“Steve Jobs has a saying that A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” ― Guy Kawasaki
A few times recently I’ve bumped into what I call the “A-Player Theory”. This is a close relative of the “10x Engineer Theory”, and in its usual formulation states that only the best want to hire their equals or betters: everyone else, for whatever reason, hires down. If only you were brave enough to hire people better than you, you’d be creating great teams in no time!
Like a lot of ideas in the tech arena, it feels like this idea has come from the world of elite sports, and this is no bad thing. When I want to explore ideas about peak performance, it’s natural to look to different types of people and try to apply their ideas to my own. However, I don’t think that that this theory is actually that helpful, and it’s simple to explain why.
First, I think there is a simple problem with the formulation in that hiring is a two-way street: not only does the hirer need to want to find the best people, but the best people will need to be attracted to the hirer. I think this second effect is actually the more important: the quality of the talent available to you, as a hirer, will be directly proportional to the quality of your culture. This is a difficult statement to support in this post, and is something I will explore further in the future, but I do believe that this is the case.
But second, and more importantly, I just don’t think the theory holds in elite sports. Now granted, things are rather different in American elite team sports: for example, team-building is crucial in American Football, but processes like “the draft” are deliberately designed to ensure that C-teams hire A-players (at least in the beginning), so that some degree of competitive parity is ensured.
I’d like to give some examples from the world of soccer, instead. I’ve chosen this sport for a few reasons – partly, I’m very familiar with it, but mainly because it’s a global sport with the requisite elite element, and sufficient money floating about that players move between teams, leagues and countries with extreme ease. If any teams were going to be calculating about hiring A-players, you’d see them in soccer.
To be fair, there are absolutely teams who do this. The most obvious example is the galáctico policy pursued by Real Madrid. However, this turns out to be pretty rare: teams will transfer players for a variety of different reasons, and rate them in different ways, and while there are large-money transfers for world-class players, these make up a small amount of activity at even the largest clubs as a rule.
The absolute best teams in soccer are not associated with world-class A-players; they’re actually a function of the manager. My favourite example right now is Leicester City: not least as I grew up in Leicester, but (correct at the time of writing this) because they’re flying high at the top of the Premiership with one of my favourite managers, Claudio Ranieri. Their leading scorers, with 36 goals between them, are those huge names “Jamie Vardy” and “Riyad Mahrez” (you will be forgiven if you don’t follow soccer for having never heard of the pair of them).
Vardy at least was a record signing: Leicester paid £1 million for him from a non-league club (and reportedly, the deal could even be worth more). Let’s be clear about this, though: for a premier league player, that sum is an absolute pittance. Mahrez came from a league club to be sure – Ligue 2 AAS Sarcelles – for an undisclosed fee, which again will be small in the scheme of the league (and in fact, both players joined before the team were promoted to the Premiership). Both players now absolutely have a market value in tens of millions.
Leicester did not sign A-players; in fact, they signed a bunch of low-league and non-league players in order to rise out of the Championship, and then made the very sensible decision not to attempt to parachute in Premiership stars, and instead stick with the team they had built. This work is largely attributable to their previous manager, Nigel Pearson, and does not particularly break the mold in many ways – this is a well-trodden path that has seen many clubs rise through the leagues at the hands of an excellent manager (e.g. Nottingham Forest in the Clough era, before which they were largely forgettable and underachieving, or Leeds United under Revie, who started as an awful side that struggled to attract youth players let alone professionals).
If anything, in fact, the record of teams within this league that have gone out to buy the best has been pretty awful – Chelsea have done well but at an absolutely enormous cost, and many teams inflated by A-players have quickly fallen once the money ran out (Newcastle, West Ham, as examples).
The manager with the most enviable record for team-building, of course, must be Alex Ferguson. While his best Manchester United teams were full of world-class players, many of whom had been bought in at some cost, his career was partly defined by the number of A-players he allowed to leave the club. Paul Ince was a huge loss to the club, as was Hughes and Kanchelskis, and (not for the first time in his career) Ferguson came under significant pressure to resign. Instead, he opted (having failed to sign some names) to bring in members of the youth team – names who are now instantly recognisable, like the Nevilles, Beckham, Scholes. Commentator Alan Hansen characterized their opening loss with the immortal words, “You can’t win anything with kids”. He also let go Cantona, and Ronaldo (who left at the height of his powers) brought an almost £70 million profit to the club upon sale. Sure, Ferguson also spent money (and brought in players who didn’t perform – Taibi, Djemba-Djemba, Tosic, Zaha, Bebe, to name but a few – some of them real A-players, like Andersen), but Manchester United were one of the most sustainably successful clubs for a long period of time under his leadership.
All of this brings me back to my central point. It’s not the player that is important; it’s the team – and the decision about who to bring into a team, when, and how, is the responsibility of the manager. It’s very easy to say “I’m going to go and hire only A-players!”, but actually, it’s probably one of the worst things you can do for a team. In football terms, you need balance in a side – people with different strengths, abilities and points of view. Football is notorious for great players who leave one club for another, and become totally anonymous shadows of their former selves: this is not because they’re B- or C-players in disguise, but because if a team doesn’t have a A-player shaped hole, that player will not be able to perform like an A-player.
It is incumbent on the best team leaders to develop the team first and foremost; the aim is that based on the performance of the team others will look back and say, “That is a team of A-players”. It’s easy to state how to do this, but remarkably difficult in practice:
- set the right culture for the team, right from the off. This is a whole topic in and of itself, and the culture creates the environment for performance but importantly does not trigger performance itself
- where an existing team is in place, plan out how to adapt and grow the people within the team, guided by the culture
- for each new member being added to the team, think hard about the gap they’re filling and whether or not they are the right “shape” to fill the gap.
Think about the levers in the team that are used to create and maintain performance. Most managers will automatically turn to metrics and reports; these are amongst the least powerful tools. The crucial factors here are ensuring clarity of purpose, adequacy of tools and resources, autonomy to perform and passion for the work. Passion burns most fiercely when fuelled by success, and as a team leader that is your end goal. Hiring is important, it’s best to start in the best place possible, but I don’t believe it’s anything more than a good start.
“The quality of a person’s life is most often a direct reflection of the expectations of their peer group.” ― Tony Robbins