“I choose a lazy person to do a hard job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.” – Bill Gates

In the world of business, the pursuit of top-level employees is often seen as a basic goal. Companies seek out A-grade talent and high-achievers to drive success and growth. A great deal of time is spent going over resumes and interviewing candidates looking for just the right A-grade candidate. While this strategy undoubtedly has its merits, there’s another perspective worth considering: the untapped potential of hiring B-grade players. 

Early on in my career, I found myself in the position of managing field exploration crews consisting of geologists, geophysicists, drillers, and field hands in the Outback of Australia. These crews consisted of anywhere from 4 to 12 people depending on the type of project. Generally, we were all living together in a field camp, or if we were lucky, we were able to use the shearer’s quarters at the station (ranch) we were working on. Living and working with coworkers 24/7 for up to 6 weeks at a time can be rough but I quickly noticed a pattern. When a B-grade employee was on a crew it was relatively smooth sailing. 

One such employee, I’ll call him Johno, as that was indeed his name, was a geologist, he was technically adequate and had a good sense of the health and safety aspects of each project. He was competent. He was also a guitar-playing, vegetarian hippy who cared way more about music than anything to do with mineral exploration. Johno was very much a B-grade employee. He was capable but contributed next to nothing towards the exploration activities and was a pain in the arse during meal prep, due to being the only vegetarian in the camp (I mean no disrespect to vegetarians with this comment, I say this simply because we had to cook two separate meals and clean twice as many dishes every evening). I also had to keep Johno away from the station owners at all costs due to his paradoxical views on farming. But, despite all this, Johno was by far my favorite person on any crew I managed. 

Any project that Johno was on ran smoothly, with little to no conflicts between any of the crew members. And this cannot be underestimated when living together in tents for weeks at a time. He was like the grease in a system of gears. My theory on this is that no one felt threatened by Johno, he had zero ego, he wasn’t going to get promoted before you or above you, at times he was lucky to even have a job. He appeared to have no career ambitions at all. He was never going to challenge you or argue his point of view on any aspect of the project, it seemed like he had no interest in even being there. Johno’s inherent laziness often led to less labor-intensive, more efficient ways of doing things. Johno simply wanted to play his guitar in the evenings and go with the flow.

In hindsight, what Johno offered was simple, he was a competent geologist who simply made others feel good about their role in the project and as a result, the projects ran smoothly.  

In addition to reducing conflict on projects consisting almost entirely of A-grade players, the Johnos of the world can offer a great deal to a company, team, or project. They frequently look at things from a different perspective and often possess a diverse skillset that is not always evident at the get-go. They generally understand their role on a project more than A-grade players do and perform their role with little to no ego or concern for making themselves look good at other’s expense.

I read a story one time about the late Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple. It said that he once divided an auditorium of employees into two groups. He told the group on one side of the hall that they were all B-grade employees and were dismissed. To the other side, he said, you are all A-grade employees, get back to work. Whether this story is true or not I don’t know, but Steve Jobs was famous for having little tolerance for any employees but the best. This approach has obviously been a successful one for Apple, I can’t argue that, and I would be more than a regular idiot to question Apple’s approach, but personally I would’ve hated working in an environment where the Johnos of the company were regularly dismissed and this is largely because throughout my career there were definitely times when I was the Johno. 

If we are all honest, we have at one point or another, in our careers, been the Johno, whether it’s because the job was not a good fit for your skill set, the company culture was not to your liking, or you had something distracting going on in your personal life. There’s no shame in it, Johnos grease the gears for the A-grade players to do their thing and are therefore are as vital to a company’s workforce as A-grade employees.

The characteristics of Johno that improved the dynamic of any project he worked on did not show up on his resume. Over the course of my career, I have looked at thousands of resumes, and not a single one emphasized the attributes Johno brought to the table. They are hard to define and therefore, Johnos are hard to recognize in the wild. But there are a few resume clues to look for. Firstly, does the candidate have distinctive interests on their resume, not the stock standard ones like travel and hiking and, spending time with family and friends, but creative pursuits like woodworking, writing, music concerts, and homebrewing? Something that shows the candidate does not need to define themselves by their job title. The second clue you should look for is whether the candidate has a diverse work history. Have they held similar jobs at analogous companies with similar types of coworkers, or do they have varied experiences in different work environments like restaurants, or construction sites? Have they worked for a 10-person company as well as a 1000-person company? 

When I look back on my favorite employees over the years, it is without doubt the Johnos that I enjoyed working with the most. And, while it is undoubtedly important to recognize A-grade employees and their contributions within your organization, my experience has taught me to never underestimate the value of a competent B-grade player operating just out of the spotlight. As the old proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” reminds us, it is sometimes better to stick with what you have than let it go and risk it for something better, that something better may only be better on paper. Perhaps the brand-new proverb of “A competent Johno in the hand is worth two A-graders in a bush” should be embraced…feel free to quote me on that.