Culture for the "A" Players

Many companies have the concept of “A”, “B”, and “C” players, although GE’s Jack Welch made this famous in one of his books. The reason there is no classification for a “D” player is because companies should ultimately get rid of anyone not performing to the expectations of, at the very least, a “C” player.

Characteristics of an “A” player:

  • Challenges the status quo in order to drive positive change
  • Delivers on objectives without having to have someone hold their hand
  • Will largely succeed in their tasks despite the deadlines, politics, and team involved
  • Wins

Characteristics of a “B” player:

  • Does what they are supposed to do
  • Has a good track record
  • Needs guidance sometimes but not hand holding
  • Sometimes goes above and beyond but is not the norm
  • Has the potential to step up to be an “A” player
  • Wins most of the time

Characteristics of a “C” player:

  • Sometimes does what they are supposed to do
  • Has a moderate track record
  • Rarely, if ever, goes above and beyond
  • Needs a fair to high level of hand holding
  • Has the potential to step up to be a “B” player
  • Sometimes wins

Most companies are bottom heavy. That is, they spend a large deal of time working with and fostering “C” players with the expectation that “A” and “B” players are already doing a good job and don’t need attention. Part of what Jack Welch and GE advise is that companies shift their paradigm to focus more on the “A” and “B” players, thus making them more top heavy. The basic idea is that you give “C” players a set goal and opportunity to become “B” players. If they don’t meet the expectations in the given timeframe, send them on their way. This allows management to focus on cultivating “B” players into “A” players and better supporting the already existent “A” players.

Simple enough, right? Just don’t forget about the culture shift that will happen with this and what it means to the company.

The basic philosophy is going to differ between each class of employee. An “A” player will have a different outlook on values, vision, and ethics than a “B” or “C” player will. Each class of player will have different ideas of what they are looking for, what they can contribute, and what being part of the company means to them. What this means is that as a company shifts its weight from the bottom to the top the overall culture of the organization will change.

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not talking about the core values or the culture that is transcribed in the mission statement and broadcast to the public. What I am talking about is the basic idea of what is important to employees.

Each class of employee will have distinctly different needs, each of which will typically correspond back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s basic idea is that human needs can be visualized as a pyramid.


 Figure 1: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

 Here are the basic steps, from bottom to top, and how they relate to the typical work environment:

  • Physiological
    This is the bottom of the pyramid. This typically relates to physical workplace safety. Construction workers are more likely to be focused on this step than are office workers. Likewise, police and soldiers are likely going to be more focused on this step than even construction. The main concern here will be whether something on the job will prove to be harmful or not.
  • Security
    The security of this phase is more related to peace of mind than physical security. Security generally relates to whether or not the job is stable. Do workers worry about being demoted, not getting a stable paycheck, or getting laid off?
  • Love and Belonging
    The idea that an employee can come into work and feel like part of a team falls into this category. Employees worried about this stage will often feel like they are an outside or loner and not fully part of the team. They may feel that they are moving in their own direction, which is incongruent to the direction of the team or company.
  • Self Esteem
    This is the idea that when a worker contributes something he or she feels that it was of value and important to the organization. Workers stuck in this stage will generally be worried about the quality of their work and whether their peers and superiors view their work in the same light and with the same respect that they do.
  • Self Actualization
    This is the top of the pyramid. This step focuses on creativity, morality, philosophy, and other higher level objectives. The concerns of people in this step are going to be whether they are afforded enough leeway to do things like be creative and whether the actions they take are moral and ethical.

The basic concept here is that as lower level needs are met the person is then able to shift their focus to higher level and more complex needs.  This means that “C” players may be highly focused on the stability of their job and continuing to get a paycheck while “A” players are more worried about autonomy, the ability to be creative, and doing what they feel is morally and ethically right.

The transition from an “A”, “B”, and “C” player paradigm to an “A” and “B” one will almost always include a cultural shift in order to accommodate the different level of needs required by the majority. As the company shifts away from focusing primarily on “C” players to focusing primarily on “A” and “B” players the hierarchy level at which the collective company’s need is at is raised.

For example, lets say the old company was 50% “C” players. “C” players are worried about security and they make up the majority of the organization so there will be a large portion of management that is devoted to holding hands, regimenting work schedules, and looking over employees shoulders. As this 50% of “C” players is either shifted to “B” players or released the new makeup of the company may be more along the lines of 80% “B” players and 20% “A” players.

If the management that is used to dealing with “C” players continues to focus on the same problems they will inevitably miss the mark and alienate “B” and, especially, “A” players. Without shifting the cultural paradigm along with the performance expectations two things will happen. First, a portion of “B” players will fall into a “C” player category. If they are being treated like “C” players regardless of what they do, why not act like them? Second, “A” players will leave. Regardless of the state of the economy “A” players are always in high demand. Even if they are not able to find a job immediately, they eventually will. Either way, they will leave.

In order to successfully rid a company of “C” players the focus must be two fold: performance and cultural expectations. Without this, companies simply shift the bar higher but ultimately still have “C” players in the mix. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, failure to shift cultural expectations will inevitably result in the loss of “A” players, which is corporate suicide.

