This article originally appeared via staffmagnet, LLC’s blog here. staffmagnet, LLC provides recruiting services for software startup companies. Merriam-Webster.com defines a myth as “an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true.” Unfortunately, the A Player is a myth. A lot of hiring teams believe that they should only “Hire A Players”, but our experience suggests otherwise. Here is a quote from an article on Entrepeneur.com that sums this up best:
“Make sure you’re hiring only A-players.” Hire a few B-players, he said, and they hire B’s and C’s, and pretty
soon the whole operation is going to pot. ”
People take phrases like this and interpret them as the law. The only problem is that even laws require interpretation. What happens the most is that people go out and look for people with a 4.0 GPA from the top ten schools and call it a day.
When you take a look at the data like we have over the past ten years a few patterns emerge. The “A” players are conventional players. They are playing within a narrow set of rules and not innovating. If you are looking for people to manage a call center or to be good accountants then hiring A players can work out really well. However, our clients hire software engineers, designers, marketers and people who have to be creative in all of the things that they do. “A Players” run into problems when things are not so well defined.
Case In Point
One of our client CEO’s best engineering hires graduated from a not so well known school on Maryland’s eastern shore. The early career software engineer had been working for a small Internet service provider while attending college. Aside from his experience at this college and a good, but not top of his class, academic profile this is someone who would be passed up by nearly every major software company and Internet company that recruits in Maryland. Why? They skip the smaller schools and they look for the students with “A Player” stats. In his case it was necessary to look beyond the schools.
The Odds Are Against It
Recruiting at schools that are not top tier programs would take a lot of time. Recruiting the best and brightest can be very challenging. If you recruit at better schools the law of averages should apply, right? Yeah, it should in theory. The problem is that you must adjust for local variables.
At the top schools students are literally funneled by their advisors, faculty, and alumni into the college recruiting programs of the big companies that pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to. It isn’t that you can’t compete or differentiate, it is that you are fighting the ocean of conditioning and expectations that form in peer discussion groups throughout college. Students have classmates who intern at large companies and take jobs at large companies year after year which reinforces this.
It isn’t that colleges don’t care about your company. They just care more about the money than they do about your company than they do about Booz Allen Hamilton or Lockheed Martin or Google or Microsoft or Amazon. If you are a startup or a growth stage company with fewer than 250 employees you are going to have to work up hill all the way.
A lot of people have this concept of what makes good prospective candidate or an “A Player”. They think that GPA or SAT score is the best predictor. I would argue that SAT score probably indicates that someone could perform better quantitatively. But there is a breaking point beyond which none of this matters. Someone’s SAT score or GPA ceases to become a differentiator when you hire someone who is motivated by money and you just can’t pay them more than Amazon or motivate them to work a little harder when the only reason they took your job was because they were staging for their next round of interviews.
Things can work the other direction too. You could hire someone who is completely unmotivated or who is behind the times. While this is truly a possibility, it should could just as well be true that the A Player that you are trying to recruit will only be motivated to study about your industry long enough to get the job. You still have to make sure you do a great job of interviewing candidates for your job openings.
What To Watch Out For
There are a lot of students, especially at larger schools, who are essentially logo collectors. They will look for the best collection of big well known company logos to add to their resume above all else. They don’t mind being a low end manual tester for Microsoft or Amazon as long as they get the logo on their resume. They are easy to spot – ask them what other companies that they are applying for jobs at. If they say Microsoft, it is probably a good idea to move on. Some people just need to get this out of their system so let them. It is that or lose them when you can least afford to because they act on their logo hobby.
There are other common variables, but you get the idea. This applies with interns, entry level hires, and people who are well into their professional career.
Related discussion over on Hacker News