The A, B, and C player framework: helping build amazing teams

September 6, 2023

August 25, 2022

When your startup is small, it's easy to judge each team member's performance. You work closely with each team member every day and it's easy to see who is excelling and who is not pulling their weight. 

As your startup grows and you no longer know everyone’s name, much less their day-to-day performance, it becomes next to impossible for founders to make all of the hiring and firing decisions. That’s why it's so important to have a team culture and at least 1 framework that helps your managers make good hiring and firing decisions. 

One of your top three most important jobs as a founder is building a great team. One framework that helps you build your team is the ABC player framework. It is not a silver bullet. And it's really hard to sum up someone’s performance into a single letter grade. But by using this framework, along with other frameworks like Danny Meyer’s 4 Types of Employees and Keith Rabois’ Barrels and Ammunition, along with your experience, and your team’s recommendations, you can be more likely to build the team you want and the team that will help you succeed. 

TL:DR: Retain your best talent, help improve those who can grow, move on from underperformers

1. A players are your top performers, focus on retaining them.

2. B players are your reliable team members.

  • Focus on retaining and helping them develop if you think they can develop into A players down the road.

3. C+ players are mediocre team members who slow you down. 

  • Build a team of C+ players and you’ll be fighting against the tides to create a successful startup, likely topping out at a certain company size because you cannot manage everyone.

4. C players are underperformers that should be transitioned out of the company ASAP. 

  • Life is too short for C players.

5. Keep track of how many A, B, C+, and C players you have, and keep high expectations for your team. 

  • Great startups require a great team.

6. Encourage managers to ask themselves the question: knowing what you know today, would you hire this person again for the role? 

  • If you hesitate at all when answering, the team member is not an A or B player, at least in that role.

A players leave companies because they report to B and C players. 

  • A players leave companies when B and C players don’t pull their weight and don’t face consequences.

A, B, and C players: What do these levels mean?

A Players: High performers who take initiative, exceed expectations, and drive growth at your startup

Who they are: A players are the top performers in your company. They consistently exceed expectations, take initiative, and often take on leadership roles, even if not in their job description. They're ambitious, have a bias for action, and deliver high-quality work. They are likely to solve problems and report back that the problem was solved rather than waiting for you to tell them to fix something. They are people who grow as the company grows.  

In your startup, A players raise the bar and push the rest of your team to be better. They are outcome multipliers for your business. They are the “can and will” people in Danny Meyer’s framework.

How to manage A players: You have one goal: retain them. There are four levers you can pull to retain top talent:

  • Don’t tolerate low performers: A players want to work with other A players. A players can choose where they work. They’re doing you a favor working with you, you’re not doing them a favor by hiring them. If you tolerate C+ or C players on your team, your A players will find a place to work that doesn’t. As Lars Dalgaard says, don’t let your A players think: “What kind of a company am I in where they tolerate this shit?”
  • Expand scope of role and responsibilities: Continue to offer A players more opportunities and responsibilities. Keep them engaged in the work, and reward their good work with more chances for them to grow.
  • Increase base salary compensation: Pay for performance. When A players take on additional responsibilities in your startup, raise their compensation accordingly. Don’t wait for them to come to you, be proactive and pay them for the value they are adding.
  • Offer equity and equity refreshes: We believe you should offer all of your early employees stock options. Make sure you give A players options and then think about offering new equity grants to your A players every 12 months if they are performing well to align incentives with your top talent. 

B Players: Stable, reliable team members who might be able to become A players 

Who they are: B players are above-average team members who consistently meet or exceed the expectations of their roles. Most B players are pretty good at most aspects of their role (~70%), excel in some parts (~20%), and can improve in a few parts (10%). People like working with them. They aren’t always standout performers like A players, but they provide stability and are integral to your day-to-day operations.

Compared to A players, B players are often more comfortable in their roles and less likely to seek constant change or challenges. Some B players might become A players over time as they grow within your company, and some may not. They are the ammunition in Keith Rabois’ Barrels and Ammunition framework; team members who are good at executing clearly defined tasks. 

How to manage them: You should provide your B players with the support they need to develop into A players. The best companies with the best cultures consistently convert B players into A players. That said, even if B players never develop into A players, they are valuable to your startup, and you should make efforts to retain them.

C Players: 2 groups of team members who are slowing your team down

Founders typically say that the majority of their team are B players when grading their teams. The A players are obvious, they are your best performers. The C players are underperformers. Everyone else seems to be a B. 

While it’s true that a lot of your team will be made up of B players, ranking a team member as a B player is a cop-out; it’s easy, and you’re avoiding making a decision with conviction. To avoid this, our framework has two types of C players: C+ players, and C players. 

C+ players: Mediocre team members who need to improve, be reassigned, or transition out immediately

Who they are: C+ players meet the basic requirements of their job, but their performance may be inconsistent or lacking in some areas. They don’t do anything explicitly wrong, and your first thought will be that they are ‘not bad enough to fire,’ which is why most companies keep their C+ players. In reality, they are the ultimate passengers, and they slow you down. In Danny Meyer’s framework, these are the “can, but won’t” or “can’t but will” team members. C+ players are the most difficult group to manage and is usually where companies fail to act. 

