In hard times, you need to make tough decisions for the sake of your business. Most important, you need the right people by your side. But how do you identify the people who will turn your business around? What are the key characteristics that make these "A-players" so critical?

I learned the hard way when the bubble burst in 2001 and my company LivePerson, like all other tech companies, was losing clients fast. We were forced to reduce our staff by more than half -- from 180 down to 80.

Against my board's advisement, I brought in a very experienced senior manager to assess what further action needed to be taken. We were in no position to be hiring outside staff, and while he may have had the skill for the job, as a newcomer not yet engaged in the company doctrine, the board questioned whether or not he'd have that internal drive and will to do the heavy lifting during hard times. Eight weeks later he (unsurprisingly) quit by clearing out his office, never showing up again. Our stock started trading below $1.

This downturn brought out a great divide among the remaining employees. Some were with me: determined and ever optimistic about our future. Others were wrapped up in negativity, exacerbating an already-unfortunate situation.

One morning, two trusted leaders and I walked over to our local watering hole to discuss how to save our company. We knew that in order to survive, we could afford to keep on only the A-players. Not every employee possessed both the skill and the will to do the job. We then decided to draw two columns next to the names of the remaining employees: one marked skill; the other, will. We debated these merits in all of our staff members. Then we went back to the office and made the difficult decision to dismiss anyone who didn't have a check in both columns. We may have had only a skeleton crew remaining, but each one of those people proved to be an A-player in establishing a foundation for the growth of our business. On the other side of the industry downturn, these A-players remained passionate team members, each leading successful teams and helping establish the vibrant culture we boast today.

To run an outstanding company, you need to be disciplined in evaluating your talent's skill and will. In the end, a leader's job is to make sure everyone is focused on a clear goal and has the tools to achieve it. It's easier to identify and fire the obviously poor performer, but most of the time we're faced with borderline employees. These four truths about A- vs. B-players can help you make the tough call.

1. A-players own both good and bad outcomes. B-players have a laundry list of excuses for why they're not performing.

An employee who owns up to his or her mistakes demonstrates self-awareness and personal responsibility -- both fundamental qualities of an A-player. Holding yourself accountable leads to solutions rather than prolonging the problem or repeating it over and over again. It also makes you relatable: Whether it's a senior manager or an entry-level employee admitting to a misstep, leaders should appreciate honesty, because we've all been there.

2. A-players try something new or different to correct their course. B-players stick to their comfort zone.

Mistakes happen. Sometimes, they even lead to great things! But when the outcome is less than optimal, A-players learn to adjust their strategy, even when the answer is not in their wheelhouse. Your best employees are willing to try something new when the first plan isn't working. B-players are unwilling or afraid to make necessary changes to create a better outcome.

3. A-players excite and motivate the people around them. B-players require motivation.

A-players start with high expectations and standards for themselves. They also impose them on their peers. Your best employees are eager to guide others along the path to collective success. In turn, people look forward to collaborating with A-players, which boosts morale and raises everyone's bottom line. Conversely, B-players often deliver the task at hand but will require extra motivation to go above and beyond. A-players can make it seem like you're not even working, whereas B-players can make everything seem like work.

4. A-players work to understand the ins and outs of their business. B-players know just enough to do the job.

"The A-player recognizes their fluctuating responsibilities, adapting to best solve problems," states Vick Vaishnavi in Forbes. "You'll never hear from them, 'That wasn't in my job description.'" A-players are actively involved members of your team, always working to better themselves and meet your end goals. They challenge your business and make it better. They also have the ability to view it from all standpoints and examine it from every angle. A designer can call out a flaw in strategy; a developer can weigh in on art direction, because they feel invested in the company. Your A-players want to understand all facets so they can help drive better outcomes. B-players are content with silos, and with the status quo.

There are entire teams and even companies dedicated to finding A-players. Learning how to grow and retain them is both art and science. These are areas I'll continue to explore in this column. But in the meantime, I challenge you, no matter what stage your company is at, to take a step back and see who on your payroll is driving the business forward. This is a critical and sometimes difficult step you need to take to achieve long-term success. 

Published on: Jul 14, 2015