Your Org is Full of A-Players

When aligned to the right context, most people can be A-players. But four common problems often stand in the way.

1. Leaders and people managers often don’t recognize that context is the thing that people are good at. The conventional thinking in business is that great performance is entirely transferable, and that some people – star performers – are just intrinsically better than others. The result is that star performers are funneled into a standard ladder of hierarchical promotions, or wooed by other companies, without anyone considering how the new context may change the winning formula. Even within the same organization, the context that enabled an individual contributor to be an A-player is very different from the one she’ll find herself in as a people manager. Last week’s Sensemaker illustrated how the same job at different organizations can mean drastically different contexts, even within the same industry.

2. Leaders don’t understand what context means. They don’t know how important it is to engineer a context that aligns with what they are like as people, as well as what they want to achieve. In many organizations, culture is not deliberately designed. It is often muddied by assumptions, lack of alignment on the types of behavior that are valued or discouraged, and mixed messages that remain unclarified. Roles are designed around the perceived needs of the business, rather than optimizing for the strengths and skills of people at the organization. Many founders don’t recognize how the context may be different for a succeeding CEO. Most people don’t consider how a range of internal and external contextual factors will impact who succeeds and who fails, regardless of their track record.

3. Even if we understand the importance of context and how to effectively design it, most people likely don’t know which context will bring out the best in them as individuals. From early childhood, our system of education emphasizes standardized learning that develops knowledge and skills, rather than discovery and development of passions and talents. Shaped by that system, most people pursue academics and jobs based on what they believe will give them the shiniest resume badges, not to experiment with where they can truly excel. As a result, people remain largely ignorant about the contexts that are most likely to enable them to operate as A-players. Companies can’t expect their employees to self-select for contexts that would be optimal for both the person and the organization.

4. Hiring, particularly for high-profile executive roles, is largely governed and advised by people who have insufficient knowledge of an organization’s specific context, and too little time to properly investigate. Boards of Directors that are entrusted with selecting CEOs are ignorant about many aspects of the on-the-ground context of an organization. Consultant Ram Charan estimates that “boards’ work on [CEO] succession represents probably 80% of the value they deliver.” Yet in a Mercer Delta study, board members reported “spending less time interacting with and preparing potential CEO successors than on any other activity,” their agendas packed with governance and financial matters. Recruiters similarly follow the existing playbook, reliably seeking out executives who have a track record of star performance.

Addressing these problems requires a fundamental shift in how businesses approach strategy, organizational design, and hiring. Companies must understand and consciously architect the dimensions of context that they control, starting with culture, and they must do so with the same rigor and diligence that is typically brought to financial planning and governance. They must abandon their shortcut searches for “universal A-players” with the standard set of pedigrees and awards, and start learning how and where to find people who will be successful in the specific context of the business. Because people aren’t robots, leaders must design roles that align with people’s strengths rather than the isolated needs of the business, and allow people to experiment productively with different roles and settings to enable them to discover their passions and talents.

The conventional myth about A-players is firmly entrenched. But the prize for debunking it is enormous, and becomes the ultimate competitive advantage: organizations where almost everyone is an A-player or has the potential to become one.

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