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Team B of the Corporate Hierarchy?
 
 

They're not stars and they're not laggards. They do their jobs competently, stay the course and define the organisation's values and culture. They also receive the least attention from the top management, since they're seen to be rather unexciting and unambitious. They're the B players, who are distinguished only by the fact that they tend to make up 80 per cent of any company's bell curve. (Is it wiser to stay in the B team?)

Or as Yasho Verma, vice president (HR), LG Electronics India defines them: "B players are the ones least likely to be seen talking with the CEO at parties. They're not as adept at mingling with the top and getting attention as the A players are."

Indeed, that is probably the single, most defining characteristic of B players: they don't seek attention, and they usually don't get it. The easiest way to identify the B players in any organisation is to list the people who make the fewest demands on a CEO's time. In the organisational machine, the B player is the wheel that never squeaks and hence, never gets any lubricant - unlike the A and C players, who squeak in different ways and for different reasons, and hence consume a lot of expensive lubricant.

The other pronounced characteristic of B players is their desire for a work-life balance. Indeed, some were once A players - putting in long hours at work, seeking out new responsibilities, but somewhere along the way, they decided it wasn't worth it and decided to spend more time with their friends and family. They differ from the stars, not in intelligence, but on drive and attitude.

"The B player is one who meets expectations, but doesn't exceed them," says S Varadarajan, vice president (talent engagement & development), Wipro Spectramind: "Most people know that they're B players and they accept it. After all, differentiation is a part of life, right from the school days, and people get used to it. If your performance measures are transparent, nobody cribs."

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The problem occurs when organisations start taking their B players wholly for granted. Though they are averse to calling attention to themselves, B players do need recognition. They may not be the ones who bring in the largest orders and the biggest clients, but play a considerable role in improving corporate performance.

"Stars are needed to push the envelope, but as they say, an army marches on its stomach, and B players play that role," says Satish Pradhan, group HR head, Tata Sons. "The best way to celebrate their contribution is giving them recognition. It matters to them their voice is heard from the third row."

The trouble is, most CEOs don't find the efforts of the B players worth acknowledging. Indeed, CEOs rarely empathise with their B players as they do with their A players, who usually remind them of how they were at the same age. "We tend to worship heroes and not ordinary people," says Ramesh Tainwala, CEO of Samsonite India. "That's how human society is made."

By their very nature, B players stick on with an organisation, mainly because they value the camaraderie and security of a known team. But if a company mismanages its people, B players do leave, taking their knowledge to where they are more valued.

Verma of LG feels B players are harder to retain than A players: "We are a seven-year-old company, so the gap between A and B players is larger than you would find in a mature organisation. Enthusiasm and drive gets highlighted more at LG because speed is important for us. Later on, as collective wisdom becomes more important, the gap will reduce. We are going out of our way to keep the Bs because getting similar people from the market is difficult. For example, they're usually hesitant to raise issues, so we give them opportunities to mix with junior HR employees to discuss their problems and it later gets reported to me."

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Of course, B players form a fairly wide spectrum, from the former A players to the less competent middling players who care deeply for the organisation's values but steer clear of any work that's remotely challenging. Individuals sometimes slip between categories, depending on their situation at any point of time.

In young BPO organisations like ICICI Onesource, for example, 95 per cent of the employees are would-be stars in the age group 21-25. "B players will emerge over a period of time and hopefully, we'll be able to convert them into B-plus and A," says CEO Ananda Mukerji.

Coca-Cola India regularly does a cluster analysis based on performance feedback, dividing employees into five levels - high potentials, promotables, matches, mismatches and non-performers. It's the 'matches' who form Coke's majority B group.

"They're the solid citizens, the juggernauts who give stability," says Coke's vice president (HR) Adil Malia. "We have a leadership programme where we send key contributors of the company, and that does not mean just the high potentials. There's a career path for everyone, based on their aspirations and their competencies. Not everyone aspires to be a CEO."

Malia agrees with LG's Verma that it's easy to lose B players in today's scenario: "Others will promote him and take him to a level you cannot. The high-performing part of the organisation is the most protected while the second rung is most vulnerable."

Hindustan Lever has created a special category for the top employees within the B category, which it calls the sustained high performers. (SHPs). They are not in the top 15 per cent list of high potentials, but they get the same increments. "We are trying to stratify people according to their contribution to the company," says HR chief Prem Kamath. "SHPs are high performers but will not grow."

And then there's B-player heaven - organisations that don't seem to have room for aggressive star types but are run by individuals in various grades of B. As a public sector bank, Bank of Baroda was once one such organisation, but it's now trying to change its culture.

Says executive director Anil Khandelwal: "B players are hardworking, sincere and intelligent people. For us, they're the supply line for A players. A lot depends on the CEO - if he is decent, informal, reflective and emotionally sensitive, he can create an A team from a B team. An organisation under transformation, as we are, can transcend into the future in this way."

 

 
 

 

 
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