5 traits that separate B-players from A-players at work, and signs to look out for when hiring
- Most companies have two types of employees: A- and B-players, but startup founder Marina Glazman says it's not always clear who's who in the workplace.
- She says most B-players stick to showing up and doing what they're told, but fail to rise above and excel at their tasks.
- According to experts, they don't show intellectual curiosity, struggle to applaud others' achievements, and resist when faced with obstacles.
- B-players lack the ability to think about the how and why behind what they do, and often take shortcuts to make big decisions.
B-Players: We've all either worked for one, hired one, or been one.
These are the people who show up and do the work, but never break the mold, act as agents of change, or innovate.
Some companies, like early-stage startups, only want to hire A-players. Larger organizations often want a mix of A-players to build and B-players to maintain. Others have embraced the thinking that B-players, who are less likely to make waves, are a better overall bet for culture.
In my experience working for both small and large companies and as a startup founder, I've found that the distinction between A- and B-players comes down to attitude. But whether you're looking to filter them out, or filter for them, it's important to know how to spot B-players while building your team. These five tell-tale signs will tip you off.
1. They don't show intellectual curiosity
"Intellectual curiosity opens the door to discovery, which leads to learning, which leads to problem-solving," observed Kelsey Ocasio-Christian, former Principal in the Health practice of Kearney, a top tier management consulting firm.
"Some projects are more glamorous than others. Not every assignment is as exciting as launching a life-saving new therapy with a drug company," Ocasio-Christian told me in an interview techniques workshop in October 2019.
The strongest new recruits will always find something to learn - even from tedious assignments. Take optimizing a supply chain, for instance. "B-players' engagement will wane because it's not their dream project," Ocasio-Christian said. "They'll give it less effort, and this stops them from developing the problem-solving skills they need to perform on par with more engaged colleagues."
Anyone can cultivate intellectual curiosity. A-player candidates will ask questions about how things work in an interview. The B-player might have surface questions about the job, but isn't seeking a deeper understanding of what drives the system.
2. They don't recognize the achievements of others
Exceptionality in others will go right over the B-player's head. Either they can't or won't recognize it, or their defenses kick in and they seek to minimize extraordinary performance by others. Whatever the reason, they will attribute a colleague's achievements to circumstance, luck, or outside factors. Facing that someone in plain sight worked more efficiently, developed a better idea, or showed more creativity than them requires facing their own shortcomings, which many B-players don't do.
The popular reality TV series, Selling Sunset, gives us a perfect example. The show follows a group of glamorous and ambitious realtors in West Hollywood at the Oppenheim Group. The top agent, Mary Fitzgerald, out-hustles and out-bills her coworkers. Her resentful B-player colleagues struggle to reconcile Mary's success, attributing it to favoritism. But the office B-players have it backwards: Mary doesn't get opportunities for being the favorite; she is favored because she delivers.
3. They don't embrace a challenge or take risks
A B-player is a comfort zone player. They're not driven to push through obstacles to grow. Instead, they perceive the opportunity to take on a challenge as a nuisance, burden, risk, or threat.
A B-player at an ad agency, for instance, probably won't volunteer to lead a new project with a difficult client; that would feel perilous. In the same tough situation, an A-player would embrace the chance to hone their skills and prove they can handle it.
Whether driven by lack of engagement, insecurity, or inertia, the B-player doesn't welcome disruptions. If a candidate doesn't show evidence of taking risks, you could be dealing with someone who prefers the path of least resistance.
4. They don't apply knowledge to new situations
The B-player is trained and well-rehearsed. However, they may struggle to apply their knowledge or skills under unfamiliar circumstances.
The ability to apply knowledge, in my experience, is related to understanding versus memorizing. Gaining in-depth understanding requires commitment, and people are not always willing to invest at that level.
Erica Tingley, formerly a director of investment banking at Merrill Lynch, describes her vetting questions while interviewing banking candidates. She begins by asking a formulaic question such as: "If a business increases depreciation and amortization, how will this impact the financial statements?"
She'd then follow up to test for problem-solving by asking something like, "What conditions might cause these to increase? Why might it happen?"
In an interview with me about hiring in November 2019, Tingley explains that if a candidate struggles to reason through scenarios and offer ideas, they may not be able to synthesize information, discern what matters, and communicate findings clearly.
A B-player might know the answers, but ultimately will lack insight into how and why.
5. They confuse signals with substance
When evaluating people or opportunities, a B-player looks for "signals" of value instead of actual substance. They rely on labels and brand names, like Google or Harvard, to evaluate a person or opportunity. But even if brands do hold some meaning, they almost never tell the whole story. A-players prefer to dig in and do the work to assess substance.
Say for example, an executive at a local restaurant company hires Deloitte, a blue-chip consulting firm, to advise on a financial issue. He chooses Deloitte because they are a well-known brand, but doesn't consider whether his company would be better served by a smaller and more specialized local outfit. Ultimately, he overpays because he hired Deloitte for their brand name instead of for fit with his specific needs.
Treating labels and brands as a stand-in for actual information is a shortcut that can compromise decision-making.
Because B-player traits relate more to attitude than skill, they are easy to spot. If you're looking for A-players, watch for these signs. And if you're the B-player at this moment in time? A change of scene might be just what you need to spark curiosity, build confidence up, and channel your inner A-game. Challenge yourself to think honestly about what negative habits you have, and how you can swap them for positive traits.
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