Amongst U.S. corporations, employers use the term “A” player to denote an employee that’s exceptional. This is based on the U.S. academic grading system where the top-performing students are awarded an “A” grade and the worst-performing students earn an “F” grade.

If you are working in corporate or expect to do so at some point in your career, you want to become the “A” player. Let me explain how an “A” player differs from a “B” player.

PRO-ACTIVE vs. Reactive

B player = Does what they are asked to; they do it on time; they do it well.

A player = Does what is asked and anticipates what else should be done too (and either does it or asks her boss if she should do it).

The #1 complaint I hear amongst company executives today is how many new hires in their 20s are extremely passive. They just want to be told what to do so they can just crank out work without thinking too hard.

When I ran my first P&L, I immediately told one of my staff members that while he does report to me, I work for him. He leads. He figures out what needs to be done. I will do what he asks me to do to get rid of obstacles in his way. But he LEADS, not me.

OUTCOME-Oriented vs. Task-Oriented

A “B” player asks her boss for the “to do” list and executes the “to do” list, giving very little thought as to whether or not just completing the “to do” list is sufficient to achieve the overall goal.

An “A” player focuses on achieving the overall objective and will herself add tasks to the “to do” list (or suggest they be added to the “to do” list) and doesn’t just rely on explicitly assigned tasks.

For that same staff member, I mentioned earlier, I told him on day #1 as his boss, “Get me $16 million in sales out of North America in the next 12 months. Figure it out. Tell me what you want to do and what you need. Let’s meet in a week to go over your plan.”

The plan is negotiable. The $16M goal is not.

(He was half excited about getting so much autonomy and half scared. Incidentally, I find “A” players thrive at this kind of “stretch” assignment — incredibly exciting and intimidating all at the same time.)

OVER-DELIVER vs. Deliver

Simply put, “A” players do more than is required or expected. They either have taken the time to develop advanced skills and use those skills to outperform similarly tenured peers, or they work harder than their peers, thereby accomplishing more in the same amount of time.

An A player proactively achieves the desired outcome and does so by over-delivering. What more could you ask for?

There’s a saying that a single “A” player is worth five “B” Players. The late Steve Jobs violently disagreed with this statement.

He said an “A” player is worth 50 “B” players.

As an example, the team lead for the iPhone (which has now generated hundreds of billions in revenue) was an “A” player. You could have staffed 50 “B” players in that role, and it would have failed.

So, what’s the takeaway here?

For starters, whenever you’re assigned something to do and your boss doesn’t tell you why you’re supposed to do it and how what you will be doing fits into everything else that’s going on, stop and ASK.

Most people rarely ask more than a superficial clarifying question. Ask to obtain deep understanding of the goal and how your work product fits into the work product of others.

It may be your job to do your work, but an “A” player seeks to understand the work of others that surround his work — so he sees both his piece and how it fits into the “big picture.”

In corporate, there are extremely few SYSTEM-WIDE thinkers. Easily less than 1%, and probably less than 0.1% of employees can do this.

This is a HUGE opportunity for you to be one of these people, as they are in extremely short supply.

Finance people do not see the sales and marketing implications of their “finance” decisions.

Salespeople do not understand the legal implications of modifying standard deal terms to win the sale.

Engineers don’t grasp how making a single engineering change might cause a customer training and education issue.

Don’t just do work. UNDERSTAND what you are doing (and why you are doing it), then do the work asked of you. Be the “A” player.

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