How to build an A team from the ground up

The following article by Wallace Immen was published int the Globe and Mail on February 12, 2011.

Ann Rhoades has a simple and firm formula for building a strong corporate culture: “You should only hire A players and if someone isn’t playing an A game, they aren’t worth hiring or keeping.”

As hiring manager for Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways Corp., her theory helped build highly admired teams. Now president of consultancy People Ink in Albuquerque, N.M., she advises organizations on how to build similarly strong, co-operative teams. Here, the author of the new book Built on Values discusses the formula:

How do you define an A player?

Quite simply: A players are people whose personal values match those of the organization. Once you determine the underlying values of your company, the key is to hire people who already believe in and demonstrate those values every day.

You can tell within 30 minutes if a candidate is right by asking specific questions about how they handle real work experiences. Past behaviour is predictive of future behaviour more than 90 per cent of the time. So if a person has the values you need and they can give you that examples of how they’ve applied them in the past, you will know they will handle future challenges the same way.

Why should hiring A players become mandatory?

Just because someone is highly skilled and experienced doesn’t mean they are right for your organization, That has become doubly important as organizations are rebuilding staffs after the recession. Many organizations were restructured and are trying to meld teams from different corporate cultures. People are also being asked to do more with less, so it is vital that everyone involved be working from the same motivations.

What questions do you find most useful in identifying A players?

Forget the open-ended questions that typically get asked in job interview, which invite vague answers … Instead, ask questions about their personal values and scenarios they’ve faced and how they reacted to them. [That] will tell you all you need to know.

Your ability to identity A players is as good as your definition of what you are looking for. There is no one-size-fits-all, you have to clearly define the competencies, behaviour and values you want and then ask specific questions to ensure that the candidate has them. One question I find very telling is: Tell me about a time when you put your job on the line by telling the truth.

At JetBlue, integrity was one of our key values, and I interviewed a mechanic who had been fired at another airline because he refused a supervisor’s order to sign off on a repair of an aircraft. He wasn’t able to find a job with other airlines because he had insubordination on the record. But he explained to me that his refusal was because he had questions about whether the repair was done correctly and he didn’t want to do something he didn’t feel was right and might not be safe. That was exactly the attitude we wanted; I hired him and he was a wonderful employee.

Another telling question is: Tell me about a time when you have broken a company rule for a client or customer. If a manager tells me, “I’ll never break a company rule, I always look at the rule book,” I say, go look at it somewhere else. You want people who are thinkers and will go out of their way to make things happen and make the customers happy.

How do you make sure you are getting the whole picture?

One of the things we believe in is that more than one person must do interviews to get the full picture. Group interviews are the wrong approach. I recommend that three different people do similar interviews of about 30 minutes, then get together and get consensus.

If the feedback is different from one to another and the [applicant’s] answers and stories have changed in the telling, you will know they have told you something that probably was embellished. We go through a full run-through of the answers and check them against the values and competencies we have established as our priorities.

Should you be straight with candidates about why they weren’t hired?

Absolutely. We had a policy at Southwest and JetBlue [that] we are not afraid to tell people the reasons they were not hired. It’s important to give people feedback that can help them shape up into A players, even it it’s not for your organization, but for another employer.

What about existing employees who aren’t meeting the standard?

I recommend that when this process is first put into place, you give those who are falling short of expectations a performance review in which you have a long discussion about shortcomings you find. Most people will try to meet expectations if they know what’s expected of them.

You have to teach people and train them … so it takes one or two years. And you have to inspect whether these B players are making progress by having their peers and managers rate them and give them ongoing feedback and advice.

Then there are C players, whose who aren’t willing to change and don’t acknowledge that they need to change their behaviour to fit with the company’s expectations. If you can’t change what was a hiring mistake, then the quicker you get those people out of the organization the better. If you are good about the hiring model and have a good performance review and accountability system, that number should be minimal.

This applies to everyone, from management on down.. If you tolerate C players on your team, you can post all the values you want on the wall, but nobody is going to believe in them.


To scope out A players, consultant Ann Rhoades recommends staying objective:

Minimize your gut feelings: Develop a profile of qualities and behaviour you want in candidates and go in looking specifically for them.

Probe past actions: Ask behavioural questions designed to tell you whether the person exhibits the values that are a good fit with the company culture in their daily work.

Ask for detail: A candidate should be able to go beyond generalities and be able to give numerous examples of specific actions from their past that show they would be effective to the organization in the future.

Do background checks: Confirm that the candidates technical skills meet the criteria and past work experiences jibe with answers given in the interview.

Have multiple interviews: To ensure there is no bias, have three individuals do separate interviews asking variations on the same questions.

Rate in writing: Score how well candidates do in meeting the key expectations of the position and whether there were areas of concern. Compare their answers in different interviews for consistency.

Get a consensus: Average the ratings and debate discrepancies in judgments before making a final hiring decision.