I didn't do it.

Sam was out on a fishing trip with his three buddies and was many miles out to sea. At some point during the trip one of the guys, we’ll call him John, pulled out a shotgun and started “skeet” shooting empty beer cans. Sam didn’t think it is a good idea and advises against it. Many beers later John finally got a little too relaxed (aka careless) and blew a good sized hole in the side of the boat. History tells us that holes and boats don’t mix well and, as expected, the boat began to sink.

Sam’s three buddies started to frantically bail water out of the boat using anything they can find – hats, plastic cups, their hands – but Sam just sat there. His buddies told him to help them bail and Sam only replied by saying he was against the idea to begin with and that he shouldn’t have to help clean up their mess.  The water was coming in fast enough that three people need to bail full time to keep the boat afloat. Eventually Sam’s friends began to tire and the water starts coming in faster than they can keep up.

The boat sinks and Sam drowns. Everyone else lives.

As the boat went down John took out the life preservers only to find that there were only three. Sam’s three buddies huddled up and decided that they were actively trying to save the boat, and their lives, so they should get the life jackets. As the boat continued to sink Sam held on for a while but eventually found himself treading water. Despite his efforts he couldn’t keep it up for long and eventually slipped underwater.

What Sam didn’t realize is that even though he was fundamentally against the idea and even though he played no part in the disaster, he was still on the boat. If the boat went down, so did he. Sam was too caught up in the blame game to recognize that the only way to save himself was to save his friends, regardless of whether he felt they deserved to be in their predicament or not.

There are a lot of Sam’s in business. Sam’s eventually drown. Especially when the economy is bad and every life vest is highly coveted. Don’t be Sam.

Reducing Empowerment 101

All companies should strive to empower their employees. This simply means that all employees should feel that they have the ability to make decisions on behalf of the company. Toyota, for example, gives every employee the ability to stop the assembly line at any time, for any reason. Stopping the assembly line is an extremely expensive task for the company, however Toyota realizes that the people on the line have the knowledge, ability, and desire to be able to stop the assembly line if they see a problem. In essence, Toyota empowers them.

Empowerment has prerequisites and consequences though.

The prerequisites are pretty simple to state but harder to live – empowered employees must be aligned with the goals, vision, and processes of the company. If the employee is expected to act on behalf of the company then he or she must understand what the company wants and needs. Being tightly aligned with the core values of the company and understanding the vision of the firm is essential to this. Using Toyota again, one example may be that a frame on the assembly line is severely damaged, which an employee may realize will damage the assembly line itself. Stopping the line furthers the vision and values of the company by enhancing quality and saving money.

Conversely, if you have a strong alignment with the goals and vision but lack knowledge of the process, empowerment can hurt instead of help. Using the same example as before, if the employee stopped the assembly line because of the bent frame but didn’t know that there was already a process for handling such things, stopping the assembly line could result in a needless loss of money. If employees are not aligned with the visions and values of a company then the resulting decisions may be out of sync with what is truly good for the company.

The quickest way to reduce empowerment is to not have it evenly distributed. By this I mean that not everyone has an equal understanding of their level of empowerment and the implications of it. This can be for a number of reasons – everything from poor communication coming down from management to low self esteem of an empowered employee.

When you have varying levels of empowerment a few different forces are at play that reduce the benefit of an empowered company.

First, empowerment is reduced for all because of a reduced understanding by some. If people have varying degrees of what they are entitled to you will ultimately have confusion. This confusion will ultimately lead to a reduction of perceived empowerment by the group. Sticking with the example of the bent frame on the assembly line, if one employee feels they have the right to stop the assembly line but another doesn’t it is a matter of sheer luck as to which employee notices the defect. If the empowered one notices then they stop the assembly line and set a positive example for the rest of the employees. If the non-empowered one notices then they ignore it, also setting an example for the rest of the employees, albeit a negative one.

Second, people escalate needlessly. When there is confusion over levels of empowerment people will naturally escalate to superiors in order to gain clarification. Continuing our assembly line example, if both the empowered and unempowered employee notice the defect at the same time there will likely be confusion and debate over whether to stop the assembly line or not. Clarification will likely be sought and the line manager will be needlessly pulled in. Had both employees understood their level of empowerment the right thing would have been done and the line manager would have never been pulled in.

Finally, money, time, or other resources are wasted and management locks down the empowerment rights. This is simply a case of management treating the symptom instead of the ailment. If the assembly line is stopped when the employee should not have stopped it then management may incorrectly choose to treat the symptom, the employee wrongly choose to stop the assembly line, instead of the ailment, the fact that the employee doesn’t understand his or her level of empowerment. Locking down the empowerment instead of increasing awareness results in a loss for the entire company.

This is by no means an exhaustive list but simply the primary ones that are likely to occur when empowerment is not evenly distributed. Empowerment is good and is something that all companies should strive for. However, it is a double edged sword that must be handled with care to prevent inadvertently getting cut.