Hiring · Company Culture

What's the Definition of A vs B player?

Vijay MD Founder Chefalytics, Co-owner Bite Catering Couture, Independent consultant (ex-McKinsey)

February 15th, 2013

Got into a debate with my wife around high performance culture (she has a
catering company but I do the web and marketing stuff).  I was being
demanding in trying to get copy to be more punchy/ customer centered and
reacted negatively when I thought she was giving me generic drivel.

My worldview (shaped by football, medicine, McKinsey, and a number of big
corporate change/ turnaround projects):

   - It's got to be about impact and some of the process of getting there
   is turning up the heat to burn off the impurities.  == there should be
   frank and immediately negative reactions to low quality output so as to
   raise the bar
   - You want this process to be transparent (and reciprocal!) so everyone
   strives to raise the bar and feedback is a given to push to new levels of

Her worldview (she's a pastry chef by training but came out of an Ivy
league undergrad)

   - Her team should not hear criticism of her, as it undermines her
   position.  I should tone it down until we're behind closed doors

 Any research anyone's come across on what a "high performance" culture
looks like?  My thought is that this lack of frankness/ focus on
sensitivity is usually what I remove from companies and see performance go
up immediately on the order of 30-200%, and this is a culture where A's
thrive (and C's immediately leave as they can't take it).  Her thought is
that this is a tough way to build a team and will shut A's and B's down.  

Be curious to see if you've come across anything that would let us have a
more fact-based discussion around it.  We both agree that C's are cancer
and must be stamped out (so it's not a retention thing).  It's more of a
question of what does a culture that promotes "A" players that work in a
team over time look like?

Dave Angelow Board Member at HAND Austin

February 15th, 2013


There is a good bit of research on the subject of cultures and performance
- certainly there is a strong correlation.

However, the factors outlined are unlikely to be related to culture
and performance. The factors will vary by industry yet in any organization
of size there will be a distribution of people with different values - the
key is to motivate and measure the outcomes to all pull in the direction
executive leadership wants to go.

Tools like balanced score-card and others focused on driving alignment have
proven to be some of the best at helping shape long-term corporate

It\'s less about A, B, C-level players than about getting to the hearts of
people and selecting those to join the team who are motivated by a
vision/goal/style. The evaluation of A vs C player is often about the
context and environment. AKA - you can take a highly driven "type A" with
a confrontational style and put them into a culture that values
communication and commradarie and they will be rejected (likely graded a
"c" player in the org context). Move them into McKinsey where the style is
valued and in this context more likely to be an "a" player

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

February 15th, 2013

Maybe get her to focus on goals and metrics first and then worry about performance optimization and culture later. That is, if your goal is 50% revenue growth then what are the things that have to happen. X outbound calls, Y% referrals, Z press outreach. To the extent that you can get her to define the goals and associated metrics (with your help as needed), then she\'ll be much more bought into measuring performance and taking action as required. Otherwise, all this talk of cancer and drivel and burning off impurities is pretty fire-and-brimstone stuff... I can see why she would be intimidated. Intimidation may be a valid management style for a billion dollar company; not so much for a local caterer run by a husband and wife team.

Jeremy Grodberg Web CTO & Software Architect - Available

February 19th, 2013

The #1 rule of leadership is: people vary.

There is no one-size-fits-all rule of leadership. Some people are more motivated by praise, some are more motivated by criticism.  You can be like the Navy Seals and set the style of leadership first and then build the team, selecting those who do best in that environment.  (That seems to be what you've done in the past.) Or you can build a team of great people and adapt your leadership style to whatever motivates them.   The latter is more practical for a small company.

Vijay, according to you, your wife did not complain about your criticism, she complained about you delivering criticism of a team leader in front of the team.  I don't know of any resource that says criticism of a team leader in front of the team supports that team leader or that team.  The general rule is "praise in public, criticize in private." In a high performance team, criticizing a team member in front of the rest of the team can support team cohesion, especially if the criticism is about how the individual let the team down, but how do you think John Madden would feel about the team owner chewing him out in front of his team?  I'm pretty sure he would not tolerate it and I'm pretty sure the team owner would agree: he'd call Madden into the office to chew him out.

