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Three Ways to Ignite “A Player” Engagement

Three Ways to Ignite “A Player” Engagement

Here’s the problem with having a company stocked with A Players: You get a cadre of mouthy, talented people who are happy to follow your leadership. But you have to work hard to deserve it.  This is especially true in the case of younger generations of great employees, who weren’t necessarily raised to have automatic respect for their seniors.

But it’s also true among all A Players – regardless of age or background.  They’ve witnessed years of lay-offs, when companies got rid of really good people as a way to recover from chuckleheaded business initiatives. They know how closely tied their career health is to the quality of the decisions that are made from the top. So naturally, the employees whose loyalty and innovation you want to cultivate and keep want something from you in return – accountability.

You are going to feel challenged to prove that your approach is the right one. You might even be put on the defensive, because suddenly whole new populations of people are going to say to you, “Prove it.”

There was once a time when “because I said so” would have sufficed.  Those times are gone – especially if you’re committed to drawing from the best talent that this world has to offer you.  These are the people with the confidence, creativity and innovative spirits to speak up and maybe even offer alternative approaches and solutions.

This is a new fact of your leadership life. Here are your options:

1. Squelch what you perceive to be time-wasting interference from buttinsky employees who don’t know your job as well as you do.  (Consequence: Risk losing them to a more collaborative company, like, say, your competitor.)
2. Or hear them out; and be ready to make your own case when someone asks, “Why?” “What for?” “Why that deadline? Why not this one instead?” (Consequence: You might resent being put on the spot to defend your decisions. Even so, you might get an even better idea by being willing to face down the challenge of why. And you get to hang on to energized, collaborative contributors who are willing to volunteer their brilliance to the company above the call of their formal job description.)

How do you achieve this shift yourself?  Ed Martin, CHRO of Pandora Internet Radio, says, “Approach your career from an adventurous perspective. And don’t be threatened by a new conversation at work. Seek it out.”

The more open you are to the inputs and passions of others in your company, the more raw material you’ll have to work with as you create your company culture from this point moving forward. Martin has these suggestions:

Look for ways to have one-on-one conversations with your people. A Players are more likely to listen to you when they know you’ve been listening to them. Surveys have their place, but they can’t replace live, spontaneous human conversation with your people.  Take every opportunity to have authentic conversations with the people who work for your company.  Invite individuals from throughout the organization to join you for coffee or lunch – with no specific agenda or ulterior motive than simply to build relationships, trust and communication.

When you need large-group feedback and input, hold live focus groups during which your people feel safe to report their opinions and reactions to specific company initiatives.  Welcome the challenges to your approaches that they might pose.  If you can’t succinctly and successfully explain or defend your leadership decision, then it’s likely you’re the one who needs to go back to the drawing board and develop a new approach.  Some might consider this a hassle. But you welcome this as an opportunity to grow in your own profession. Let the challenge invigorate and refresh your own experience of your work.

Remember that it’s about serving your company and its people. Leadership is not about making your job easier.  It’s one thing to look for efficiencies (especially when they free you up to add value to your role).  But it’s not acceptable to look for short-cuts just for the sake of making your own day just a little bit easier.  As customers, we have all experienced incidents when we were disappointed in a product or service. We know the reason why: The company chose to cut corners to create a savings or efficiency. And it chose to let the customer “pay the difference” in experience.  Don’t make your own customers – your company’s people – pay for a misguided attempt at smoothing the way for yourself.

Don’t be like Jack. If you’ve been in leadership for any amount of time, you have probably run into at least one person who stands out in your mind – not for excellence and passion for the work, but for having a really bad attitude toward the company’s people.  For Ed, during the early years of his career, that was a guy named Jack.  And over the years, Jack was the reverse role model against whom Ed would measure his own passion and energy in the following years.

So who is your Jack? Who is that cynical, dispirited person who embodies the lack of passion for the business and its people? You know who I mean:  Heavy sighs and rolling eyes every time an employee brings forward an issue.  A certain amount of passive aggressiveness? A biting wit; a cutting tongue? Maybe slow turnaround when an employee needs a quick answer for peace of mind? An absolute resistance and refusal to even consider new ideas?

When you see yourself becoming Jack, stop and reconsider. Is it time to refresh your own passion and appreciation for your role in business? Maybe it’s time to challenge your own personal career status quo. Ask the nervy questions, like, “What am I doing here and do I really care about my people?”

As a leader of A Players, you have to be an A Player yourself.  You must bring the same passion for innovation, exploration and personal challenge to your job that you expect your people to bring to theirs.  The riskiest part of your own career at this point is having the high-wire nerve to be worthy of your own A Players.  Whether you see that challenge as a drag or an adventure will determine your own success moving forward.


  1. If anything, your article highlights and reinforces the fact that leaders must be well-evolved, psychologically healthy beings.

    All the intellectual horsepower, vision and strategic capability in the world won’t matter if we can’t recognize a shift into cynicism, passive-aggression, and ego mania. At this point effective leaders are able to own it and shift gears.

    Unfortunately, human behavior can sometimes fall short of constructive, purposeful, and positive, be it the result of temporary pressures or social conditioning. The leaders I respect control their thermostats, recognize that great organizations are populated by talented people, and allow that where there’s smart, there’s smarter. This is what disposes a leader to the consideration of new ideas, realizing that he/she doesn’t have the monopoly on wisdom and creativity. And this is the beginning of A-player engagement.

    A-players thrive on creative contribution and are impact players seeking collaborative environments, a voice and freedom to innovate. I’d say that being accountable, generous with time and ear, and knowing when to lead from behind are important qualities we must offer. Being a balanced, accountable leader who is aware of the foregoing begets an A-player leader of A-players. And there’s your engagement ignited.

    • I want to thank you for writing this article and posting it. I know too much of any one type of energy- even creativity is bad. However, I strive to be an A Player at all times. I am very creative, and passionate about the mission, vision and cause. Excellent article.

  2. Great article! You hit on key characteristics of A players – They can spot a phoney a mile away, and when they do its only a matter of time before they leave.

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