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Common Traits of A-Players

We often talk about the elusive "A-Player" - a person that everyone wants to hire, but many can rarely find. In this article we'll attempt to discuss how to spot these people and see what they have in common.
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An unscientific observation of what A-Players have in common

We often talk about the elusive "A-Player" - a person that everyone wants to hire, but many can rarely find. In this article we'll attempt to discuss how to spot these people and see what they have in common.

A few points up-front:

  1. It is almost impossible to determine if someone is an A-Player until you've worked with them for 1-2 months. After that point though, it is really easy to determine. Unfortunately you often don't get a chance to work with someone in an interview or via observation.
  • Not ALL of the traits listed below are in every A-Player. But every A-Player has some of the traits. And if you meet someone that has all of them, that person is likely to be an A-Player.
  • The A-Player Janitor

    When people think of an A-Player, they often think the person had have gone to Harvard. Going to a great school - or even going to college at all - is not a good predictor of being an A-Player.

    Each position in your company can have an A-Player. The person who cleans your toilets could be an A-Player cleaner. That person isn't likely to be an A-Player lawyer, but the A-Player lawyer probably wouldn't do a great job cleaning either.

    As a hiring manager, your goal is to fill each position with the very best person to fill that position. If you think of a baseball team, it is pretty rare that the catcher is best hitter on the team. But having a good catcher is really important. And a baseball team also needs a great doctor, a great ground crew, great secretary to handle the fan mail, and even a great person to do the laundry.

    Relentlessly Resourceful

    Paul Graham has written that great entrepreneurs are "relentlessly resourceful." They are. But that label doesn't just apply to entrepreneurs, it applies to A-Players as well.

    Great people are consistently finding ways to be great. They make things happen. The best teacher I ever encountered was Don Tedesco who taught my fifth grade class. He wasn't satisfied with the normal curriculum... He needed to reinvent it. (More on Mr. Tedesco below.)

    Rules Encourage Mediocrity

    A-Players like to be creative. Actually, they NEED to be creative. They need to find the best way to accomplish their goals and they cannot be told exactly what to do. (B and C players often NEED to be told what to do). And so an A-Player would generally quit rather than follow stupid rules.

    My guess is that you won't find an A-Player teacher that will agree to teach to a test. They'll just quit and move to a new environment that allows them to educate kids in the best way possible. The best teacher I ever had, Don Tedesco who taught my fifth and sixth grades, created a whole school-within-a-school (and called it "Actionville") and broke every rule in the system.

    If your company is trying to attract A-Players, you might first want to eliminate some of your rules. And if you are an entrepreneur of a fast-growing company, you should monitor people that like to create rules for others (generally the general counsel and the HR people). While those rules are often well-intentioned, they can drive A-Players away from the company.

    Getting Back to People

    Most A-Players get back to people quickly. Usually within 24 hours. In the few occasions that I have emailed Steve Jobs, he's gotten back to me in about 2 hours. Ditto for Steve Ballmer, Maria Bartiromo, Marc Benioff, Pete Briger, Eric Cantor, Andy Grove, Vernon Jordan, Bill Kristol, Lenny Mendonca, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Dave Steiner.

    The one group of A-Players that are really bad at getting back to people are those that work at Google (though there are plenty of exceptions). I think that is because the culture didn't have many real customers in the early days so people there got in the practice of basically ignoring emails from the outside world. People like Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, and Mac Benioff, by contrast, grew up needing to quickly respond and engage with customers.

    Good rule of thumb: If you find someone that generally gets back to everyone in a timely way, it is usually a good sign.

    Early vs Late

    Do A-Players come to events early or late?
    I've personally found that they come to events on the early side. Certainly it would be a flag if someone was late to an interview or a meeting.


    A-Players have often founded something. Maybe they started a student club, an association, a company, a cool web page, a user group, a neighborhood watch association, or a new committee on the PTA.


    A-Players seem to better understand how to manage people - especially their bosses and their colleagues. They seem to implicitly understand what it means to manage deadlines.

    Work harder and smarter

    Great employees work harder than good employees. Partially it is because they are motivated by their company and those around them. But it is also because they take pride in what they do. Jerry Rice outworked every football player. Tiger Woods outworks every golfer. They both have some incredible natural talents - but it is their work ethic that sets them apart. My guess is that both Rice and Woods would be amazing in a business environment if that is what they were passionate about.

    But A-Players also work smarter. Like Rice and Woods, they don't just spend a long time practicing, they actually practice in the right way.

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