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Managing Your “Supporting Actors”

In the talent management world, a great deal is written and discussed about the management of the “A” players – the best employees, or those with the highest potential.

But what about the “B” players?

First, it’s ridiculous to conclude that your entire workforce is made up of (or should only include) “A” players.  There simply aren’t that many great employees to go around, and let’s face it: Not every company is Google or Patagonia with 1,500 applicants for every position.  In the real world, you’re going to have some “B” players on your team.  And given the right direction and leadership, those employees have the capability of being extremely valuable to your organization.  A 2003 Harvard Business Review study concluded that “that companies’ long-term performance—even survival—depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players (than on A players).

Let’s use baseball as an analogy.  The great teams have superstars – the .300 hitters with 40 homeruns.  Those are your “A” players.  But teams that win the World Series invariably have several role players, sometimes called “utility” players.  This is the player that will never hit 40 homers – but can play catcher, or right field, or second base.  They’re the ones that are able to sacrifice to advance baserunners, or break up double plays – they’re the unsung heroes.  And it’s no coincidence they are sometimes called “character guys”.

In the film industry – whether you’re best supporting actor or best actor, the trophy’s the same.

In the workplace, I’d define “B” players as those who:

  1. Show up for work every day, put their nose down and grind out the work;

  2. Have little, if any drama associated with their presence in the workplace;

  3. Stay at your company for a longer than most employees;

  4. Utilize their abilities to the maximum;

  5. Consistently perform good but not spectacular work; and

  6. Often, their work is not what defines them – they have other priorities in life, whether it be family or a significant hobby

Give me a group of people like this, and I’ll show you a very very good workforce.

I’ve worked with a mid-sized CPA firm for a number of years, and I recall one such employee.  “Brad” was very quiet (except at the company holiday party), showed up to work every day, and was incredibly reliable.  Brad was well paid for a staff accountant, but because he was not spectacular, he never received significant promotions.

At corporate review meetings, the partners always wondered if they should let him go, because he wasn’t partner material.

My response to them was – not everyone is partner material!  Not everyone has the capability of being a CEO!  If you are under the impression that everybody in your workforce must have that potential, you’re deluding yourself.  Every workforce needs people to actually do the work, not just manage and lead.

The problem is, most managers and executives don’t know how to manage “B” players and as a result, those employees become disillusioned, lose their edge or worse, leave the company.

Here are some thoughts on how to manage “B” players:

  1. Know Who They Are. A “B” player is not a mediocre or failing employee; they are hard workers who for reasons tangible or intangible are not going to be CEO some day.

  2. Manage them the same way you do your “A” players. That is, find out what their goals are; set your expectations clearly and adapt a ‘one size fits one’ approach.

  3. Let them know their performance is valued. If a good employee sees their superstar colleague get all the recognition and rewards, they’re going to be disheartened.

  4. Make clear what their career path is. If they aren’t ever going to be an executive or manager – let them know that.  (It’s not fair to them if they’re laboring under the illusion that some day they’ll be promoted).  There are other ways of rewarding performers than simply promotions.

  5. Pay them at the top of the market. The value of the “B” player is their stability to the company as well as consistent performance.  If that employee leaves, it’s going to be really expensive, and time consuming, to replace that person with a similar performer.  It’s much less expensive to simply pay them at the top of the market.

I once worked with a commercial real estate firm that had the greatest receptionist I’ve ever seen.  When she answered the phone, she did so as if she’d been waiting for your call all day long.  Colleagues and competitors would constantly try to steal her every month.  She had been in the position for eight or nine years when she decided to apply for an promotion within the company.

The owner knew that wasn’t the best use of her skills and wanted to keep her in her role.  Their answer?  They raised her pay to 20% over what any other receptionist was making in town – and about 10-15% more than administrative assistants were being paid.  She stayed.  If she was going to leave, it wasn’t going to be because of money.

Supporting actors have an increasingly critical role in business, but they won’t flourish or remain without an intentional strategy for managing their performance and careers.



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