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Fallacies In Our Thinking About A, B, And C Players

by David Brock on May 8th, 2016

Management and sales management literature is filled with endless discussions about A, B, and C players.  All of this comes from the seminal work of Dr. Bradford Smart in Topgrading.

We want to build teams of A players.  We want to develop our B players into A players.  We want to move our C players into roles where they can be A or at least B players.

All of it is pretty simple and makes huge sense, at least on paper.

We see organizations taking this approach. quite literally, with wholesale purging of C players and constant churn in their sales ranks.  We’ve seen much of this morph into annual stack ranking systems, where annually the bottom X% are purged from the organization (if you think about that for a few seconds, pretty soon this system forces you to purge A players.).

There is great power in the concepts of A, B, C players, but at the same time, there is great danger in applying these concepts blindly.

Let me provide a personal illustration.

When I started my sales career, I was a brand new, entry level sales person.  I joined a team of very experienced sales people.  At the time, all my teammates had a minimum of 5 years of sales experience.  Simplistically, looking at my performance, relative to the performance of my teammates, I was, at best a C player.  They were pulling down bigger numbers–they naturally had higher quotas than I.  I struggled, learning, making mistakes, but slowly starting to make my numbers and develop as a sales person.

Had my manager taken the principles of A, B, C players literally, I should have been moved off into a different role or fired.  I clearly wasn’t contributing at the same level as my colleagues.

Fortunately, my manager and the leadership in our company recognized this.  They recognized that each person is at a different stage of development.  They recognized that blindly applying the A,B,C methodology meant they would be losing future top performers.

Fortunately, my company had different levels of sales people.  For some reason, we were all called marketing representatives.  As an entry level sales person, I was an associate marketing representative. After a year, if I developed as I should, I’d move into a “marketing representative” role, then an “advisory marketing representative, then few years later, into a “senior marketing representative,” role, then ultimately into a “consulting marketing representative” role.

When my performance was evaluated, it was evaluated against the performance expectations for the job level I was at.  While compared to the rest of the team, I was, at best, a C player.  But for my level and role, associate marketing representative, I was an A player—-well OK, A-.

As I moved into new roles, I didn’t automatically become an A player in those new roles.  Initially, I was a B or even possibly a C player.  But I was expected to quickly move into a solid B player, and ultimately into an A player.  My manager provided clear coaching and development for me to make progress and grow at each level.

Blindly applying the principles of A, B, C players puts our organizations at great risk.  We stop focusing on developing and improving our people.  We lose the potential to grow our people and to see them improve.  We lose our future A players.

It’s impossible to develop talent in our organization without a richer context than ranking everyone A, B, or C.  We need to have a competency framework for each role in our organization.  We need to look at how we develop competencies in our people over time.  We need to have a roadmap for developing people, then evaluating them against where they are in that journey and the progress they are making in their development.

Our competency framework needs to allow us to assess performance based on where people are at, not as part of a larger group.  Clearly the competencies and performance we expect of a new hire are different than those of a person who has completed her onboarding, or the person a year into the job, or a person 2 years into the job, or a person 5 years into the job.  At each level, we can assess where they are, A, B, C.  At each level we must think, “Can I move them to an A in this role?”  We must also assess their long term potential, “Can I move them into an A in the next role”–recognizing initially they won’t be–regardless how good they are.

We have to also recognize, an A player in one role, may become a C player in another.  Inevitably, as each of us steps into new challenges, there is some ramp time.  We  see this too often, promoting our top performers to sales management.  The issue in any of these is, “Can we move them to be A’s or strong B’s in an acceptable timeframe and an acceptable investment in development and coaching?”

As managers, we have to understand what it takes to perform in each role.  We can’t make these assessments unless we have well developed competency models, roadmaps to developing people.  We have to asses, do our people have the ability to step up to an acceptable level of performance in an acceptable period of time.  Most importantly, each individual and their managers have to be committed to learning, developing, improving.

The concept of A, B, C players is very powerful, but only in the context of a rich sales competency model and a leadership model focused on nurturing and developing talent–both for the short term and the long term.

Make sure you are building the capability and capacity your organization.  Make sure you aren’t just focused on today, but are you building a strong organization for the future.

(For a free, Sample Sales Competency Model, just email me at

Afterword:  This post was provoked by an outstanding and very thoughtful post by Dave Stein:  About Salesreps, Can You Transform A C Player Into A B Player?  Make sure you read it!

From → Leadership

  1. Scott Woodhouse permalink

    Great article, and congrats on your new book. I look forward to reading it.

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