An A-Player In Every Seat

What is the most valuable asset to any given organization?

Most leaders would be quick to proclaim that the company’s employees are its most important asset.

But is this sentiment reflected in their actions and the portion of their time they allocate to hiring, motivating, and retaining their staff?

Some might observe that leaders spend more time putting out fires, caused by the lack of appropriate attention given to these vital aspects of running a business.

Within this opinion piece, I will be answering the following questions:

  • What does it really mean to hire top talent and how important is it for the success of a company?

  • What is a superstar employee?

  • What role does company culture play in staff retention and ensuring a successful hiring strategy?

  • How do we go about defining and staying true to our company’s identity?



In 2019, talent was the CEOs’ biggest internal concern, according to The Conference Board. “Globally, across all regions, CEOs rank attracting and retaining top talent as their #1 internal concern”, states the report. It’s based on a survey of over 800 CEOs and over 600 other C-Suite executives, primarily from the United States, Asia, and Europe.

The annual CEO Benchmarking report from 2019 echoes a similar observation: “A CEO’s number 1 challenge today is finding the right talent”

Fig. 1 Four of the top five biggest CEO challenges relate to talent optimization. Source: CEO Benchmarking Report

Many business and entrepreneurship studies and surveys have cited the same thing over the recent years – that getting the best people on board, placing them in the right roles and retaining them for a significant amount of time, is one of the top 3 biggest indicators of long-term success for a company of any size.

And yet, what topics would stand out if you were to browse the business books section in a book store or online marketplace? You’re likely to find that works dedicated to attracting, hiring, and retaining top talent would be relatively few and far between.

It seems that managers are eager to quickly pile up everything relating to this complex topic under the general “Human Resources” umbrella and hope that the relevant department will just “deal with it”. Somehow, the process of defining the company culture, setting the recruitment strategy, and assembling a superstar team is not seen as exciting or crucial.

What does this attitude lead to?

According to statistics – to lots and lots of hiring mistakes.

According to a study by Leadership IQ, 46% of newly-hired employees will fail within 18 months, while only 19% will achieve unequivocal success. (i.e. only 19% represented Rockstar talent, to borrow the terminology of Jeff Hyman, author of Recruit Rockstars – a book which I thoroughly recommend).

The three-year study compiled these results after overseeing 5,247 hiring managers who collectively had hired more than 20,000 employees during the study period.

We won’t go into the staggering cost of a mis-hire, because that’s an important and extensive topic in and of itself. (Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has publicly stated that bad hires have cost the company “well over 100 million” – “One bad hire can lead to a domino effect of more bad hires and decisions costing a company millions”.)

At this stage let’s just ask ourselves whether a leadership team would ever tolerate a business process that had a failure rate of close to 50% (and that is only if we don’t consider on-boarding average employees as a hiring failure). As Jeff Hyman puts it “The great irony is that the most important aspect of a business is treated so haphazardly that a coin toss would yield equally accurate results”.

The prevalence of hiring mistakes, combined with the well-known issue of skills shortages, particularly in the tech sector, goes a long way in informing the stats we discussed at the beginning of this article. Namely, the growing concern of C-level executives with finding and retaining the right talent.

One company that has traditionally taken recruitment very seriously is Google.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s former SVP of People Operations who was voted HR professional of the Decade, has said that Google spends “more than twice as much on recruiting, as a percentage of our people budget, as an average company.”

Apple has also always emphasized that investing in hiring A-players is a top priority for the leadership team. “I consider the most important job of someone like myself as recruiting.”, said Jobs in the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. “I've participated in the hiring of maybe 5,000-plus people in my life. So, I take it very seriously.”


So, what does it really mean to hire top talent?

Admittedly, identifying suitable top-performing professionals for your team and actually recruiting them is in itself a difficult enough task.

But it would be darn near impossible without a clear idea of what would constitute a “Rockstar”, also referred to as a “superstar”, “top talent”, “A-player”, “top performer”, “game-changer”, “awesome employee”.

Contrary to popular belief, an A-player is NOT:

  • someone who is necessarily working at a senior or executive level

  • an employee with a Type A personality

Simply put, an A-player is the best possible fit for a specific role that you can afford to hire.

Here are some defining characteristics of a superstar employee:

  • someone that you would enthusiastically rehire;

  • a high achiever – typically in the top 10% in his chosen field and the go-to expert in the team;

  • an employee you can absolutely rely on to fulfill his/her commitments, delight your customers and consistently deliver high-quality work;

  • a team member or leader who can effectively collaborate with the rest of the team and who impacts positively the overall morale and motivation within the organization;

  • someone who is an instrumental figure in driving your department/company’s growth and profitability;

  • someone that would absolutely ruin your day AND your week, were they to hand in their notice of resignation.

Please note, however, that there are no universal A-players. Their rockstar status is very much dependent on them being assigned the right role and working in the right environment.


Just as an outstanding performer could become a below-average performer if placed in the wrong position in an organization, so could an employee who is an A-player in a particular type of culture become a B or C-player if placed in the wrong (for them) company.

