Aug 16, 2018

Topgrading: The Key to Hiring 'A' Players

What is Topgrading?

This interviewing philosophy was first developed by Dr. Brad Smart as a means for combatting the poor hiring results companies were experiencing. Topgrading is a proven interview process that helps recruiters and hiring managers source ‘A’ Player candidates. According to Smart, only 25% of people are classified as ‘A’ Players, 50% are classified as ‘B’ Players, and the remaining 25% are classified as ‘C’ Players.

This technique can be used to interview external candidates for a role, as well as internally for promotions within a company. Simply put, Topgrading is a chronological interview in which candidates disclose their strengths and weaknesses as they recount their accomplishments, failures, significant decisions, and key relationships for every job throughout their career. Topgrading results in clear performance information on your candidate that reference checks simply cannot gauge.

Interview Preparations

To successfully Topgrade your candidates, it is important that the preliminary items, such as a well-crafted job description clearly lay out what you’re looking for in a candidate. Before your team can start the interview process, it is critical that the vision for the role is clearly defined and agreed upon by key stakeholders within the organization.

Once the job description has been established, it is important to develop a detailed research plan that will help you properly source prospects and interview candidates. This research plan should describe the type of candidates you are seeking based on their past experiences, competencies, personality, and so on. If your company uses additional resources to aid in the placement of top talent, then we suggest including this information in the research plan as well. For example, our firm uses the Kolbe RightFit™ program during our process to make sure we are sourcing candidates that have a similar work style to what the supervisor will expect and hold them accountable to.

Prior to interviewing candidates using the Topgrading method, it is important that you have an understanding of what it means to be an ‘A’ Player candidate within your organization. Think of the top performers that you currently employ. What makes them stand out? Are these characteristics things you should be seeking in your next candidate? If so, make sure to include them in your research plan.

Screening Interview Process

Topgrading has been quoted to take anywhere from one to four hours to complete, depending on the extent of the candidate’s experience, as well as the context that is provided. Seeing as this is such an extensive process, we recommend conducting the Topgrading interview after screening the candidate.

The initial screening of the candidate should be anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes in length and should be centered around four key questions. You should have these questions prepared prior to the call, however, during the conversation, you should probe to get more details by using the ‘how’ or ‘tell me more’ questioning approach. The purpose of this screening is to filter out ‘B’ and ‘C’ Players from your candidate pool.

Topgrading Interview Process

Candidates that move forward from the screening process have, in a short period of time, proven to be top performing candidates. The next phase of the interview process will be to determine if these top performers are actually ‘A’ Players. To do so, you will coordinate a 90-minute meeting at minimum with the candidate at to dig deeper into their background and experiences.

This 90-minute meeting is also known as the Topgrading interview. To perform this interview technique appropriately, it is important that the candidate is asked the same set of questions for each role they have worked in throughout their career. Depending on the length of your candidate’s resume, this could take some time. This may become overwhelming for some candidates, which is okay. You don’t want to hire every candidate, you want to hire the best candidate! For those that are motivated by the opportunity and are true ‘A’ Players, they will openly partake in the process.

Topgrading Interview Questions:

  1. What were you hired to do?
  2. What accomplishments were you most proud of?
  3. What were some low points during that job?
  4. What was your bosses name? How do you spell that? What was it like working with him/her? What will he/ she tell me were your biggest strengths and areas for improvement?
  5. How would you rate the team you inherited on an A, B, C scale? What changes did you make? Did you hire anybody? Fire anybody? How would you rate the team when you left them on an A, B, C scale?
  6. Why did you leave that job?

The following questions were Derived from Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. Brad’s son Geoff and his partner helped to simplify the Topgrading process by offering these six questions as a means to source top performers.

Reference Interviews

A well-performed Topgrading process does not mean one can skip out on conducting thorough reference checks on the individual. To make sure you are hiring the best, we strongly advise following all steps in the process, including the reference interviews. According to Forbes, “Instincts are powerful, but they can't tell you about an employee's past. Take every opportunity to check candidates' references.” No matter how well you think you got to know your candidate during the interview process, getting feedback on the individual from someone he or she has worked with in the past will provide new insights and clarify existing ones.

At this point, you should request that your candidate provide you with a list of references. Let them know that you would like to speak with their direct supervisor they had in each of their roles over the last few roles they have held. In addition, you will ask to speak to a few of their direct reports they have had within those roles as well.

It is standard to see a list of three references, however, based on the criteria you should be given more than three contacts. We strongly recommend reaching out to five different references. At our peak, we have contacted seven different individuals regarding one particular candidate. Anything over this number will start to eat away at your time and the results will not be worth it.

The candidate should be tasked with providing the following contact information for their references:

  • Name
  • Title
  • Relationship
  • Phone Number
  • Email

Similar to the interview process, you will want to have your questions drafted in advance. We have prepared a set of 10 reference check questions that you can use during these interviews.

Concluding Remarks

The thoughts above have helped us recruit and hire some top performers for our clients. Although it may be time-consuming, the Topgrading process is worth the time and effort to prevent a bad hire. In the long run, the slower you are to hire and quicker you are to fire for poor performance the more likely you are to increase your bottom line, results, and customer satisfaction - to name a few.

We want to thank Brad Smart of Topgrading, Geoff Smart and Randy Street of ghSMART for helping us establish a solid approach to hiring.



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