5 steps to topgrade your company

By David Sweet

If topgrading can help companies like GE and Honeywell be the best, then it would make sense to model and implement it into your organization.

Topgrading, a recruiting methodology developed by Brad and Geoff Smart in the U.S., has found great success with many blue chip companies for the past 30 years. The process systematizes how to hire and retain employees who are “A Players,” rather than accepting B and C Players, which are often classed as mis-hires and then later, after spending much energy, time, and money, are fired.

Here are 5 simple steps from topgrading that you and your human resources department can start using right away. You won’t find anything too surprising here. The challenge, like changing any habit, is to execute consistently, practicing with discipline and improving over time.


Dedicate yourself and your company to hire only the best people for your organization. The mindset that you will only hire the best, A-players, comes from the president down. Everyone in the organization must buy into this concept and ruthlessly apply it.


Document what constitutes an “A-player” in your organization. More than a job description, this document, what Brad and Geoff Smart call a scorecard, captures in writing the accountable aspects and the competencies required for each position. In contrast to a typical job description listing only duties and skills, a scorecard ties in metrics so that a person knows exactly what entails success and failure. When I show examples of scorecards to managers, they often smile and say, “This is exactly what we have searched for.”


After you have a scorecard, you now have an excellent idea of what you are looking for to help build and drive your organization. When you see a resume that looks like an A-player, the next step is to conduct a screening interview. This is a brief interview, often done by phone, which determines the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate. In short, you’re interviewing about their previous positions to quickly determine that this candidate is an A-player whose past accountable performance demonstrates the competencies your scorecard requires.


The topgrading interview is the core of the system. What makes a topgrading interview different? First, it’s rigorous — you’ll feel confident that you understand the person you’ll hire. Second, it is based on past performance, not on hypothetical situations. One manager told me she was surprised at how simple, but effective this interview was. When I train managers and HR professionals through the system, they have a chance to watch successful interviews, practice the process, and get feedback on their interviewing skills. One HR director told me that this practice alone helped his organization hire better.

The questions themselves are fairly simple, though methodically applied: a. What you were hired to do (for each position)? b. What were your accomplishments (in each position)? c. What were your failures or mistakes and how did you learn from them? d. What was your team like? e. Why did you leave the company?

This is then followed by my favorite portion of the interview — the threat of a reference check. This is the litmus test of the interview where you find the true aspects of the candidate. First, you ask what the candidate’s immediate manager’s full name is. Then you say, “Should we go through to an offer stage, I will conduct a reference check. When I speak to So-and-So (the former manager), what will he say you were good at? What will he say you need to improve?” You ask this for every job the candidate had. The results will astonish you.


After the interview, if you proceed forward, you will then take the information you’ve gleaned from the interview and have the candidate set up 2 or 3 reference interviews by phone for you and the candidate’s previous managers to speak. Often, companies skip this critical step. Don’t. For A-players, you’ll find that what they told you in the interview and what their former managers say correspond. When discrepancies appear, then you have an opportunity pass up a B or C player before they are hired, and in the long run, this saves you and your company much time, energy and money.

These 5 steps are the bare bones of creating a recruitment process for your organization that our clients say attracts and retains the top talent.

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David, sometimes people leave because their boss its an idiot with good self sale skills. Btw, reference checks are very uncommon in Japan.

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Been through interviews like that, afterwards my agency told me that the company flopped it using that style.

Same I have been in mergers where we had different teams come together, many displayed "employee of the months" awards, etc.

Boss told them to take them down as they no longer work for that company and their past achievements don't count here at all.

Also at times requirements of an employment change after the hire, so the goal-posts get moved.

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If GE is a topgraded company, this does not fit well being the maker of one of the Fukushima plants.

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@electric2004, topgrading relates to human resources, not engineering; I think it's a bit of a stretch to link the two. Furthermore, the plants held up well to the earthquake - the obvious mistake was not the plants' construction or design, but where they were located.

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About GE: they were probably not responsible for the choice of location, I agree, but they did provide part of the cooling system. And if I understood correctly, the 2 other reactors had cooling systems that still worked for some even after the power was completely lost.

I think the many persons affected in Fukushima might not give a top grade ranking to the companies including GE, who constructed these reactors.

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There once was a sketch by the "Rurtal-trio" (a group of 2 persons) who created a fictive company called top-job. After they hired top graders they noticed that again some kind of gaussian distribution of the skills of the persons appeared. It is 101 in management: You can not only have top players or leaders. You also need normal people to do the normal office work.

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Most people will argue and knock top grading. This is because most employees are in fact B & C players. Only talented, dedicated and entrepreneurial minds make the A grade.

Most people (B & C players) view their work as simply as a job. Go to work, do my thing, get paid, go home.

A players think 'how can I help to improve the business and my efficiency'.

Of course B & C players have a place for menial non business development roles, but if a company wants to grow it needs talented A players. Basically an A Player thinks outside the box, they find solutions to problems because they are driven to succeed.

My advice is to never hire someone because you like them, hire them based on what value they can offer to your business.

