Tom DeLong, Harvard Business School professor, says executives can get more value from their workforce if they recognize and motivate their B players.
Paul Michelman: Hello. I'm Paul Michelman, Director of Content for Harvard Business Digital. And our guest today is Tom DeLong, the Philip J. Stomberg Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School. Tom, thanks for joining the program today.
Tom DeLong: It's my privilege.
Paul Michelman: Tom, among the many subjects you've researched and written about in your career is the value and importance of a subset of company's employees called B players. So our mission for today is to learn who these people are, what their value is to organizations, and how managers can most effectively motivation them. So let's begin with the who. Who are B players and how do they differentiate from A players and C players?
Tom DeLong: When I originally started my research, the goal was not to look at -- or define -- a whole new category of people. When I was looking at the at how CEO's spent their time, all of a sudden it just jumped out at me, in their diaries and in their journals, that they were spending 90% of their time with these so - called high performers. So you have the maybe 15% that are seen as the high performers. And then you see this anywhere from 60% to 80% of -- What I am now saying in other conversations -- these folks are the real heart and soul of the organization. And they often go ignored. So that's what I would define as the -- and we can talk a little bit more about how we might define them. But it's the majority of the employees.
Paul Michelman: So let's talk about how we might define them. We've got 60% to 80% of the organization. And they're not all the same, right? They come in different shapes and varieties. So in your Harvard Business Review article, Let's Hear It for the B Players, you actually identify three groups that you say are particularly important to the organization. Can we walk through those?
Tom DeLong: Yeah. Number one, there are those who have been A players at particular times in their lives, and they've decided -- in fact, one A player said to me at 32 years of age, she said, you know, I figured out the system, I know how I want to get to the top, but that's not exactly what I want my life to be about. And so occasion, she can play that role. And she can go and be an A player. But that's a good size. Now, you may want to walk me through the others that you've identified. What were the others? You mentioned a couple of others.
Paul Michelman: There are a couple that stood out, in my mind, from reading the article. One of them was this group called the truth tellers.
Tom DeLong: These are individuals who, in my mind, have a perspective on long term and short term. And truth tellers have all this institutional knowledge that they're walking around with. And what I mean by that is, how do you get things done in this organization? Who do you really call if you need something to get done? If you really need to serve clients, these are the three things. And they just know the organization inside and out -- both the processes and the people.
Number one is, they get no credit for that. Number two is that they take a long-term perspective, in the sense of saying, I'm going to do things that are in the best interest of the organization. Not just, how am I going to get to the top of the heap? And so, in that process, they're able to just to pretty well say, this information is useful for short-term goals. This is information that's useful for long-term goals. But they're able to keep perspective. And if were a CEO, it's the truth tellers that I'd want to make sure that I have conversation with. Because they don't necessary tell me what I want to hear.
Paul Michelman: So, just so we can kind of cement who these people are in the minds of our viewers, I'm imagining now a crack software engineer who is happy being a crack software engineer. She's so good at what she does, she's not worried about her job. But she also doesn't play politics. She doesn't want to move up in the organization. So she feels free to speak the truth. The kind of truth that someone who was trying to build their career might be reticent to –
Tom DeLong: That's correct. And the biggest worry that we see is that if she's in some ways to good, what will happen with this programmer is that they'll say, you're so good at this, we will be a manage other people. Because don't you want to get to the top? And so the assumption is that computer program wants to become the president of Microsoft, which is a faulty assumption. And so we've studied organizations that they take this fabulous programmer and, number one is, they don't necessarily recognize her and make explicit how terrific she is.
And they simply believe that the single most important reward is to promote the person. And then you start running into real problems. About the person saying, wait a second, this is not what I came to this organization to do. I don't want to deal with the people problems, I don't want to manage other programmers, and I know you think I should want to do that. But there's something else that means a great deal to me.
Paul Michelman: Interesting. So we have a third group, and I think we've already begun to talk about them. They're called to go to managers. Who are these people?
Tom DeLong: So, Bill is a fabulous associate in a law firm, for example. And Bill's frustrated because his boss is abusive. And Bill's thinking about leaving the organization. He's thinking about leaving, he's a fourth year associate, and he really can do the work very, very well. So what happens is, that Bill is thinking, things have got to be better at a law firm. Or I should go work for another company as a legal expert. Well, what happens is, is that Bill's superior ignores Bill, and Bill's ready to leave.
And all of a sudden there's a go to manager that sees Bill frustrated. And this is a solid citizen that reaches out reaches out and says, Bill, what's going on? Shows Bill some attention, asks Bill about his work, asks Bill about what he needs -- what does he need from the organization – and all of a sudden, Bill didn't need a lot to stay with the organization. But the go to managers are ones that are keeping people on the ship. Keeping the right people on the ships so that they don't leave. And that's one of the dilemmas that organizations are facing that I think that the B player manager is so astute at. Are they ensure that the right people stay and the right people leave at the appropriate time.
Paul Michelman: So how do we ensure that they stay? And they and their other valuable B players? As f you noted, your research suggests that CEO's spend their time with the A players. And it's the natural inclination of a manager to focus their attention on the stars. Clearly that's not a solid strategy. So what so we, as managers, need to tell ourselves about managing B players? How do we motivate them?
Tom DeLong: Number one, don't leave performance management discussions of B players to the last minute. Because what happens if that the A players will fill up all the time, and then you'll have 20 of these terrific, solid citizens, who feel like they're being jammed at the end of the year. That the managers are just putting in time and they don't really care about it. So number one is to have authentic performance management discussions.
A second is to recognize these solid citizens. I don't have one story, through 100's of interviews of CEO's, where the CEO had an explicit strategy of actually recognizing the solid citizens. What would happen if you had a dinner in groups of people? And these are appreciation dinners. The B players, the solid citizens, don't need a lot of attaboys and attagirls. They don't have this insatiable need for feedback like your high performers are going to need. But when I ask a CEO, I say, I want you to spend 15 minute a week writing an email or I writing a thank you note to a solid performer. Once they do that, that word spreads throughout the whole organization. So it's not a lot that they need to do to keep these folks satisfied.
Paul Michelman: So one last question with our manager's hat back on. I would think one of the challenges to managing a B player is to make sure that they are continually challenged. It's part of the definition of a B player that they're not necessarily looking to move up in the organization. How do we, as managers, make sure that they have new projects? Make sure that they don't get caught in a rut?
Tom DeLong: This is where assignments around task and designing task is becoming more and more important. Is that career development is based on how managers actually manage Paul's career. And just because a person has decided not to get to the top, doesn't mean that they want to do what I would call commodities, routinized, processed, work. This doesn't mean you get them scut work because they're more loyal and we can take them for granted.
What this means is, is that we have quarterly conversations about, are your competences, are your talents, being used? Are you having stretch assignments? But what solid citizens want to know is that someone other than them is interested in their career. And what we do know, again, the high flyers are going to make sure that people pay attention to their careers. And if you don't pay enough attention, they're going to leave. But clearly, we need to do much better in terms of task allocation and how we have those conversations. Again, it doesn't take a lot, but it's absolutely critical.
Paul Michelman: Ok. Tom DeLong. Thank you very much.