Nurture the B team

It’s always about the stars, the A players on the fast track to bonuses, promotions and glory. IT leaders will do nearly anything to get them — and keep them. But what about the rest of us? In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Vineeta Vijayaraghavan and Thomas J. DeLong posit that a company’s long-term performance and even survival really depend much more on the B players, those steady, capable performers outside the spotlight. Vijayaraghavan, a consultant at Katzenbach Partners LLC, an organizational strategy firm in New York, talked with Kathleen Melymuka about the vital contributions of these “best supporting actors” and how to make sure you’re not taking them for granted.

Who are the B players? Those that, in a rough ranking, are neither fast-track — in the top 10 percent — nor struggling in the bottom 10 percent. Intuitively, most managers can tell you who they are.

You say being a B is more about temperament than talent. Explain? Oliver Wendell Holmes said that F.D.R. had a second-class mind and a first-class temperament. Achievement is a blend of intelligence, motivation and personality, and that blend makes the difference between A and B players rather than talent per se.

Tell me about the B players who are “recovered A” players. At Microsoft, one of the top 20 performers was an A player who burned out and went rock climbing. He later came back, but to a smaller group — a think tank for new-product development. We call him a “recovered A” because he comes from that world. He maintained calling cards from that world. He knows how it works, and he can move in and out of that world.

Other B players are “truth tellers.” Can you give me an example? These are people who have a zeal for the truth. They’re not necessarily “company types,” which A players tend to be. They’re willing to tell the truth even at a cost to their standing in the company. One was a manager in charge of building a technology infrastructure for his trading division. He discovered that someone with status had paid more than the going price for a system. No one had dared raise a question, but he wasn’t cowed and spoke up and saved the company millions of dollars.

Some B players are “go-to” people. What does that mean? Those aren’t functional experts, but they have an extraordinary feel for the processes and norms of the company. They can make connections and go across departments and divisions to get things done. They’re familiar with who really has the power, even if it’s not the person in the formal role.

Aren’t there B players who are really just plain mediocre performers? Yes, definitely. Those we categorized as middling. But that’s often an alignment issue — an issue of where and how to use their skills. Managers tend to not have as many conversations with B players about how to use their skills because they think there’s not enough ROI in it.

What else do B players do for the company? A players tend to say, “I’m the brand.” If a better opportunity comes up, they’ll jump ship. B players aren’t martyrs, but they tend to be willing to take on long-term projects and stay for the whole thing. They are really good at building trust with clients through these long-term projects. This trust creates a platform for innovations that the A players might dream up but couldn’t otherwise have gotten clients to sign on for. They also tend to remind leaders to grow slowly. A players want to add head count and say they ran a big department. B players are more likely to say, “If we grow that fast, these are my concerns about quality. And if the growth cycle gets cut short, how will we handle that?”

How do B players help a company in transition? They’re less affected by shake-ups because they’re less likely to be tapped for promotions or be fired. They provide continuity and pass on knowledge. They provide ballast in bad economic times because they stick around. They’re not just there for big bonuses. B players in an IT department are critical for mentoring new people and assimilating them into the corporate structure. They provide cultural support and informal management while management is in transition.

These B players sound like a lot of IT people I know. I think IT is full of these. IT people are often stars and also often classic B’s. IT people see things differently. One technology company told us how their B players showed management that it wasn’t worth it to work long hours because long hours brought higher error rates and less creativity in product development.

Don’t B players get tired of holding things together with so little credit? Yes, absolutely. They will only stay for so long if not recognized. Managing them takes more time than managers give them, but still a tenth of the time it takes to manage stars. We’re urging managers to spend that time. It’s a small investment compared to time they spend with A players.