The Hidden Cost of Hiring A-Players For Your Startup

I once worked at a place that was really good at hiring top talent. The organization brought in MBAs from ivy league schools as well as distinguished leaders from the private, public and NGO sectors. I was amazed by the talent that surrounded me, and awed to be in their company.

Despite this talent pool, the organization was also one of the most miserable places I have ever worked.

People entered with what they understood to be mandates for change only to run-up against the brick wall of middle and upper management. Some were incessantly micro-managed by lifers who felt insecure and threatened by their lively reports. Others owed their longevity to maintaining the status-quo and keeping expectations to a minimum. Even the HR team would openly talk about the organization’s “rollercoaster,” where people entered on a massive high before quickly finding themselves thrust to the bottom.

I don’t regret my time at the organization and I am in fact very grateful for the opportunity. I never had an employer invest more in my personal development. I learned a lot, developed a strong network and made lifelong friendships, and lived unique experiences that have shaped me as an individual and as a professional. I regret nothing.

Probably the most important lesson from the organization that I now try to employ in my startup is that if you’re going to hire people who are genuinely top-of-their-class A Players, you sure as hell better be ready to get out of their way.

Management is a filter. Management filters information going from top to bottom, and it filters information going from bottom to top. Managers become empowered by becoming brokers of information. In traditional organizational structures, the manager’s relative power becomes threatened when an up and coming overachiever steals the spotlight. This is often why great people leave bad managers.

If you therefore want an A player to succeed then you need to reconcile yourself to the individual’s true cost: her freedom.

For an A-player to succeed she needs to derive personal satisfaction from being able to have control over her fate. She needs to be able to see things through from conception to execution, even if that means falling, failing and learning. A-players need to feel their potential is exploited, and the only way to truly feel that is to operate one-level above one’s comfort zone. A-players don’t go to new jobs in order to live off the glory of past successes: that is the tell-tail sign of a B-player. A-players need to advance by pushing the limits.

Startups unwilling to provide this level of freedom would do best not to hire A-Players. Managers who seek to control and contain are not the managers who bring out the best in A-Players.

Instead, great A-player managers need to allow themselves to have enough faith to feel uncomfortable, to suspend their judgement for the benefit of the greater good, and to understand and accept that failure caused by negligence and failure brought about in the name of achieving goals hitherto considered unrealistic are not the same types of failures.

The hidden cost of hiring A-Players is the freedom to leave a mark on an organization. If your startup is not prepared to hire people who will change the organization, don’t hire A-Players. If you’re willing to sacrifice control for performance, then you should only hire A-Players.

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