The True Marks of an A-Player

Since my last piece about how to look for A-Players in a job interview, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about the specific characteristics that typify these top candidates that everyone wants to hire. As I noted, job histories, portfolios, and insightful questions will create opportunities for A-Players to provide some indication of who they are, but the reality is that the factors that differentiate these top people become visible only over repeated exposure. While being able to demonstrate this even three times in one’s career is indicative of a pattern, such anecdotes are a necessary-but-not-sufficient indicator of a top performer. The key is to look for these characteristics not just on the job, but across a wide variety of contexts.

Throughout my career, which has included teaching at many different levels, working in a number of different fields, advising companies large and small on hiring, I’ve come across six indicators of A-Players. I find that they show these characteristics consistently in multiple areas of their lives, and that they value these traits highly:

  1. They do what they say they will do. When they make a commitment, it will be delivered, and they will put forth their full efforts to ensure that this is the case. In extenuating circumstances, even those beyond their control, they will go above and beyond as well as they can, and are both apologetic and willing to give you extra for failing to meet the standards they set (and this sometimes happens even when the failure to deliver within parameters was not their fault at all).
  2. They follow directions. When there are parameters for how to do something, they adhere to the specifications, and when they see a discrepancy between the letter and the spirit of the directions, they will either check before deviating or will provide both options.
  3. They clean up their own messes and/or correct their mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, and even the best make mistakes and fail completely. The difference with A-Players is, they voluntarily take initiative to correct errors, fix things they broke, restore balance and trust, compensate for losses, and generally “make it up to you” for their errors. They do this as soon as it becomes apparent that they screwed up, and they do it without dithering or complaining, and go above and beyond to make sure that things are taken care of as swiftly and smoothly as possible, even at their own [relatively reasonable] additional expense.
  4. They actively seek feedback, and accept correction. They want to ensure that you get what you asked for, and that they are performing well. They are always looking to upgrade not just themselves, but what they deliver, and have an ear to the ground for opportunities to be more successful in those endeavors.
  5. They follow up. This one’s hard; hard enough that no one does it perfectly without paying a team of assistants (and even then…). But, one does find that A-Players will follow up to make sure that everything is going well, and that you are happy and satisfied with anything that relates to them. They also put in the effort to build and maintain genuine relationships, going above and beyond the generic to ensure that their connection with you reflects your respective individualities.
  6. They pay attention. This is about more than showing up and being present. This is about looking at the details, and being thoughtful about how these aspects interact with the overall picture and spirit of whatever they are doing. It is the recognition that moving one piece affects all of the others, and likewise that small details make the difference between the good and the great. On a personal level, it means that they are listening to others, and are deliberate with what they say. Analogous results are seen in their work — they get to know the context, and are intentional and careful with what they contribute.

It’s important to realize that none of these things have to do with talent, intelligence, and creativity, and have precious little to do with personality. They are teachable, developable, and anyone can achieve them at any level and with any education. They are independent of the proxies for talent that companies waste their time analyzing, and aren’t going to show up in resumes or cover letters. While the guidelines I provided in the interview guide can help you to see these characteristics, it’s important to keep in mind that none of these can be confirmed without repeated testing to ensure their consistency, and even harder to be sure of them until they have been maintained even in adversity (and that’s a great question to ask in an interview!).

Red Herrings in the Search for A-Players

Inevitably, making a list that’s so short is going raise “But what about ____?” questions. Here are some common supposed attributes of top performers that people expect to be on the list, but are not measures of A-Players:

Showing up on time. Time is a funny thing, and also depends very heavily on culture. In some places, showing up even 5 minutes late is the eighth deadly sin, while in other places that’s laughably early. Some people focus more on clock time, while others are more about event time. This can vary not just within countries or demographics, but also within companies, workplaces, and even teams. The issue isn’t whether a person shows up on time, but whether the individual’s time style and approach to time management is flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the company/team/manager, and whether those entities are flexible enough to let the employee adhere to a time style that promotes high performance.

Positive attitude. This one is far too context-dependent, and can be hard to show when others don’t have one. It’s also unrealistic to expect a subordinate to be a paragon of positivity when conditions are not favorable for the team. Can you imagine asking an employee to keep a positive attitude when the environment is packed with unnecessary stress, when the pressure is inappropriately high, or when the task set is nearly impossible given the timeline and resources? Far more important than a “positive attitude” is a the consistency of keeping commitments. Someone who is smiley and cheerful is fun to be around, when it’s actually genuine and created independent of employer demands, but that doesn’t actually get work done. Research shows that optimism is good, provided it is realistic, but many workplaces do not want to realize how much adversity they create artificially. As such, the focus should be on delivering results — positive attitude is a nice-to-have, but not required.

Passion. This is for lovers, not workers. Most of the time, when I hear employers talking about passion, they usually mean, “love this job/topic/field enough that they will put in unpaid hours and effort.” Forgive me if I don’t endorse taking advantage of one’s employees. When I point this out, people often get defensive and claim that they are simply looking for employees who will truly put their best efforts into the job or who will go above and beyond. Putting in one’s best efforts requires commitment, not passion, and going above and beyond really is putting in extra effort and hours for the same salary. If you want your employees to do that all the time, you likely didn’t write a good job description, you are almost certainly underpaying them, and you are going to lose them when they figure those two things out.

Going above and beyond. This is discretionary effort, and while it is nice, the expectation that people will go above and beyond all the time is inherently contradictory! Also, as noted above, it means you’re placing inappropriate demands upon your employees relative to their stated job requirements and salaries.

Though the characteristics of A-Players are eminently achievable, and can be developed by anyone, they turn out to be rare precisely because they are hard to execute upon consistently. A look at any given attribute gives the impression that it is easy to accomplish, and in many cases it is. But, how many people deliver on their promises when challenges arise? How many pay attention when there are many moving parts and demands? Who puts in extra when the need arises to compensate for their failures and clean up their messes? One does not always see how people will act under such adversities, and indeed not everyone may have encountered such opportunities. As such, one does not always know when an A-Player has appeared, but one always needs to be on the lookout in order to spot those who shine even when the rain is pouring.

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.