After an impromptu meeting with Gwynne Shotwell, Elon Musk knew she was an A-player—one he wanted beside him as he began pouring resources into SpaceX. In 2002, he adhered to the advice she gave to him during their discussion and created a vice president of sales position. Then, he asked her to apply. While it took her some time to accept the job, she eventually joined Musk’s team, becoming the growing business’s 11th employee. In her tenure with the company, she negotiated a $1.6 billion dollar contract with NASA, increased revenue by several more billion dollars, and has been an instrumental player in the development and success of the company’s spacecraft and space vehicles. Today, she is the president and COO of SpaceX.
Shotwell is a prime example of how A-players affect organizations. With them, remarkable, nearly impossible feats become a reality. But, without these all-stars, businesses sink into chaos and crumble. To be successful as a business owner, you must surround yourself with people you’d hire time and time again.
What an A-Player Looks Like
A-players are easily recognizable when leaders have the right hiring systems and strategies in place. That is why Musk immediately wanted Shotwell on his team. When hiring, identify high performers by looking for the following qualities:
- Accountable: They are the first to take full responsibility for mistakes, errors, and failures on their team. Even if another person caused a problem, they step up as a leader and take ownership of the issue.
- Goal-Oriented: A-players love reaching the goals they set alongside their employer. These employees like clear objectives and knowing how they can drive impact in the business.
- Natural Leader: High performers are leaders in their own right. They do not need to be micromanaged. Instead, all they need is support from their employer. Additionally, someone leading an A-player should remove barriers for them to do their best work. For example, if they develop a new process that streamlines a business practice, provide the resources they need to do this.
- Vision: Those who are A-players have a clear vision of where their life is going. They want a career that aligns with their top goals and dreams, and don’t settle for taking jobs at organizations where they cannot fulfill this vision.
- Growth Mindset: The constant pursuit of learning, development, and growth are key for A-players. They schedule time for growing personally and professionally each and every week, whether it is meeting with a mentor, reading leadership books, listening to business podcasts, practicing a new leadership skill, or taking time to review what they learned from a big mistake they made recently.
- Servant-Attitude: The kind of people you want on your team are those who are dedicated to serving others. They are more focused on “we” over “me,” and deeply want to help transform the lives around them. Whether it’s their coworkers, customers, or community, they practice servant leadership and fulfilling others’ needs before their own.
- Excellence: Finally, A-players produce A+ work. They aren’t satisfied with mediocrity. They do everything with excellence, throwing their heart, soul, and passion into every project they take on. You can recognize their work without even seeing their name on it. This is because the quality is above the organization’s typical standard of excellence.
How to Find A-Players
Finding A-players is like hunting for gold: you’ll need a sifting pan—or a hiring process—that eliminates mountains of dirt and uncovers the treasure you seek. Unfortunately, many employers don’t take the time needed to build out the systems needed to find great team members. Instead, they rush the process and extend job offers to the wrong people. In fact, a survey from CareerBuilder found that almost three out of four businesses make poor hires each year. As a result, “companies lost an average of $14,900 on every bad hire.”
However, making smart changes to the organization’s hiring process helps business owners select the right people for their companies. When the right hires are made, businesses experience greater profits, productivity, team culture, and employee retention. Use the hiring playbook below to find and employ A-players who will help you drive positive change in the world through your business.
1. Get Clear About Who You’re Hiring and What They’ll Do to Drive Growth
Before posting a job listing, an employer needs to have a clear vision of what an A team player looks like and how they’ll drive growth in the business.
To do this, ask yourself questions like:
- Where are there gaps in the company?
- Where is the team understaffed and overloaded? How could a new hire help relieve the burden?
- What needs to happen in order for the company to scale and grow?
- What duties do I need to delegate or have someone perform?
- Who is this new hire as a human being?
- What personality traits, leadership qualities, and personal values do they have?
- What specific role will they play in moving the needle within the organization?