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Hiring is like drafting someone for a sports team. Sometimes the "sure thing" fails miserably and just as many times those B and C people surprise and advance. Every job situation is different and I'll bet this "Topgrading" system, which might have merit, isn't the greatist thing it's made out to be.

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It's great. referring to people as letters of the alphabet. Modern scoiety is doing a great job of utilising humans as modern day slaves. There are so many technique these fantastic compaines have to find the best workers, bst practices and increase profits. After decades of these great ideas the world is in poor economic shape, the gap between rich and poor has widened and hundreds of millions across the world have been ripped off with their pensions.

ABCDEFG, what a joke.

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Like I said:

Most people will argue and knock top grading. This is because most employees are in fact B & C players. Only talented, dedicated and entrepreneurial minds make the A grade.

Companies that use this system typically excel because they are not held back by lazy, negative and incompetent staff. Using Top Grading is not insulting, it is a method to weed out those who will be inefficient and add no real value to key positions. There are many companies out there that willingly employ B & C players and there are also companies that do exceptionally well :)

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An organisation of any kind that refers to people asletters and players derves nothing but contempt. These big businesses are doing fantastic with these headhunting policies.They provide better service and products and make the world a better place. When people become letters or number or even players and profits come before morals you know you are talking about a downward spiral.

Who is to judge someone elses ability and grade them by letters. Is there no humanity left, can't other people see this?

Calling people letters and players is insulting and showes a lack of ethics and morals. These fancy new ideas don't seem to make the world better except for a bout 2% of high earners.

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steve@CPFC I do understand what you are trying to put across.

But... evolution my friend, evolution.

Gone are the days of job security. It's a dog eat dog world out there these days. 99.9% of businesses are in business to make money period. They are not a home for lazy, negative or inefficient employees. There are many positions within many businesses were B & C players are simply not welcome.

In key roles a business needs excellent A players to remain competitive. B & C players usually fill less important positions. It is a sign of the times we live in. Ratings someones attitude, skill and value with a number or letter is not an insult. You are looking into it too much.

I got grades at school in letters (i.e B, A+, F etc, etc) Top Grading is just an effective method to filter potential new employees to prevent the company from wasting a massive amount of time and energy which is a massive cost if you hire the wrong type of people. Hence top grading is popular with aggressive and rapidly expanding businesses.

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tokyowasaki; Dog eat dog is wrong and should not be encouraged. I have employed quite a few people over the years.I look at their potential to help my business, how i can help them develop at work and in life.

I am not looking into it too much at all. people are being labelled and used as commodities while others may be "filtered" out for poor reasons. Busineses should spend time helping people grow, not looking for a ready made package for them to exploit and grade by letter.

Top grading is rubbish. i left school at 16 without hardly any qualifications, have trouble spelling due to a learning disability which gets made fun of by posters here and now run one full time business and 2 part time that i have recently started. This while being in a foreign country. The reason i mention this is not to show off but to explain why this is grading is mdrn day clap trap. I would be considered F grade by these people and relegated to te most menial task. And that is ok? Not in my world or my business where all are treated as humans not profit making letters or grades.

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Steve I applaud your honesty, progress and success.

Top grading is not about exploitation and it has nothing to do with academic qualifications. It about finding people with the right attitude. I myself will help any employee to develop if they show the right attitude. All Top grading does is ensure you have a higher possibility to hire people with the best potential for the business and for developing them.

PS - I remember George and Mildred too :)

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Don't forget. Topgrading is in conflict with the Peter Principle.

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Me thinks I wudnt wanna be working for a company that employs this crap religously, by all means look for people with potential, take notes, use yr noodle, but I wudnt be to happy if some sap interviewing me was filling out one of these score cards in front of me.

Big business is getting overly exploitive the last 20yrs or so, & the direction its all heading isnt good. I dont condone but I predict society will be seeing increasing problems due to this exploitation, capitalizing was bad enough but we have gone way beyond that & its making the world a dangerous place!

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Topgrading appears to be the current fad, and is just a variation of the old ranking game. It does do one important thing, and that is align what a candidate tells you with what his reference tells you -- provided the reference is not legally bound from saying anything beyond "Yes, so-and-so worked here during that time period."

There are several flaws. First is that people change. Consider Tiger Woods.

Second, it seems to ignore the talents of what we might call an "A-level coach" can do. A batter who never hit above .250 for a season gets traded and within a few months is one of the top-ten hitters. The truly great organization is able to accomplish extraordinary things with seemingly ordinary people. Face it: In life there are genuinely few who can consistently claim "A-performance." Most of us are left with the challenge of drawing A-performance out of someone who didn't initially seem capable of giving it.

Third is that even A-players have severe weaknesses. I would go so far as to say that tremendous talent in one area almost always comes with serious flaws in others. Many people considered B or C players often bring skills and traits with them and have a catalytic effect on their teammates -- often producing A-level performance from the team. It takes a tremendous amount of time, wisdom and instinct to acquire what it takes to produce great teams composed of seemingly ordinary people.

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