Companies & Industries

Let's Hear it for B Players


In a tough economy, it's your B players—competent, steady performers far from the limelight—who deserve your attention

The Idea

Who's most critical to your company's success, especially during a weak economy? Who supplies the stability, knowledge, and long-term view your firm needs to survive? B players—competent, steady performers far from the limelight.

These supporting actors of the corporate world determine your company's future performance far more than A players—volatile stars who may score the biggest revenues or clients, but who're also the most likely to commit missteps. B players, by contrast, prize stability in their work and home lives. They seldom strive for advancement or attention—caring more about their companies' well-being. Infrequent job changers, they accumulate deep knowledge about company processes and history. They thus provide ballast during transitions, steadily boosting organizational resilience and performance.

Yet many executives ignore B players, beguiled by stars' brilliance. The danger? If neglected, these dependable contributors may leave, taking the firm's backbone with them. How to keep your B players? Recognize their value—and nurture them.

The Idea in Practice

The Best B Players

Your most valuable B players are:

Former A players. These highly skilled, focused professionals often jump off the fast track to balance work and family. They continue accomplishing A work—but on their own terms. Seasoned and sharp, they step up during crises.

Truth tellers. Zealously honest in interactions with superiors, they pose challenging questions. Colleagues, recognizing their lack of ambition, highly value their opinions.

Go-to managers. These power brokers compensate for second-rate functional skills with profound understanding of company processes and norms. They amass such extensive networks that everyone consults them when pushing initiatives through politically challenging terrain.

Corporate Backbone

During turbulent times especially, B players provide stability by:

Accumulating organizational memory. B players remember how their company survived earlier crises—providing indispensable perspective during tough times.

Adapting to inevitable change. Less threatened by restructuring, B performers adapt to change and have the credibility to dispense vital information. They mentor younger people through the trauma of change, cultivating a reassuring sense of emotional and psychological safety.

Staying focused during management shakeups. Unlikely to be promoted or fired when a new CEO arrives, B players are usually the most secure people in any company. They ignore political infighting and get back to business, quietly completing projects while A players prepare to jockey for new positions.

Nurturing B Players

To keep your B players motivated:

Accept differences. We're all tougher on people who differ from us. If you're an A player, avoid the temptation to undervalue B performers. Ask what they want from their careers, then match them with mentors who'll help them get it.

Give the gift of time. Track your communication patterns to ensure you're not ignoring—and thus alienating—solid performers.

Hand out the prizes. Since B players are promoted relatively infrequently, reward them in others ways. Even handwritten notes of appreciation can make them feel valued and motivated.

Give choices. Rather than grooming only stars, allocate scarce resources—compensation, coaching, promotions—to high-potential B players. Promoting sideways can provide appealing career alternatives.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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