As a manager, creating a well-rounded and high-performing team is one of the most fulfilling aspects of leadership. Seeing and helping superstars develop, watching individuals become more confident with their unique abilities, and grooming the next generation of leader within the organization is incomparable.

“B” and “C” Players

A less enjoyable component of management is the act of working with and coaching the perpetual underperformers. Every department has them, every leader has struggled with them, and some may even have a few who come to mind immediately. They are the few who we try to encourage, who we try to train, and for whom we hold out hope that change will come, but it can seem like an endless cycle of performance management and frustration.

We all recognize “A” Players. These are the star performers, with the highest potential, and who can step up to and handle any challenge or new scenario. In his book, Leading Apple with Steve Jobs, former Apple senior vice president Jay Elliot details his former boss’ strategies for hiring “A” Players. “I noticed that the dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you’re well advised to go after the cream of the cream … A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.”

So where does that leave the “B” and “C” Players? “B” Players are competent, steady performers who balance their work and personal lives while still performing a significant number of tasks that need to be done. They stay in their lane, don’t require a great deal of attention, and they get the job done.

On the other end of the spectrum, “C” Players sometimes make up the smallest segment of the team yet require the most time and attention. They are the employees with a constant litany of excuses – a vehicle is broken, someone is sick, excessive days are missed, and the workload either gets passed to someone else or delayed altogether. They walk the fine line between “good enough to get by” and “fireable offense worthy of termination.” They are granted continual employment primarily because the act of hiring, training, and managing someone you don’t know is sometimes more intimidating than continuing to deal with the perpetual issues of the presently employed “C” performer.


Most would agree that the ability to recruit and retain the top talent that exists in the industry is paramount to the success of an organization. In Topgrading, industrial psychologist and global consultant Bradford Smart expands on the three levels of contributors within an organization. “Simply put, topgrading is the practice of packing the team with A players and clearing out the C players,” Smart writes. “’A players’ is defined as the top 10 percent of talent available at all salary levels–best of class. With this radical definition, you are not a topgrader until your team consists of all A players. Period.”

Thus, again the question is raised: where does that leave the “B” and “C” Players? Smart writes: “Topgrading does not necessarily mean that you must fire every B player in your company; however, if you currently have less than 90% A-player employees, then you will likely engage in a painful, uphill battle.” Smart advocates that all companies should strive to hire 90% A-players, promote 90% A-Players, and eventually achieve 90% A-players in management.

Proactive vs. Reactive Topgrading

Achieving a team comprised of 90% “A” Players might be a significant leap for most teams. Instead, keep one foot firmly planted in present day reality while making immediate and proactive efforts to improve the future bench. Evaluate those on the team who would score less than a “B+” grade for competency, reliability, and consistency. With those individuals, provide concrete feedback and opportunity for measurable improvement. Negative performance issues should be validated by at least two or three specific examples and collaborate on a plan to move forward with a resolution.

Consider focusing on proactive hiring that improves the strength of your bench – not just hiring that fills empty seats. Spend less time addressing reoccurring performance issues and instead craft a hiring plan that proactively attracts the “A” or “B+” contributors to the team. Will 100% of an organization be comprised of “A” Players? Not likely. But be proactive in hiring replacements that will create a topgraded bench for 2022 and beyond.