The truth is that you’ll never have a high-performing company with a team of C+ players. Just as A players raise the bar and create a company culture of high performance, C+ players create a company culture that allows for middling performance. 

How to manage them: As you build a team, the way you handle C+ players is a direct reflection of your expectations for your company as a whole. As Frank Slootman, CEO of Snowflake, says, mediocrity is the silent killer of companies. C+ players represent mediocrity, and over time will kill your company.

There are two types of people that fall into the C+ group: the can’t but will people and the can but won’t people in Danny Meyer’s framework.

Can’t but will team members “are willing to perform a task, but they may not always have the ability,” while can but won’t team members have “the potential for better performance but not the willingness to do the work.” Both groups have a chance to grow into B players soon. You have three options for managing them: 

  1. Set clear expectations for what the person needs to do to improve in the next month. After one month, see how much they have improved. Could you see them being a B player in the next 2 months? If the answer is yes, then you can keep them. If you don’t see a way for them to become a B player, then they are actually more likely a C player, and should be treated as such. 
  2. If you think the person is in the wrong role for their skill set but could thrive in another role, change their responsibilities ASAP. If reassigning someone doesn’t improve their performance the first time, it's unlikely to work a second time. If you can’t pinpoint exactly how they could improve, it’s likely that they lack the skills for the job, and are most likely a C player. 
  3. Cut ties immediately and transition them out of the company. 

Act quickly, and never allow a bulk of your team to become C+ players.

C Players: Underperformers who struggle to meet targets and expectations and should be transitioned out immediately

Who they are: C players don’t perform at the level expected or needed for the organization's success. They struggle to meet their targets or complete their tasks effectively. They lack the necessary skills, motivation, or both. They are can’t and won’t people, and are usually easy to identify. 

How to manage them: C players are a drain on resources and morale and send bad signals to the rest of your team. You should manage out C players from your team as soon as possible. Letting C players go confirms to your A and B players that you have high expectations for your team, helping you retain top talent. Most teams fire too slowly, and overestimate how hard it will be to fill a role with your existing team. Rip off the band-aid and transition your C players out of your organization ASAP.

How to assess your team and determine what type of player each person is

In early-stage startups, you should constantly have the pulse of your team. If you have a team of less than 20, you should be able to assess each team member as founder.

As your team grows, you won’t be working as closely with each team member. As more levels begin to form in your company, you will have different expectations for each level of responsibility. It’s impossible to compare an Analyst to a VP, and it’s important to set clear guidelines of what an A, B, C+, and C player looks like for each level of your company. If you are struggling to figure it out, rank the employee 1-10, but don’t use the number 7. Trust your intuition, and immediately assign a grade using your quick, 'System 1' thinking as described in Thinking Fast and Slow. That will help you figure out if someone is really a B player or a C+/C player. Then come back to it again later and see if you agree with yourself. 

Every 3 or 6 months, managers should be responsible for an initial assessment of their team members. Managers work closest with their direct reports on a daily basis and can evaluate them based on key performance indicators (KPIs), completion of projects, and other criteria relevant to their role. After the manager’s initial assessments, other key stakeholders can add their thoughts to the evaluation.

Encourage managers to ask themselves the question: knowing what you know today, would you hire this person again for the role? If you hesitate at all when answering, the team member is not an A or B player.

Your job as founder is to always have the pulse of your team, and know how they are performing. A snapshot of A, B, C+, and C players is a good barometer for how well you are attracting, developing, and retaining talent. It’s also a leading indicator of company performance.

How many of each type of player should I strive for in my team?

Jack Welch, the CEO of General Motors from 1981-2001, was famous for his 20-70-10 model of forced ranking. In this model, the top 20% of performers are promoted into jobs that are a good fit for their strengths (A players), the next 70% are helped in hopes that they will upskill (B players), and the bottom 10% are let go (C players). This model works when you have a really established company. 

But for startups, you really need to have a much higher percentage of top performers. Your only real advantage as a startup is speed and the ability to execute quickly and with high quality. You should try to set a goal of having 0% C+ or C players. That doesn’t mean you’ll never make a hiring mistake. You will. But it means that you should try to fix it as soon as possible. Don’t let problems fester.

You need to be more ruthless about building out your team. Your early team sets the culture and expectations for what your team will be in the future, so set a high bar. Your goal should be to build a team that is 100% A or B players. Build this team and you will iterate fast, push one another to be better, and increase the odds that your company reaches its potential. 


Your team is a leading indicator for whether or not your startup will be successful. As a founder, you should always have a pulse on the people in your company. There are other great frameworks out there for how to assess your team members, like Danny Meyer’s 4 Types of Employees and Keith Rabois’ Barrels and Ammunition frameworks, both linked above. Or better yet, start using these frameworks and begin to develop your own. The A, B, and C players framework is a great first step that can help you start to take action on improving your team and is an easy way to start and avoid accruing people debt in your startup.