Nearly every learning function is interested in developing high-potential employees. But to have significant impact, learning also should consider how to make the organization’s “B” players more effective.
Jack Welch, former head of GE, once said he concentrated on the “A players in his company” and he wasn’t interested in the “B players.” With all due respect, I think Welch missed that call.
Not every person can be the chief marketing officer, or the key scientist in discovery for R&D, or the person who ultimately determines the go-to-market strategy. But on the other hand, those people can’t achieve organizational success by themselves, either.
Let’s follow Welch’s point for a minute — that the A players are the most important people in an organization. Let’s compare them to the weight-bearing walls of a house. They are unquestionably critical for sustaining the overall structure. But a home with only the weight-bearing walls in place is not really a structure that can be bought or sold, and no one really wants to live there.
Not the ‘Fastest Few,’ the ‘Slowest Many’
The essence of understanding the difference between A people and those connected with any other letter is that everybody matters and everybody counts. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in two decades of consulting is competitiveness is not determined by the learning speed of the “fastest few,” but by the learning and execution speed of the “slowest many.” Let me point out that “slow” doesn’t have anything to do with intellect. It means “slow” in being invited to the table to learn what others have already had the chance to assimilate to.
This statement may seem obvious, but if you don’t appreciate its meaning, it can stop your organization in its tracks. Picture it like this: The senior leaders — the A team — of a company are climbing a mountain range. The rest of the people in the organization — the B team — are two peaks behind at the base camp.
Where is the overall position of the organization? It’s not with the leaders. It’s back at base camp. It’s not, “How far ahead of everybody else can the leaders advance?” but, “How fast can the leaders engage others to move the entire company forward?” The success of the organization is defined by the last group, not the first, when it comes to measuring total performance.
In reality, leaders almost always conceptually outrun their engagement and execution supply lines. Everybody can relate to this. Leaders spend months developing a strategy, considering, contemplating, contrasting and dismissing the alternatives and possibilities for future success. When they’re finally done, they craft this into a “strategy in a box” and ship it off to their people. Then the A team wonders why the B team doesn’t get excited about it immediately. The B team can’t realize how critical the strategy is because they have no idea what went into its creation. The focus must change, from surmounting the next peak to getting everybody to the top of the current one.
So back to that house with only the weight-bearing walls in place. We need to include the collective knowledge and execution of the B team to finish the house and make it valuable.
Success = A + B
The point is that there are no bit parts, no small roles. Success requires all people to work together, regardless of their places in the organization. There are millions of examples of what can happen when a group of “regular people” get organized and commit to a common outcome.
Here’s one: There’s a city near Dallas called Wylie. It’s an old town filled with ordinary people. As with many old towns, the local playground had become dilapidated and hazardous. There was no money in the town budget for a new playground. Five years ago, the community formed a corporation, asked for donations and held a festival to raise money and create excitement.
Soon, it had $125,000 and dozens of in-kind pledges. Then, organizers met with the children to ask what they wanted for the playground. The enthusiasm spread, and soon nearly every business in town was donating something — from fencing to concrete to tiles for the children’s handprints. Families got together to purchase a rope walk, a toddler slide or a rock wall.
When it was time for the build, every single nut and bolt, board and swing was put into place by a volunteer. They worked in four-hour shifts for six days around the clock. During that time, other people brought food for the workers and provided child care. In the end, Pirate Cove was a bigger and better playground than the town of Wylie ever would have been able to purchase, and its citizens had the pride in knowing that they did it themselves. It’s a happy monument to teamwork by a group of motivated people.
Engaged People Don’t Care Which Team They’re On
Amazing things happen when ordinary people are aligned. They create extraordinary results. But how can we get people who don’t have a title such as CMO or CEO or belong to a group of high-potential employees to feel as much responsibility, authority and excitement as the leaders do?
If people feel truly engaged in their work and their leaders know how to give them what they need, it’s really quite simple. For people to truly be engaged in the success of their companies, they need four things: to be part of something big, to feel like they belong, to believe they are on a meaningful journey and to see how they contribute to make a difference.
Let’s focus on the third need: People want to go on a meaningful journey. Let’s face it. We all want to be on some kind of adventure that matters. There’s a feeling of adventure, excitement, pioneering and discovery. It’s more than attractive; it’s the part of the human spirit that suggests we can be more, that we are more.
