Many people have heard the phrase ‘top-grading’ but what is it really all about, well according to the author and inventor, Bradford D Smart (how’s that for a name), ‘Top-grading is the practice of creating the highest quality workforce by ensuring that talent acquisition and talent management processes focus on identifying, hiring, promoting, and retaining high performers, A Players, in the organization at every salary level’. Top-grading isn’t an overnight process, but it is one, like most good ideas, the sooner you start the sooner you benefit. When the benefits can have such a significant impact on productivity and profitability why wait?

The concept

The concept suggests that in any organisation (size isn’t important), department or team there are 25% A-players or superstars, 50% adequate performers, and 25% underperformers, or chronic underperformers. How much better would the team or company perform if you replace the 25% under-performers with better staff? Well of course that depends on the quality of the staff you replace them with, a thorough ‘top-grading’ process should ensure that of all new recruits 75% plus will turn out to be A-players, against the average of 25% with standard recruiting processes. More of the process later.

Again the theory goes, that once you replace the 25% of underperformers you now have 50% A-players and 50% adequate staff. But when you have a 75% chance of getting A-players from your recruiting process doesn’t it make sense to start to replace the 50% adequate performers, starting at the bottom. Of course it does. How much would your company or team improve stuffed full of A-players? How much easier would your life be as a manager? You’d certainly be comfortable delegating tasks to ease you workload.  However, a team full of A-players isn’t without its potential problems. There can be conflict (but isn’t that the case with poor performers too?), they need to be managed by an A-player, you may have to up your game. A-players are most likely to be ambitious, can you offer them a future?  That said, if you have A-players that perform for you and then leave, isn’t that better than having B or C players underperform for you and leave, or worse still, underperform and stay!

This can sound quite cold, we’re talking about people here, and I think companies have a moral obligation to provide training, support and opportunities for any B or C player to improve. However, if they can’t or won’t improve, don’t you have a moral obligation to your company to find better staff? Often poor performers will jump ship when surrounded by A-players, it’s not as if you have to sack everyone, and hopefully some will rise to the new standards and become an A-player.

If you have poor performers in your team or company, firstly analyse the situation, are there issues that you can address to help them become an A-player? Do they just need a kick or a cuddle? Are there internal or external temporary factors you need to consider? But if the talent, desire or willingness to improve isn’t there, you need to look to improve the team.

The Process

Top-grading as a process, as you would expect, is detailed and ongoing, far too much so to go into significant detail here. You can of course read the book, although if recruitment process isn’t what fills your dreams, or what you live and breathe, it can be a bit dry. Of course aligning your in-house recruitment process with a search firm that operates that way would be the quickest and best solution.

In short from a recruitment process point of view it’s about making sure you (we) weed out candidates with untruths and embellishments in their CV’s for starters, weed out those that interview well and smokescreen what they don’t want to show. It’s about properly delving into past performance, and not just taking a candidates word for what you are told. Reference checking is key, and not just the references of ‘friends’ and matey ex-bosses. A full and proper screening interview, based on a competency matrix, is essential.  Honesty is critical from all parties. How many of us have a 100% track record where every one of our ex-bosses waxes lyrical about the joyous time we spent together?  Sometimes things don’t work out, sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s not, sometimes blame can be shared. We all make mistakes, the key is what we learn from them. So what we look for is consistency of performance, ongoing achievements, logical decisions, bouncing back from mistakes and career blips. We recruit humans not robots. A-players are above all candid and honest, as well as having a trend in their careers of over-performance.

What to do now?

In business every day we face decisions, some are urgent and important, some are urgent and not important, and some are important but not urgent. Where you put the importance of your people is your choice. But your team, your company IS your people. If you decide to take the journey to improve the quality of your people it is an investment. An investment in time, in recruitment and in training. But wow, what a return on investment beckons. Why not give us a call?