From upgrading to topgrading

The most important resource for any company or team is the people. Having a team of top performers covers a multitude of deficiencies in material resources. Talented employees and managers are the gift that keeps on giving, as they produce more and more value through creativity and resourcefulness. But building a team like this is difficult. Traditional hiring processes are flawed, and make it difficult to really detect and secure the best. Topgrading by consultant Bradford Smart presents a whole new approach to hiring that seeks to solve this very problem.

A key concept to the books is Smart’s dividing all workers into the categories of A, B, and C players. Smart defines “A players” or “As” as those who are in the top 10% of productivity for a given role and salary level. The whole point of Topgrading is to create teams that are largely comprised of A players. The book develops this concept at length, with a big emphasis on job scorecards and clearly articulated core competencies. Smart actually recommends having around 50 core competencies for a given job, and to subdivide these based on how trainable the skills are.

The most important quality, the common denominator of the A player, is resourcefulness. The ability to do a lot with limited resources, to be self-motivated, and to push yourself beyond the bare minimum is what makes someone an A player, regardless of the particularities of their field. The question then remains. How do you secure such premium talent?

By Topgrading, of course. Smart explains the origin of this term as the next level from “upgrading.” Basically, when a company promotes or hires externally they should not settle for mediocre talent but seek to fill all open positions with the best talent possible. Topgrading is a method for doing so that works by both weeding out B and C tier applicants as well as by attracting A tier talent.

The first step in this is the TORC method. This stands for Threat of a Reference Check. The last part of the Topgrading process is for the applicant to schedule an actual call between their former manager and the Topgrading hiring managers. This is to be emphasized from the beginning of the process in order to scare away people with shoddy references.

It all builds up to multi-hours interviews that go very in-depth. The Topgrading interview format is more autobiographical. It goes through the applicants whole personal and professional history to get a sense for their character and the actual level of responsibilities they’ve taken on. This is meant to really test for resourcefulness and other core competencies in a way that can be easily faked in traditional interviews.

And of course there’s the TORC as well. By being so intense, and with the extra element of carefully verifying everything the applicant says, it becomes much easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. In particular, this method is really good at eliminating people who are good at creating a pretty resume and faking it in their interviews without having the underlying skills and drive. Overall, the book has some great insights and the Topgrading method is an effective way to approach talent acquisition.

That being said, Topgrading does have a couple big flaws as a book, regardless of the effectiveness of the methods itself. Specifically, the style is wordy and repetitive. Smart acknowledges in the introduction that he will repeat information in order for busy, high-powered readers to skim the book more easily while still getting the key message. Maybe that was his intent, but it really just weighs the book down, and makes it hard to actually glean the main points.

The second problem is that the book Topgrading is one-part leadership book one-part add for the author’s consultancy. This is not uncommon in such non-fiction writing, but Topgrading feels particularly egregious, constantly referring to case studies from the business that have adopted Topgrading, but then referring the reader to a website to learn about the actual details of implementation.

Such stylistic problems can really make the book drag and they are prominent and frequent enough to bring you out of the book. Overall, however, if you feel like your hiring processes aren’t bringing in the level of talent that you need, Topgrading is worth the read, even if the book arguably needed an A player editor.

Topgrading is available for purchase here.

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