2. Write a Job Description That Attracts Top Talent
Once you have a clear vision about who you’re hiring and why, you’re ready to write a job description. Use your findings from the previous step, and include these in the posting.
In the job listing, you also need to provide information on the business’s:
- Company culture
- Core values
- Vision of the best person for the role
Additionally, write down any key performance indicators (KPIs) the hire will need to meet. This helps set expectations about their duties, their work pace, and what deliverables they’ll be responsible for. Low performers will automatically be scared away from job listings like this since they’re looking for a role with little responsibility. However, A-players see job postings like this as an opportunity to join a business where they can make a difference in the world.
3. Generate Leads
When prospecting, you want to uncover every stone. This means not posting the job description in one place and hoping for the best. You wouldn’t want to dig for gold in only one spot, especially if it seems like that area isn’t producing any great leads. Get creative with the process and think outside the box to get the applicants that are A-players.
To start doing this:
- Post on sites like LinkedIn, Indeed, Monster, or ZipRecruiter.
- Research businesses that are similar to yours and invite their A-players to connect with you.
- Let your personal and professional network know exactly the type of person you’re looking to hire and what job you need filled.
- Host an event for people who have experience in the position you’re hiring for and use it to scope out great potential candidates.
- Team up with a staffing agency or well-connected recruiter.
4. Review Resumes and Cover Letters
A-players will submit a resume and cover letter that uniquely address the business and role they’re applying for. When building a team, look for cover letters that don’t follow a generic “copy and paste” format. Set these apart to read, then move on to the person’s resume if they seem like a good fit.
Great cover letters:
- Explain a person’s intentions by tailoring a message to the company and job they’re applying to.
- Provide insight into the candidate’s personality.
- Connect relevant work experience to the position they’re applying for.
- Communicate why they will be the best match for the company.
- Show the potential hire pays attention to detail by avoiding grammar mistakes and punctuation problems.
- Demonstrates professionalism.
In a resume, a hiring manager should look for:
- Correct punctuation, grammar, and formatting.
- Information on each position in their career, where they’ve worked, what they did at the job, and results they helped their companies achieve.
- Necessary experience for the position you’re filling.
- Qualifications or degrees needed for the role.
- Steady work history that isn’t full of employment gaps and random jobs worked for short periods of time.
More than anything, a great resume explains results and provides evidence that a person is a go-getter and an ideal team player. For resumes, scan job experience for information that fits the position. While education can be an indicator of success, it doesn’t necessarily determine a person’s abilities. It’s more important to find signs of grit, hard work, and passion. For example, notice if a person received a significant promotion in a short period of time.
5. Conduct a Screening Call
After reviewing cover letters and resumes, schedule the first interview via phone or email. During this interview, the goal is to discover more about who the person is. In this call, you should walk away learning more about their personality, values, mindset, and experience. You should also have a good idea as to whether or not they have the required experience necessary for the job and whether or not they are a good culture fit.
During this time, ask questions like:
- Can you give me the 30,000 ft view of your background?
- Can you walk me through your career history?
- What do you like doing professionally?
- What do you not like doing professionally?
- Why are you interested in this company?
- What interested you in this position?
- Tell me about a time you did something and it went great.
- Tell me about a time you did something and it didn’t go well.
- What are your compensation expectations?
Signs a person is an A-player during a screening call:
- Their cover letter and resume are consistent with the information they tell you.
- They have a distinct vision for their life that aligns with the job they’ll be doing. For example, if they want to become the best salesperson for supplements in North America, they are a good match for a sales role for a supplement company. If they are applying to be a graphic designer, they are clearly in the wrong field.
- The candidate is humble and has the mentality of a servant leader who desires to serve the needs of others before their own.
- A-players demonstrate grit, accountability, and the ability to push through failure, adversity, and challenges. When they talk about previous failures, they see them as important learning experiences rather than low points in their career.
