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Spring 2006 A Players

What personal characteristic makes the best hire? Until recently most employers would place their bets on “competency,” or the command of needed skills. But in today’s marketplace, employers are looking for candidates who not only can perform defined duties but also make a real impact on the bottom line.

Enter the “A” player—the prospect who wants to be part of the “A-team,” and will succeed there.

The change in emphasis from worker-bee skill sets to attitude and ambition comes at a time when many businesses—specialty retail included—are finding revenue increases elusive, especially with customers holding their wallets somewhat tighter in the current economy. To counteract the revenue trend, employers see the performance of the “A” player (along with improved technology) as a way to make a stable work force even more productive.

“This economy is highly competitive, and all indications are that the competition will get tougher,” says Bradford D. Smart, president of the consulting firm of Smart & Associates (Chicago) and author of Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People (Portfolio; rev. 2005). “‘A’ players are high performers,” he says, “and any company satisfied with less-than-high performers is vulnerable to its competition.”

How can “A” players help your bottom line? Largely through the way they interact with your customers. “There are only three ways to increase business,” says Mel Kleiman, president of the consulting firm Humetrics (Westwood, MA), and author of Hire Tough, Manage Easy. “Two of the methods—attracting new customers and raising prices—can be problematic. But ‘A’ players can help with the third [method]: Selling more to current customers.”

If your business can be helped by “A” players, how do you go about getting them? To get you started, Kleiman suggests five questions to consider. Your answers should put your search on the right track.

Can you identify the “A” player job applicant?

Do you know what an “A” player looks like? Not physical attributes, but personality traits. One of them is strength. “Sufficient strength and intelligence to do the job are, of course, vital,” says Kleiman. But even more important, he says, is attitude. “Start by identifying the attitude that marks an “A” player. Then you will know what to look for in applicants.”

Attitude encompasses everything the applicant feels about work. Does this person view a job as more than a place to put in hours and collect a paycheck? Does he enjoy going above and beyond assigned duties? Does he look for ways to enhance the customer’s experience—and generate more sales?

Knowing the attitude you want is one thing, says Kleiman, but identifying it in an applicant is another. Develop interview questions that will reveal the applicant’s true attitude toward work.

According to Smart, “our research shows that companies typically are disappointed in the performance of 75 percent of the people they hire.” That’s because employers rely on old models for interviews. Instead, he says, “use a chronological interview that covers every job [the applicant held] in-depth—every success, every failure, every key relationship.” And require references from every former boss.

Have you created an efficient workplace?

“A” players need to be as enthusiastic about your business as you are about them. And their enthusiasm will be fueled by a workplace that’s set up to be productive, both physically—even if it’s as small as a cart—and operationally. It’s vital to keep working at redesigning your operations for the greatest efficiency: anything less will cause “A” players to leave.

“If you really want to find out what steps to take to improve your workplace efficiency, ask the people who work there,” says Don Schackne, president of Personnel Management and Administration Associates (Delaware, OH). Schackne favors employee attitude surveys to ferret out the hidden problems in your daily operations. “Employers are constantly surprised at the great innovative ideas they get from surveys.”

Depending on the size of your staff, the survey can be a formal, statistically valid “instrument,” or an informal questionnaire or even one or a series of focus-group-type meetings. In any event, the typical survey reveals productive ideas for eliminating useless tasks, changing the way some tasks are done or who does them, or simple but effective reconfigurations of physical work spaces. “It boils down the old bromide of ‘Work smarter, not harder,’” Schackne says. “Look at each operation as an individual activity and ask, ‘What can we do to make this job easier?’” The result will be an efficient workplace that attracts “A” players, and generates the capital required to hire and retain them.

Do you have a list of reasons “A” players should be on your team?

What makes your business a great workplace for “A” players? Your reasons need to be unique to your company. “If you don’t have a list of why top players should work for you, they certainly won’t have one,” says Kleiman. Do you offer opportunities to grow? Do you offer new challenges? Such as? Then try to distill your unique benefits into a memorable slogan. Some generic examples: “Come for the job, stay for the career.” “Work with the best.” You could even have a little fun tying the slogan in with your product or service.

Are you and your managers on the “A”-team?

“People join companies; they leave managers,” says Kleiman, who recently tracked 1,000 employees who had quit their jobs to take another job. But less than 15 percent of them left for better money. “The reason they quit is that they weren’t getting paid enough to put up with their lousy supervisor!”

You want to be the employer that who “A” players move toward, not the one they leave. And when they leave, they go to your competition—a double blow. “‘A’ players don’t have to play on ‘C’ teams,” he says. “Top performers want to work for ‘A’ players.”

What will you do to keep the “A” player?

Once you got ‘em, you want to keep ‘em. You won’t succeed if you just dictate goals for the employee. “The employee who gets involved takes ownership of the goal,” says Schackne. Encourage the ‘A’ player to stay by facilitating that employee’s growth. Schackne suggests asking a question such as “What do you want to achieve in the next three to six months?’” If they get to set their path, “they knock themselves out to succeed.”


“The people you hire today will determine the success of your company tomorrow,” says Kleiman. Prepare for the best, aim high, and you’ll be well on your way to recruiting the ideal “A” players for your winning team.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.

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