Leadership Tips – What’s a B Player?


Leadership responsibilities include dealing with the reality that people contribute and perform at different levels, and that leaders must recognize and reward people accordingly.
With innovation and change at the heart of competitive success, we all need people who take risks and challenge the status quo. But if all we had were risk takers, we’d be in a heap of trouble. Top performers come in various styles.

A Word from the Experts

I just finished reading an article originally posted on Harvard Business Online. The title was “Let’s Hear it for B Players”, and it bothered me, particularly at the beginning.

You see, the authors made the argument that B players were actually more valuable to an organization than A players. They described B players as the rock solid, stable, knowledgeable performers who are more committed to the company than to their own personal glory.

They suggested that A players seek and often make the big score, but they are also more prone to “missteps” and mistakes, not to mention leaving for another position.

Let me get this straight. Are these guys arguing for good soldiers being more valuable than those who take risks? We live in a world of change, where competitors are always striving to improve their people, their processes and their technology. Take no risks, and you might as well get ready to eat their dust.

What’s a B Player?

The article goes on to describe who the B players are. First they talk about former A players, and here they use PC language to essentially describe older workers who possess lots of knowledge. These people have reached a point in life where the pursuit of personal glory is no longer worth the sacrifice, especially in terms of work life balance.

OK, but these aren’t necessarily B players. Maybe they don’t want to travel 80% of the time, and maybe they’re not seeking the corner office, but most of them would bristle at the suggestion that they are “former” stars.

Others described as B players are those with longevity and strong “organizational memory”, who don’t overreact to crises and turbulence, and who are highly adaptable to change. Those are B players? They sound like potential leaders to me.

I once knew a guy in a fairly senior IT position who was fond of saying “I don’t get stress, I give it”. But he said this in humor (at least I think he did). Under pressure, he was a very solid performer who kept his cool and kept his people focused on the goal at hand. He was never a B player.

A Labels Problem

The Harvard Business article was making a case for the value of these people, and the dangers of giving all the recognition and reward to the high profile risk takers while your silent but steady people quietly get frustrated. That argument is sound; it’s the labels that are wrong.

We need change agents. We need people with the experience and maturity to recognize the difference between innovative ideas and change for change sake. We need the quiet superstars who others look up to. I like to call those key opinion leaders. They are often lost in an organization, and a good leader finds them and rewards them.

If you’re going to label performers (and without debating the Jack Welch philosophy, let’s acknowledge that most of us do), you need room in the A category for more than just the cowboy risk takers.

The notion that a B player is more valuable than an A player makes no sense. If you’re going to rate people, your highest rating needs to go to your most valuable players. If you’re coming out with a different answer, you need to relook at your approach to rating. A players are more valuable than B players.

Now C players, that’s another story.

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