When A-players don’t hire A-players.

ImageFamiliar with the adage, “A-players hire A-players and B-players hire C-players.”?

Though often true, it’s worth noting that A-players have blind spots too – or maybe they’re not really A-players?

I recently caught up with a serial entrepreneur who had staffed up her latest company to something like 25 people to orchestrate the launch of her new platform technology.

The day of the launch, she discovered that the platform did not work.  A total bust.  She ended up firing half of her staff and is rebuilding the technology.

When talking this over with her, she commented that the VP of engineering had completely screwed the pooch.  And not only did the engineering VP blow it, she declared that the team the VP hired was sub-par: or her B-player VP hired C-players.  She declared proof of the adage:  That B-players hire C-players.

Which really left me wondering because she has known and has worked with her VP of engineering for over a decade.  So not only did she make the decision to hire her VP, she knew the VP’s capabilities having experienced them first-hand for years.

What is particularly tricky about this is that this CEO went on to explain that the only useful code in the platform was the code she herself had written before bringing on the VP of engineering.

So is this CEO an A-player?

    • She says the only worthwhile code is the code she wrote herself
    • She’s raised over $100M in her career
    • She’s had several exits – some with >$100M valuations
    • She brought in a VP of Engineering whom she’d worked with in the past to whom she handed the wheel of engineering
    • She allowed the VP of Engineering to hire what she later though of as C-players
    • She depended on the VP of Engineering and the team without reviewing the code (herself) – even though she herself wrote the baseline code

If this leaves you wondering if the adage applies, it should.

Consider Color.  A $41M investment in A-players.  That was the justification for Path’s astronomical A-round.  As Mathew Ingram put it in his GigaOM article, Is Color’s Team Worth $41M, Even if Its Idea Isn’t?:

“The funding is likely just a bet that the team involved will eventually come up with something worthwhile.”

(As I write this, the fate of Color is not fully known – though it is expected that Color is black and blue all over.)

Sequoia took the A-player concept to a fevered, $41M ($25 from Sequoia), pitch.  Yet, despite the ‘A-ness’ of the team, a C-level outcome, if that, has resulted.

So I’m left to wonder if it’s always true that A-players hire A-players.  Sometime certainly.  Perhaps, more importantly, A-players don’t play at an A-level in all games.  As in sports, an Olympic gold medal bobsled team would find themselves in a world of hurt playing in an Olympic basketball game.

Take the case of my entrepreneur friend.  She thought the VP of Engineering was the right hire based on working with that engineering VP in the past.  Different game.  Different field.  Different point on the development cycle.  Maybe even a slightly different role.

Does that mean the CEO, someone universally accredited as an A-player, isn’t really an A-player herself because she hired what turned out to be a B-player for the role she needed filled?  Is that VP of Engineering truly a B-player?

Probably not.

What it probably means, is that there was a player-game mismatch.

Yes, hiring A-players is a challenge.

Hiring the right A-player at the right time in the right game is the truly great challenge.


One thought on “When A-players don’t hire A-players.

  1. Crick – really nice post. You went with a sports analogy — even A-players fail and make bad decisions. Phil Jackson gave Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant the ball to take game-winning shots b/c they did it successfully so many times in the past, which why VC’s give successful entrepreneurs money a 2nd and 3rd time. But even Michael and Kobe, as A-players, have missed as many or more shots as they have made to win games. Hiring A-level talent, whether technology or sports, doesn’t guarantee success or positive exits. But it is about increasing the probabilities in your favor.

    However, the CEO in your example seems to be passing the buck downstream and derisively calling somebody a B-player or C-player b/c things didn’t work out. For better and for worse, the CEO is always accountable. The moment the CEO blames somebody else, it reminds me of Ben Horowitz’s post: Lies That Losers Tell: http://bhorowitz.com/2012/02/29/lies-that-losers-tell/.

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