Conclude by Providing Them with a Plan
If at any time you feel a person isn’t a good fit, politely end the call. However, if you see potential, leave time for questions from the candidate. When answering their questions, be as transparent as possible. Remember, a healthy working relationship is a two-way street.
After this, finish by giving the interviewee a timeline and a brief idea of what to expect next. Providing clarity and expectations helps employers make a good impression on the candidates they want moving forward with the company.
6. Conduct Second Phone Interview
While a second phone interview is optional, use it as an opportunity to ask the same questions in a different way. While you want to learn more about the candidate and look for inconsistencies, also figure out what lights the person up and fuels their passion. This helps company leaders discover more information about who candidates really are and whether or not they’re a good match for the business. Additionally, the second interview can dive deeper into work history and job experience.
For example, ask:
- Can you give me a brief 10-minute overview of your career history?
- What accomplishment are you most proud of?
- What have been some low points in your career?
- What work do you love doing? What type of work do you not enjoy?
- Who did you work with?
- What was your boss’s name?
- Why did you like or dislike working with them?
- What will they tell me about your greatest strengths?
- What about areas that need improvement?
To find A-players, look for:
- Consistent answers that are on par with their first interview.
- Candid, honest responses about their past mistakes.
- Evidence of strong relationships with their former employer and team. For example, do they speak highly of their previous manager or do they seem to talk about them with resentment and disdain?
- Open expression of strong core values, beliefs, and leadership abilities.
- Excitement about aligning their personal vision with that of the company, and how they plan to do this.
What to Do After the Second Interview
After ending the interview, finish the conversation by describing the follow-up process. If you are seriously interested in hiring the candidate, make sure this message is more personalized. Conclude by listing some of your favorite parts of speaking with them. When building a team, this makes potential group members feel recognized and understood by company leaders.
7. Extend an In-Person Interview
After finishing up phone interviews with candidates, start creating a list of potential hires. Follow-up within the time frame mentioned on the call and let them know you’d love to meet for a formal interview. Rather than send an email, call someone for an in-person interview since it is more personal. When scheduling the interview, provide several options for times and days and finalize when the interview will take place. Don’t forget to follow up with an email that confirms the meeting.
Everyone can’t move forward in the hiring process. Maybe you really like a particular person, but they aren’t the right fit for this role or they may need more experience. Keep their resume on file and consider them as the company grows. Regardless, all interviewees deserve the courtesy of a professional call letting them know the company chose to move forward with someone else. Giving caring, but clear feedback also helps people as they move forward in their job search.
8. Meet for an In-Office Interview
The final interview continues the process of getting to know who the candidate is, while also determining whether or not they can be an A-player in the job they’re applying for. With this interview, try and ask more detailed, job-specific questions, especially in regard to their past experience. For instance, if they say they exceeded their sales goals each quarter by 25 percent, ask them about how they did this. Ultimately, you want to have a relaxed conversation with the person to see how they’d influence your business.
In-office interviews can be nerve-racking so make sure candidates feel as comfortable as possible. Establish a connection in the first few moments by smiling and offering them water or coffee. You can help to put them at ease with a little humor or point out a similarity between the two of you. These tactics allow a person to feel at ease so they can present their truest self.
Examples of questions to ask include:
- Tell me about a time when you met one of your top career goals. How did you do this?
- What was the hardest lesson you’ve learned at work?
- Which of your leadership skills do you find most valuable?
- Can you walk me through how you achieved __________ (insert a specific accomplishment or metric listed on their resume)?
- What qualities should team members have?
- Why do you think you’re the best choice for this role?
A-players will have answers that:
- Clearly state how they grew the business or contributed in a significant way.
- Effectively discuss their strategy for meeting and exceeding goals.
- Communicate passion, hunger, and the desire to serve.
- Show how they demonstrate leadership qualities as a team member.
