of simulations is ideal to tell if the candidate has the capabilities to hit the ground running.

Fit. On a skill level, a candidate may qualify as an A-player. But does that make them a good fit for the organization doing the recruiting? It is essential that you examine candidates to see if they fit into the culture of the recruiting organization. Does the candidate mesh well with the organization’s style, values and general approach to business? If the candidate is expected to lead or work in a team structure, have they shown A-player results in that context? A-players can only realize their full potential if they are aligned with the culture of the organization recruiting them.

Drivers and expectations. What really motivates a prospective A-player? How do you ensure that they are fully engaged and bringing their best to the role? Far too many managers focus solely on what the organization wants from a new recruit. Sometimes, very little attention is placed on what the potential A-player wants or needs from a new employer to be at their best. If the goals and expectations are not aligned between A-player and organization, it will ultimately affect performance. Gaining clarity on a candidate’s drivers and expectations can help you get the most out and keep them motivated and engaged.

The search for A-players, individuals that support the development and execution of strategy, is something that most organizations would claim they are always undertaking. Top performers are more productive, and ultimately make organizations more profitable. However, the true A-player cannot be identified by simplistic, two-dimensional talent search techniques.

This requires thoughtful and detailed investigation. To identify the real A-players, techniques like third-party references early on, in-depth interviews, and other assessment techniques that can determine capabilities, fit, and candidate drivers and expectations are all essential aspects of a thorough search process. This not only ensures the candidate is a true A-player and not just a B-player or C-player who is very good at job interviews, it also allows you to make decisions that will help support the successful integration of the candidate that is selected.

Topgrading, 3rd Edition: The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method That Turbocharges Company Performance. Bradford D. Smart, 2012.

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