This is why the number one thing you, as a leader, should start with is:

Clearly defining your company’s identity

When you think of a person that you know fairly well, what is the first idea that pops into your mind about them? What is the overriding impression of them?

It’s that person’s identity, which is a unique combination of their values, temperament, and habits. Sure, you may think of what they look like, who they associate with, what they do for a living, where they live, etc. But these are all afterthoughts. The main thing you remember about a person is their individuality, their unique identity.

The same applies to any organization – the number one thing associated with the organization is its culture, or DNA, or identity of that company, which ends up becoming the company’s reputation.

Every company has its own specific culture, or identity, including yours. The question is – is it deliberately crafted and consciously nurtured, or is it something that has rather been left to chance.

Your company’s essence will be the first and main association that employees, partners, investors, competitors, job seekers, and customers have with your brand.

Research by Indeed has found that for over half (54%) of workers, one of the most important factors when deciding to apply for a role is the information they get from word-of-mouth conversations with their friends or network about the company. 9 in 10 say insights into a company’s reputation would be important when considering a new opportunity.

So how do you go about consciously defining and creating an identity for your company that will best position it for success?

One approach would be to try and specify around 3 defining characteristics that each and every employee should have, no matter their role in the company. What are the qualities that a professional absolutely MUST possess to become a part of your team?

Think of those superstar employees that are already a part of your organization. The ones that consistently deliver great work and are a shining example of your brand, as well as outstanding leaders and team players. What are their defining characteristics, what are their identities, values, and temperaments? What do they all have in common?

Think of companies that were or are on a similar path to yours, who have already achieved a certain degree of success and are recognized as a great brand. Or companies where a lot of your current employees used to work before joining your organization. What qualities make them stand out from the rest? What qualities would you need to possess to be on their team?

You can repeat this same exploration process with 3 traits that your dream employees should NOT possess. What attributes would make an otherwise perfectly capable and promising candidate completely unsuitable for your organization? What type of behavior and way of working should never be tolerated when it comes to your brand?

This unique combination of must-have and deal-breaker traits should become your company’s essence, its culture. It should be used as a blueprint for all of your future hiring and performance appraisals.

Once you define it, you need to make sure it is permeated into every facet of your organization. And from that point onwards, you should seek to ONLY hire people who are aligned with the values and characteristics of your organization’s culture.

No matter how outstanding a job applicant is on paper, no matter what great outcomes they’ve created for other companies, if you conclude that they are not a great fit in terms of culture you should not hesitate to dismiss them from the process.

You should also apply the same high standards when evaluating your current workforce. Each member of the team either contributes to the culture or corrodes it. If you have provided the appropriate training and have clearly communicated the company’s culture to an employee, but he/she still fails to align with it 6 to 9 months later – you should not be afraid of letting that person go.

Believe it or not, some companies actually provide financial incentives for employees to quit. The reason behind this is that a top-performing employee who thrives in the company’s culture and is sufficiently motivated by his/her responsibilities would never consider accepting a one-off payment to quit.

Once a year, Amazon offers to pay full-time associates at Amazon fulfillment centers up to $5,000 to leave the company as per their “Pay to Quit” program. “We want people working at Amazon who want to be here – in the long-term, staying somewhere you don’t want to be isn’t healthy for our employees or for the company.”

Once you commit to an A-player culture, you will create a self-propelling mechanism for greatness within your organization.

Superstar employees create successful outcomes for the organization and foster an environment of excellence, thereby co-create a winning company that can then provide amazing career opportunities for top-performing professionals that are aligned with the company’s essence and culture.

In addition – top performers like working with other top performers. Think of a company that is considered a leader in its niche and attracts A-players like a magnet. One of the main reasons people are eager to work there is the expectation that they will get to work with the best in their field.

The trickle-down effect of consistently working on maintaining your A-player culture is low turnover. When you provide a great employee with an invigorating and professional work environment, where they can observe the direct outcomes of delivering excellent work, where they work alongside other A-players equally committed to outstanding results, these employees will be reluctant to look for greener pastures.

A Rockstar culture fosters excellence, attracts A-players, and consistently projects a champion reputation – the winner does seem to take it all in this context.


What do the best sports teams have in common? They secure the best players for each position.

What about the entertainment industry? Once again, recruiting the right talent is admittedly the most important people management function there, too.

The same goes for companies – top-performing employees are the driving force behind the success of each and every great organization.

And just like in sports, you will know the strength of a brand by its ability to attract A-players and its reputation for hiring greatness.

Are you committed to creating an entire All-Star team in your organization?

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Nadya Kanarieva is an international headhunter and executive recruiter, founder of the boutique recruitment consultancy Phoenix Career.

Throughout her recruitment career, Nadya has consistently helped IT and Telecom vendors and Consulting companies identify, engage with and hire top performers in the ICT sector. Industry leaders such as Ericsson, HPE, NTT DATA, Tata Consultancy Services and STC have utilized her high-level recruitment services and expansive professional network.

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