In any case, one of the reasons for starting your own company is to have the work environment you want.  You say you are doing marketing for your wife's company.  That makes her the boss, so it's her values and her call.  She can build her high-performance team by setting the leadership style she likes and finding people who thrive under that style of leadership.  It's not the marketing consultant's place to be criticizing the boss' leadership style.  

Michael Brill Technology startup exec focused on AI-driven products

February 15th, 2013

Vijay, I know your question was a bit more meta than your current situation and I appreciate your bias as a consultant to practice what you preach... but dude, she\'s your wife in a very small company. Calling her writing "generic drivel" is pretty harsh... especially when that\'s your job. You\'re the A player marketing guy right?

Having had some experience running a company with a wife on the management team (and the somewhat more challenging variant of the husband/ex-wife/girlfriend team), I can just say that you have to be super-careful about disagreements with your spouse in a work setting. What you think is a culture-building feedback loop can look like a manifestation of a f\'d up marriage and *nobody* wants to work in that environment. I would imagine that her desire to keep from being berated in front of her team is at least partially/implicitly based on this.

David Albrecht -

February 15th, 2013


Working in some pretty intense research labs and at Microsoft has given me
a very "gloves off" personal style similar to what you describe at McKinsey
(I think Google also practices this with their "OKR" system). Your comment
comes at a very opportune time for me as I reflect on some of the conflict
I\'ve had both professionally and beyond. A few thoughts:

(1) Cultural context matters a lot. I live in the Bay Area but travel to
Chicago 10+ times/year, and am always surprised at how straightforward (to
the point of bluntness) people in my hometown of Chicago seem compared to
the Bay Area. Likewise, some parts of the world place a much greater
cultural emphasis on group cohesion and "saving face" vs. bare-knuckled

My own experience suggests that fact-based, no-holds-barred debates are
characteristically North American (Anglo-German, to be exact); people from
cultures with greater power
likely find this kind of discussion quite off-putting.

(2) Having clear goals is a must. Metrics and confrontation have to happen
inside a well-developed system of organizational goals that gets everyone
excited, e.g. "make the best pastries possible", or "deliver the best
operating system ever made".

(3) Likewise, colleagues have to know and trust each other for open
conflict in the workplace to be tolerated. Lack of trust makes giving
feedback exceedingly difficult, which completely derails your
high-performance culture.

I find Github\'s "company of the compelling
great personal compass toward doing better at work (vs. the company of
"what the boss wants", "what we did last time", "what doesn\'t upset
people", or 100 other bad ways to make decisions.)

Ricky Wong

February 15th, 2013

Haha I was just joking :-)

Ryan Selkis

February 15th, 2013


I found the attached deck on $NFLX culture interesting and helpful. Not
sure it has 100% of what your looking for, but it might help and/or be of
interest to others in the group.


Jeff Whelpley CTO at GetHuman.com

February 15th, 2013

I have always thought that it was funny people talk about A and B players
as if an individual person someone how the ability to produce 10x more than
anyone else in any given situation. The reality is that A) the total
productivity of the entire team is more important than the productivity of
any one individual and B) the productivity of an individual is almost
always relative to the environment they are working in and the team around
them. There were a couple years where the famous soccer team Real Madrid
had many of the best players in the world, but they didn\'t accomplish very
much. The reason was that they had to many players with similar skill sets
and not enough complementary players. Building a team isn\'t just a matter
of figuring out some mathematical formula that will identify "A" players.
It is more of a mix of scientific method and an art form as you mix and
match people and roles until you hit on that right formula. In my mind
people that want to build "A" teams need 3 things:

1. Experience of failures and successes with previous teams so you can feel
out what is needed at any given point and time
2. Relentless dedication to the effort of building a great team
3. Strong understanding of your team, how they think, how to make them
happy, their strengths and weaknesses, etc.


Doug March Product Design & Engineering

February 15th, 2013

Along with the Netflix suggestion good content here,


Ricky Wong

February 15th, 2013

Or maybe it was Valentine\'s Day and she was looking for more emotional
support and romance? :-)