To "B" or Not to "B"

Published: Dec 05, 2006

By Peter Weddle -- The War for Talent, a report produced by McKinsey & Company in 1997, was a seminal document in the recruiting profession. Not only did it underscore the importance of the work that recruiters do in the modern enterprise, but for the first time, it calculated the monetary impact of that work.

McKinsey studied a number of organizations to determine if the quality of recruiters’ yield really mattered at the bottom line. Now, you have to wonder why it took a study in the 97th year of the 20th Century to figure that out, but we’ll explore that question on another day. Anyway, McKinsey found that the differential financial impact of high performers was not only measurable, but profound. No matter what metric is used—sales closed, products manufactured without defect, or customer satisfaction scores—“A” level performers are 50 to 100% more productive than “C” level performers. Hire the best and most capable in each profession, craft or trade for which you recruit, and you will give your organization a clear competitive advantage that even the CFO will be able to recognize.

Now, some will say that this push for the best quality is overblown. Even professional sports teams, they argue, can’t afford to hire All Stars at every position. It’s an interesting point, but a misconceived analogy. Any sports team that is truly trying to win a championship also tries to hire the best players it can find for each and every position it has to fill; the Yankees haven’t won twice as many World Champions as any other team because they go out and hire “C” players at a position or two. Accepting less than the best is asking to be mediocre … whether it’s on the baseball diamond or in the global marketplace.

Indeed, that is the ultimate finding of the McKinsy report. Whatever the position you have to fill, you should try to hire the person who will do it best. Not the first qualified person you can find, but the best qualified person there is. That’s obvious in the professional and managerial ranks, but it’s just as true among trade and hourly workers. If your organization needs another retail sales person, then you want to recruit “A” level candidates in sales; if it needs a mail room clerk, then you want to hire the best mail room clerk you can find; and if it’s a janitor, then go out and recruit an “A” level janitor.

But here’s the rub. The McKinsey study ignored a whole class of workers that we would do well to consider. Between those “A” level performers at the top and those “C” level performers in the mediocre middle, there are “B” level players who are the invisible candidates of the labor force. And, according to recent work by a scholar at Harvard, they deserve better treatment.

“B” level performers are typically every bit as talented and capable as “A” level performers, but they bring different motivations to work.

  • “A” level performers These employees work for huzzahs. They want to be known as the best in the organization. They are good, and they want everyone else to know it. They crave being recognized by promotions and bonuses and the attention of their boss. They may be the only employees who actually look forward to performance appraisals. Their motivation is Brand Me.

  • “B” level performers These employees work for what one writer called “mental chocolate.” They are very good at what they do—in fact, many are recovering “A” level performers—but they do it for the intrinsic reward of a job well done. It’s not that they don’t care about awards and bonuses, but they aren’t driven to stand out or to stand above their colleagues. Their motivation is Brand Us.

    Said another way, “B” level performers have a balanced view of work and life, and because they do, they often go unnoticed (witness the McKinsey report) and underappreciated by their employers. In many respects, however, they are the backbone of an organization. They are the workers you can count on in a crisis; they are the people who will quietly but competently step in to help cover for an absent co-worker. And they are, as a consequence, people we must recruit.

    How do we do that? As I’ve suggested in previous columns when discussing “A” level prospects, we have to find out exactly what will attract “B” level performers to our organization and focus on those factors in our job postings and the Career content on our Web-site. One of the best ways to acquire this insight is to borrow a tactic used by our colleagues in marketing. We should hold focus groups among the “B” level employees in our organization working in the fields for which we are recruiting. They are the perfect surrogate for the “B” level prospects we want to recruit and can tell us precisely what it takes to get someone (just like them) to “buy” our organization as an employer.

    The basis for this research, as our marketing colleagues have learned, is customer segmentation. We must recognize the differences among the potential “customers” of our organization’s employment value proposition and shape the expression of that proposition to attract the customers we most want. The McKisney and Company report provides the justification for focusing on “A” level performers and their unique needs. To achieve full success as recruiters, however, we should also determine what attracts “B” level performers and source them, as well. When we do, we give our organizations both extraordinary performers and those who add something extra to the ordinary performance of everyone around them.

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