September 25, 2010

Rethinking Topgrading

Topgrading is a best practice for hiring top performers, developed by Dr. Bradford Smart, and used by many leading companies.

According to Dr. Smart—managers have only a 25% success rate in hiring star performers:

  • 1 in 4 hires end up actually being a high performer (“A players”)
  • 2 of 4 disappoint as mediocre (“B players”)
  • 1 in 4 turns out being low performers (“C players”)

Smart blames this on ineffective hiring techniques—resumes, traditional competency/behavioral interviews, and candidate selected references—where candidates can provide incomplete information, play up accomplishments, downplay negatives, and deceive interviewers.

Instead, Smart’s practice of Topgrading calls for a much more thorough screening process and therefore one that yields up to 90% success rates; the techniques used include:

  • Reference calls specifically with former bosses, not just anybody provided by candidates.
  • Complete career histories including salaries, ratings, likes/dislikes, and reasons for leaving.
  • Competency/behavior interviews (same as in traditional hiring), but augmented by a second chronological interview that walks through with candidates all of their jobs (from the first to the last) in somewhat painstaking detail and includes all of the following: success/accomplishments, failures/mistakes, appraisals by bosses, and key decisions and relationships.

Topgrading also calls for Tandem interviewing—using 2 interviewers at a time. Again, the idea is to be thorough and thereby more careful in the hiring process to yield better results.

While I certainly agree with improving our hiring competencies and doing everything we can to hire the “best and brightest,” I think the premise of having everyone be an A player, all the time, is really more than a little na├»ve.

People are not things, like gems or coins that you trade and collect and see who has the shiniest, most valuable collection. Rather, people are human beings, and they come to work, as they do to all aspects of their lives, imperfect.

While I understand that Smart means by A player is not someone who is perfect, but “one who qualifies among the top 10 percent of those available,” and that we should of course strive to hire the top qualified available people for all our positions, I also believe that people come in all shapes and sizes and finding top quality is not a one size fits all (i.e. like a caste system), rather we need to find and match the right person to the right job.

Many will say, that prior successful behavior is the key determinate to future success, however, if your not failing, your probably not trying hard enough—so I think we need to look at people as a composite of who they are, what they’ve done, what their potential is, where do their interests lie, is it a god fit, and so on. It’s more than just are they “top 10” (grades, schools, appraisals, etc.). Remember the movie Rocky, he didn’t start out a top 10, but ended up the world champion.

In the end, we are all a lot more than our career histories and reference checks, and timing and fit have a huge impact on whether we are successful in a particular endeavor.

I know that I have certainly seen top performers from one job “fall on their face” in another job that was just wrong for them, and vice versa, people who failed miserably in one job (due to a misfit in culture, organization, boss, duties, etc.), thrive when they are in a better suited opportunity.

So Topgrading’s scientific approach to hiring has the potential of missing the finer point that people are complex organisms. The quantifiable approach is helpful, but only when coupled with qualitatively looking at the fit being the particular organization, job, person, place, and time.

Moreover, in searching only for the A players, Topgrading has the potential to perpetuate the way of thinking that we must only look for those who are robotic, conformists that get the best grades and appraisals, rather than breaking the mold and looking for those that are non-conformist, innovative, and put everything into question. Who will reward someone like that? Not everyone. So in some cases, it may actually be the A players that are the worst players—it actually depends on the situation.

In summary, I would say yes, Topgrade to do due diligence as a leader and manager in looking for and hiring the best talent, but recognize that people have ups and downs—sometimes due to the job, sometimes due to factors completely outside the job, and sometimes its their own undoing—but don’t expect that every one you hire will be perfect, are you?


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