We all want to create something that doesn’t exist right now. Nobody wants to sum up a lifetime by saying, “I did one hell of a job maintaining what was already there.” What’s important is, “Here’s what it was like when I arrived, and here’s how I made it better!” Our journey is both a challenge and an opportunity that compels us to take risks and makes overcoming the barriers worth the effort.
In simple terms, a strategy is an adventure. It creates incredible energy and a formidable challenge, and it unites people in the pursuit of outstanding achievement. This sense of adventure is a far cry from the jargonized rhetoric frequently heard in the strategy presentations that have become a mainstay in many organizations.
Time after time, people we’ve worked with don’t know the score of the game or the status of the adventure. They really don’t realize what they’re up against, where they stand or what they’re trying to accomplish as a business. When they understand the real challenges of the quest they face, they don’t have to be coerced into engagement.
Share the Picture
So why doesn’t it work to treat B people differently from A people? The answer is in perceptions — mainly, the notion that B people can’t understand a company strategy. We’ve worked with hundreds of organizations to illustrate their business systems: the big picture, a new strategy, the economic drivers or the core processes. Inevitably, we build a visual of that particular system with the A team. As the team helps us define the challenges and opportunities of the system, it’s very granular in describing each part, pointing out the handoffs of the system and where they believe it’s breaking down.
Then, 99 times out of 100, when we’ve completed the picture of the system to the satisfaction of the leaders, team A asks the same question: “Now, how can we draw a different picture for the people further down in the organization who might not understand the complexities or challenges of our business?”
What they were asking, in polite terms, was “How do we dumb down the language and skim the knowledge so everybody else can get it?” Time after time, leaders tell us they really don’t believe that people outside the A team can grasp the concepts.
And then, in 99 out of 100 cases, those on the A team are dumbfounded when they test the same picture of the business with the “slowest many.” They are struck by the untapped intelligence and capabilities of their people that enable them to function like A players in different situations and different places.
Tapping the Talent
Here’s an example. A few years ago, Sears, one of the largest retailers in the U.S., was trying to create a clear understanding of its transformation strategy across the nation. The visualization of the big picture of the business, the economic drivers and the desired customer experience had all been crafted by the A team.
As an experiment, the CEO decided to see how a group of newly hired customer-facing associates would interpret the visuals and the concepts they illustrated. He wanted to find out if they could see what needed to be done in the business and their role in bringing it to life.
The CEO sat at the back of the room as 10 new associates began to discuss what needed to happen in the business. For the first 15 minutes, the CEO couldn’t write fast enough as he jotted down all the things that the group was missing. They didn’t make the right connections between the competition and the strategy; they interpreted some of the data in a way that was different from how the leaders interpreted it; their depth of conversation and vocabulary stopped far short of what the CEO needed to hear.
And then, for the next 20 minutes, he slowly began to cross off those items one by one as the new employees reached the exact same conclusions as the A team, but in different ways. He was stunned to find this group of new employees had come up with the same things that needed to be done to turn the business around.
However, the most amazing thing happened in the final 10 minutes. After his two-step process — writing down what they missed, then checking off that they really did get it — this CEO of a multibillion-dollar company began to take notes. He began writing furiously. I don’t mean just one or two ideas, but pages of notes based on the conversation of these new junior associates (who weren’t even in the “C” team yet). They began discussing the business-critical changes that had to occur in the retail business as a whole and at Sears in particular.
After the employees left the room, the CEO turned to me and said, “I’ve spent the last 10 months listening to highly paid consultants, specialized analysts and great speech writers. Today, I heard more and better ideas, securely grounded in what needs to be done day-to-day in the business. I’ve learned more from these supposedly ‘green’ customer associates than I have from all the so-called experts who charged us millions of dollars! I’m absolutely astounded at the untapped knowledge and intelligence of our people and their ability to grasp exactly what we need to do to turn our business around.”
Certainly, in every company, there are worthy A players in terms of position — those weight-bearing walls. But just as certainly, there are other players in every organization waiting to be given a chance, to be challenged to understand the business and their role in it and to transform that knowledge into an A-plus performance, regardless of the team they play on.
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