January 2011 Archives

Maybe You Should Hire an "A" Manager

pointyhairedboss.jpegAmong startups, it's easy to say (and brag), "We only hire A-players (engineers)."  Maybe it's true, maybe it's not -- but you probably need to say it.  Many articles have been written why "Good Isn't Good Enough."  Certainly, your first few hires should be great.  But what about beyond that?  And in particular, what do you do in an tight labor market and your company has 10 to 30 people?   At this size, a company is beyond "startup," but sometimes,  companies of this size continue to believe that they can and must hire only "A" engineers.

This is potentially a recipe for disaster.

In a tight market, there are not enough "A" players to go around.  (Unless of course your definition of an "A" player is different than mine -- then perhaps you are just looking to hire "B" players.)  Second, your ability to offer enough quality compensation at this stage might be limited.  Stock option grants, for example, have probably decrease exponentially with each hire at this stage. 

This is where many are at today.  Despite a general unemployment rate of around 10%, there is a huge shortage of "A" players.  And, if you are like many Internet companies that have been around for a few years and are relatively successful (maybe even profitable), you have  dozen or so engineers.  (Looking around my immediate circle, maybe this includes companies such as MerchantCircle, Topix, and Rapleaf)

So, are you stuck because you can't hire "A" players? 

Quite the contrary -- perhaps you are doomed because you cling to the value that you must only hire "A" players.  First, you won't be able to meet this goal -- there are not enough "A" players to go around, and you don't have the incentives to bring them on board.   So, you'll fail to meet your hiring goals.   Second, as with cooking, "Too many chefs will spoil the broth."  Egos, turf wars, not enough "charter," inter-personal dynamics all present issues.  And, while we believe that "A" players can be "self-managing" and work without management, this does not scale as an organization grows.

What to do?

Maybe you need to give up on the false believe that you must only hire "A" engineers.  Instead, you should focus on hiring "A" managers.  The "A" manager will be able to get "B" players to rise to the best of their abilities.  They might not operate at the "A" level,  but at least their productivity won't be negative.  (It should be largely positive.)  Second, an "A" manager will be able to get still more out of the "A" players.  But, more importantly, the stellar manager will be able to manage the "Clash of the Titans (the "A" players)."   Appropriate management allows the "A" players an environment for them all to succeed.

Unfortunately, companies often undervalue and do not respect the "A" manager.  In a startup, the CEO oftentimes does not recognize (the need for) a good manager.  Consequently, the "B" manager gets hired.  This is a disaster.  First, the "B" players won't rise to a higher level.  The "B" manager still can't hire "A" players.  And, the "A" players will disrespect and possibly sabotage the "B" manager -- a bad situation for everyone.

If your company is in that awkward "teen age" years,  give up on the belief that you can and must only hire A players.  Hire an "A" manager instead.  Then, ironically, your "A" manager might be able to able to successfully hire and manage A and B players.


  • Those desiring to hire only "A" players often misquote or mis-understand a key concept of the "Mythical Man Month."  Specifically, a team of A players probably does not make a good surgical team.
  • Props to David BoyerDavid was perhaps the best manager I've every hired.  Certainly he was great manager for running a mid-sized organization.