Why results-oriented, human-centered A-players help grow media companies

Matthijs van de Peppel

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Xavier van Leeuwe

Mediahuis Nederland

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We all know you need the right people to achieve a difficult task. But how do you decide what is “right?” We’d like to share what we have learned about identify high-performing A-players for your media company.


In a strong team, every participant excels, regardless of job description. Great people prefer to work with other great people. If they have to fix other people’s mistakes, they feel their potential is not being used. They become frustrated, are not challenged, and ultimately lose their motivation.

This is why we look for A-players. Are they a kind of übermensch? No, they are very ordinary people with some special characteristics.

A-players are intrinsically motivated and human centered, able to fit in anywhere within a company.
A-players are intrinsically motivated and human centered, able to fit in anywhere within a company.

For example, when A-players realise they are the smartest in the room, they believe they are in the wrong room. An essential characteristic of A-players is that they don’t feel threatened by people who can do more or other things than themselves. A-players see other A-players as an opportunity to grow.

Advertising guru David Ogilvy also saw this and used Russian matryoshka dolls as a metaphor. If you are so bold as to hire people who are bigger than yourself, you end up with an organisation of giants. Ogilvy warned, “If you hire people who are weaker than yourself, they will also remarkably often hire small people, so that you end up with an organisation of dwarves.”

Or, to quote Steve Jobs on the topic: “A-players hire A-players, but B players hire C players and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. The trickledown effect causes bozo explosions in companies.”

A-players like to excel. They come in all shapes and sizes. And they can work in all departments of the company. You’ll find them among creative people, empaths, thinkers, and hard-working marathon-runners.

With A-players, we don’t mean the classic image of the rising Millennial or Gen Z with a fantastic resume. They don’t need a Harvard degree, have to speak five languages, and work 100 hours a week. Just as within the organisation — where the organisational culture is more important than the strategy — with employees, the attitude and character are much more important than the skills. DNA, not MBA.

After years of learning from — and making mistakes — hiring people, we have come up with some characteristics we look for in all employees, regardless of their position and irrespective of the number of years of experience they have. To a large extent, A-players have the following characteristics to a large extent:

• Human centered. They have a sincere interest in people and the ability to empathise with others. This “other” orientation is essential to connect with colleagues, suppliers, and customers.

For example, they are able to really listen to a colleague who disagrees with them. They want to understand the background of that other point of view and are willing to see its value and possibly adjust their ideas. With suppliers and other stakeholders, they look for agreements that benefit both parties, because in the long-term, that will deliver more than tug-of-war to squeeze value out in the short-term. For customers, they are willing to go many extra miles to serve them in the best possible way.

• Results oriented. They are people who are energised by improvement. If need be, they adapt their approach to the context. This is in contrast to task-oriented employees, who do what they have to do and will keep repeating themselves, even if what they do is no longer the best way. Their experience does not lead to new capabilities.

On the contrary, results-oriented employees are enormously resilient, because the need to achieve their goals is always greater than the pain they experience as they struggle to get there. They will always have a drive to further improve — to set new and challenging goals — because results can always improve.

• High-learning agility. The will and capacity to continue learning are essential as the knowledge and skills of today are not the ones you need tomorrow. We need independent thinkers who form their own opinions and are eager to explore new mental terrains. As a company, you can stimulate and facilitate them by offering training and making budget and time available.

• Intrinsically motivated. Energetic people are infectious to work with. Their energy is almost inexhaustible when they are intrinsically motivated. They always go an extra mile and are extremely motivated to help the organisation move forward. When weighing up personal gain and results for the company, they will always opt for the latter.

Of course, we are not the only ones who see the value of these properties. To make sure their employees are intrinsically motivated, online retailer Zappos offers new employees US$1,000 to leave the company after their training. They call this The Offer.

Amazon, which acquired Zappos, does this too and calls it Pay To Quit. At Amazon, the amount rises to the impressive sum of US$5,000. As a result, employees who work at the company purely for money can be separated from those who are actually committed. Roughly 10% of new employees take the money.

This costs the company considerable amounts in training and bonuses for people who leave quickly. On the other hand, according to research by the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, companies with highly involved employees achieve, on average, 2.5 times more turnover within three years than organisations whose employees display an average level of involvement.

Why we have to be honest

The term A-players can have a negative connotation. People may feel threatened or excluded by it.

And it’s true, of course, that selecting means some people don’t stay on board. That sounds mildly anti-social.

It is the opposite, though. Keeping people on a team that doesn’t function well ultimately endangers the company’s culture and thus the continued existence of the organisation. Some people are better off in a different workplace, and it’s up to leaders to address that.

That’s not a comfortable process. It is hard to have to tell someone with whom we have sometimes worked for years that they are not at their best in this position, especially when there is a vulnerable personal situation. Still, it’s better to be honest, because it’s only through openness that the situation can change. Often this is also in the employee’s interest because it is more fun to work at a place where you are a good fit and come into your own rather than to stay put simply out of habit or risk aversion.

This blog series is based on the book The Human Touch, in which Xavier van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel share their experiences as media executives in turbulent times. They deftly applied smart data and technology, but the quantum leap lay elsewhere: in the connections between people, within and beyond their companies.

About Xavier van Leeuwe & Matthijs van de Peppel

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