Spotting A-Talent

BikerYellowstoneIf the CEO appoints you the company leader for the annual United Way campaign — those of us who were candidates used to say — you should exceed last year’s goal and win kudos but not exceed it by so much that you risk being reappointed the following year.

Exceeding the expected used to be exceptional; now it seems somewhat commonplace. At some companies, employees are accustomed to an “exceeds expectations” rating on annual performance reviews if they simply do their jobs well.

Steve Jobs knew all about exceeding expectations. He expected the extraordinary. He tolerated (barely) only A-players at Apple, and he – and only he, so he believed – knew who they were. By contrast, his temporary successor in the late ’90s, John Sculley, reportedly thought he could turn B-players into A-players, but that strategy ran out of time when the exit door shut and locked behind him.

Identifying and developing promising talent is challenging; spotting A-players is much trickier. Some fit the corporate profile of the upward bound, and yet some keep their prowess hidden. If you are or will be an executive-manager-leader, how would you go about finding those threads of exceptional talent and stitching together an A-team that produces extraordinary results?


1  Upheave
For starters, assume that just about anyone on your staff might be precocious. Then, let’s say you have a new position for someone to head media relations. You can turn to a staffer or outsider with the requisite skills … or you can do something crazy like moving over that smart-thinking graphic designer you suspect is capable of creating magical results at just about anything.

The only risk in choosing the predictable path is getting predictable results. The risk of choosing the designer is that you might create failure by defining the job too rigidly and managing too microscopically – neither of which you can do if you want to build an A-team.

2  Relinquish
Here’s a scenario. Your staff is genuinely impressed by your broad and deep experience, novel ideas, and upbeat style, so much so that they earnestly carry out whatever idea you put forth and in a way they think you want it done. I call that “full-sentence management:” You start the sentence with your idea and finish it with your instructions.

Confident managers over time learn “half-sentence management:” They create the idea and then turn it over to the staff to execute anyway they want. A-team managers listen to others start and finish sentences.

Try this. Turn an idea in your head into a question that could draw out A-thinkers during a staff meeting. Rather than saying, “We need to implement a social networking strategy and here’s how I think we can pull it off,” ask, “Does anyone agree with me that implementing a social media strategy for our type of company could be dumb? Do we have to do it?” Then go silent.

B-players will jump in immediately with reasonable rationales and calls for benchmarking. Wait. An A-player will emerge – though you may have to do some prompting — and say “It’s dumb if we clone another company’s program and even dumber if we don’t know for whom or why we’re launching a social media program in the first place. I’m not really sure how to do it but if Seth and Amanda will help me, I can figure out how to create something that answers those questions.” Now you have at least one A-player … maybe three.

3  Parse
Recently, I joined fifteen seasoned road bikers for a two-plus hour, brisk, hilly ride: routine for most, grueling for others, including myself. I stayed near the front of the pack, knowing that dropping even slightly behind would eventually mean my flagging and then lagging far behind.

Half-way through the ride, I realized that five people at the back had dropped out, and, presumably, had chosen a less intimidating route. I had two thoughts: Had I known, I probably would have joined them, and, second, they had not failed, just chosen a different course.

If you have enough top performers in your group, they motivate and pull up those who can but don’t yet believe they can keep up, and they set a standard that encourages some to select themselves out and find a more satisfying place elsewhere to ply their skills. Not everyone has to keep up the rigor to move fast and steadfastly against tough challenges.



  1. The word “ingenious” regularly pops into your head when you hear about something she has done.
  2. You learn that recruiters are contacting a certain staff member.
  3. HR questions your decision about promoting a seemingly unqualified individual.
  4. You talk so much about him or her that your spouse wants to meet this person.
  5. You find that a staffer forces you to question your long-held assumptions about managing people.


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