Easy as ABC: Gaining a People and Performance Edge

An “ABC” ranking process can help drive mediocrity out of your organization, from the bottom up.

By Bruce Hodes, Founder, CMI

Many factors affect the long-term success of a business entity, and achieving success is complex. As businesspeople, we cannot control the economy, our competition, taxes, health-care plans, or national events. However, I think we can agree that the quality of employees within an organization directly affects that organization’s performance. The “ABC” process I’m going to tell you about is designed to give your company both a people and performance edge.

Open Assessments

During my clients’ strategic planning meetings, I have each manager stand in front of the room. The managers then are asked to rank their direct reports as an A, B, or C Player. I ask managers to read several articles about the process in advance, so everyone already understands the process. Once the manager ranks employees and explained his or her rational, others at the table can give their views. Only those who have work-related experience with that person state their rankings and justification. This exercise is not about hearsay and gossip. What goes on in the meeting room stays in the meeting room; all participants need to understand and honor this.

Defining the Players

If you are a CEO or manager with direct reports who would come up with Ds and Fs in a school grading system, I cannot help you. Tolerating employees of this quality in your company does not allow you to respond appropriately to—let alone thrive in—our current business environment. If you have more than a few D and F employees, sell the firm and do something to save yourself.

Out with Mediocrity

From now on, I’ll refer to mediocre employees as “C Players.” These employees are marginal in their performance and unremarkable in any positive attribute they bring to the workplace. A test for “C-ness” is putting yourself in this scenario: If one of these employees came to you and said he was quitting, would you be relieved? Would your relief be because you’re certain you could do better by recruiting a new employee from the open marketplace? If so, you have a classic C Player on your hands.

Most Valuable Players

B Players are great employees and worth their weight in gold. They are in alignment with the organization’s mission and values. They care deeply about their internal and external operations. They are probably not being promoted, but that is fine because they are doing great right where they are.

A Players have all the attributes of B Players. They also have the talent, desire, and ability to be promotable. They are interested in professional growth and development. These players, with development, could be moved to leadership either within or outside their current departments.

Warning! Pitfall Ahead

A pitfall I’ve often seen with classifying employees in this way is that managers want shades of gray. They want to rate employees as C+ or B-. It is important that they stick to the A, B, and C buckets. In this process, there are no minuses or pluses allowed. Do not permit gray.

Next Steps: A Plan for C Players

Once an employee has been identified as a C Player, there can be three resolutions:

  1. He or she can be put into a new role, where his or her skill set might allow him or her to become a B Player. With an open mind and strong knowledge of an employee’s strengths, placing an employee in a new role can greatly improve outcomes.
  2. The manager can take the employee on for development and coach him or her into becoming a B Player. At this point, the employee understands that his or her job is on the line, and the manager clearly outlines the required behavioral changes. For the next few months, the manager coaches and supports the employee.
  3. It might be decided that the only alternative is to move on and replace the employee. The decision then is how to proceed in an ethical and honorable manner. After an employee is aware of the gravity of the situation, the manager should have two months to resolve the issue one way or another. A time constraint is important in order to establish urgency.

Do Not Leave the B Players Alone

B-Players are incredibly valuable. They deserve training, development, and rewards. Do not take them for granted or assume they will necessarily remain Bs. Treat them as a real resource. Check in with them regarding their aspirations and what they want to accomplish. Find a way to help them grow in their role.

Coming Up Short

Another positive feature of the A, B, and C process is that it can be used to identify A Players. Once an A Player is identified, the manager should consider creating a training and development program to be laid out in a subsequent meeting with this employee. On the other hand, if the ABC process reveals an absence of A Players, that issue must be addressed, as well. A common solution is to start intentionally hiring only potential A Players and, thus, developing some real managerial growth potential within the company.

The Recap

  • Introduce the process to your organization by asking managers to read recommended articles such as “ABCs” by Bruce Hodes or “A New Game Plan for C Players” by Beth Axelrod, Helen Hadfield-Jones, and Ed Michaels.
  • In a scheduled group session with your managers, rank your employees on as A, B, or C.
  • Deal with any C Players you may have. Remember the options: put them in a new role, coach them, or ethically and honorably move on to better options.
  • Treat your B Players as resource.
  • Identify the A Players on your team. A Players need plans that develop and train them so they are ready to be promoted; I advise incorporating A players as full partners in developing those plans.
  • Follow up with the leadership group in two months to ensure issues are being addressed.

There you have it: a methodology guaranteed to drive mediocrity out of your organization, from the bottom up.

From growing up in his family’s boating business to founding his company CMI, Bruce Hodes has dedicated himself to helping companies grow by developing executive leadership teams, business leaders, and executives into powerful performers. Hodes’ adaptable Breakthrough Strategic Business Planning methodology was specifically designed for small to mid-sized companies and is especially valuable for family company challenges. In February 2012, Hodes published his first book, “Front-Line Heroes: How to Battle the Business Tsunami by Developing Performance Oriented Cultures.” With a background in psychotherapy, Hodes also has an MBA from Northwestern University and a Master’s in Clinical Social Work. For more information, e-mail bhodes@cmiteamwork.com, call 800.883.7995, or visit http://www.cmiteamwork.com

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.