Provide the Next Steps
At the end of this interview, let those who are a good fit know the business will start the process of reference checks. If the in-person interview doesn’t go well, be as honest as possible. Let the candidate know why they might not be the best fit for the company at this point. If the interviewer is unsure and needs more time for consulting with other leaders and team members, let them know when you’ll have more insight.
9. Perform Background and Reference Checks
Be clear and let potential hires know how long the background and reference check process takes. It’s not uncommon for those job searching to also interview at other companies. With that being said, staying in touch helps demonstrate interest throughout the hiring process.
As a business owner builds a team, they must protect the current group from new hires that could disrupt team culture. During this part of the process, employers should be sensitive to any potential red flags. If something comes up that feels suspicious, keep investigating for answers. Doing so is vital for a wise hiring decision.
Speak with the Candidate’s References
A-players will provide a list of references who have worked with them directly. For example, this might include their former boss, coworkers, and even past clients. These people will give you more insight into who the person is, what they are like to work, and whether or not they are in fact an A-player. Even if someone interviews well, it doesn’t mean they are actually gold. Speaking with their references is like taking them to a jeweler to figure out if they’re the real deal or just fool’s gold.
When speaking with references, ask these questions:
- Can you verify employment, title, and responsibilities.
- Why did the candidate leave their job?
- How did they work with their coworkers, and how did they perceive them?
- Would you rehire them?
- What kind of team member were they?
- Did they get along with management?
- What was it like working with the job candidate?
- Do you know another person I could call?
After you discuss the candidate with their reference, thank the person for their time. Make sure to call every person listed by the candidate and provided by the references so that you get a well-rounded view of who the prospect is. This helps determine whether or not you should hire them.
10. Extend a Job Offer
If the candidate seems like an A-player and the references confirm this belief, make a hiring decision. After you decide who will help grow the business into its full potential, call the person and extend a job offer on behalf of the company.
If the person provides an immediate verbal agreement, let them know when they will receive a formal job offer. However, employment is a two-way street, and some candidates might request time to make a decision. If they request this, set a meeting to discuss their choice and any questions they might have. Once a person officially accepts a job, send them an email with the start date and other important details.
Finally, as a common courtesy, let other interviewing candidates know they did not receive the job. Always do this via phone call and provide as much helpful feedback as possible.
What to Do Once You’ve Hired an A-Player
Hiring an A-player is like a coach hiring one of the best college football recruits in the country. They have the skills set, talents, leadership skills, and mindset needed to be the starting quarterback in the National Championship, but they still need coaching to win that game. The question is: Now that you’ve secured that player, how do you treat them?
The first thing you must do is give that person direction and provide them with winning systems they can incorporate each day. When an A-player works within a system that has been proven to win championships, they’re only adding to the likelihood that the business will win another. This is how Alabama head coach Nick Saban has won the most National Championships in history: He has a winning system that works. As a leader, it’s your job to write the playbook.
A great coach also invests in their players. They spend thousands of hours with them, developing and growing each individual to their full potential. During this time, they figure out what the A-player actually cares about, and they help them accomplish their goals and vision. Great leaders don’t need to be asked to step in and help transform their team members’ lives. They gladly step in where they see gaps and provide the person with opportunities because they genuinely care about that person. Their success becomes your success.
It’s important for leaders to remember that A-players intrinsically want to win—it’s in their nature. As a leader, you must create an environment that gives them the resources they need to do this. For example, say a team member goes over a presentation they’ll be giving to an important client. Anticipate that an A-player will want constructive feedback. Instead of waiting for them to ask, go ahead and schedule time to provide them with thoughtful ways they can make the presentation five percent better.
Leadership development is another huge component companies must provide A-players with. They crave it and have an insatiable hunger for it. As a leader, you constantly have to be thinking ahead and providing top performers with the tools they need to drive impact using your business as a tool that changes the world for the better. When this is your company culture, expect A-players to grow your business and create positive change in ways you couldn’t imagine possible.