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What is topgrading interviewing? Our favorite tips

When you interview job candidates, there are numerous ways to go about it. The hiring manager can screen, interview, and hire all on their own. Or, you can add topgrading interviewing to your evaluation process.

topgrading interviewing

Topgrading interviewing allows you a lot more insight into a candidate, and (importantly) it will enable the candidate better insight into the company.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is topgrading interviewing?

The term topgrading comes from a 1997 article by Bradford D. Smart and his son, Geoffrey, called Topgrading the organization. Their definition is:

“Topgrading simply means proactively seeking out and employing the most talented people available, while redeploying (internally or externally) those of lesser ability or performance. More specifically, we view topgrading as employing only A players.”

But, it’s more than just seeking A players; it’s about structuring interviews and making sure the process is rigorously targeting the right people. The Smarts talk a lot about talent rather than skill or experience, theorizing that the most talented people will bring the most value to your organization.

And to do that, it’s not just about the interview questions; it requires a well-written job description that reflects the company culture and goals and the individual job responsibilities. Without this critical information, you can’t attract the right people for the job.

Typically, when you use topgrading, the candidates face multiple interviewers to find the best people who fill these critical core competencies: Intelligence, vision, leadership, drive, resourcefulness, customer focus, hiring, team-building, track record/experience, integrity, and communication.

This all comes together as part of a 12-step process in hiring.

These twelve steps are:

  1. Measure and improve the current hiring process: You need to look at your current methods before making changes. What works and what does not?
  2. Create a job scorecard: This is a rigorous process to determine what you need for the position. You do this before you begin recruiting, so the scorecard reflects the company’s needs rather than allowing candidates to sway hiring managers with charm.
  3. Recruit candidates: Make sure you have a detailed job description.
  4. Screen candidates with work history forms: These forms include detailed questions for all candidates that include compensation history (illegal now in some states and jurisdictions), “boss ratings, reasons for leaving jobs, likes and dislikes in job, self-appraisal, and more.”
  5. Conduct telephone or video interviews: This should be an in-depth screening that lasts about 45 minutes. This narrows down your field.
  6. Do competency interviews: These focus on proficiency and behavior.
  7. Conduct a topgrading interview: Topgrading interviewing is intense and focuses on the candidate’s entire career history, with questions about every position.
  8. Provide feedback and coaching to interviewers: This helps you improve your process by giving each other feedback.
  9. Write a summary: Each interviewer writes up a summary of each candidate, used for comparing.
  10. Have the candidate arrange reference calls: Topgrading theorizes that good performers have good relationships with former bosses and will enjoy this process. You then conduct the calls and categories the candidates according to their perceived potential.
  11. Coach the new hire: The process doesn’t end on the candidate’s first day. You have to make sure to make this a good environment and an excellent place to grow.
  12. Measure hiring success annually: When you establish a baseline and regular tracking of recruitment metrics, you can identify opportunities to finetune and improve your hiring process.

Why your company should utilize topgrading

Topgrading interviewing isn’t the best idea for every company and every position. It’s an intense process that doesn’t make sense for call center employees but makes sense for CEOs and senior vice presidents.

When you hire someone into a leadership position, you need to be absolutely sure of their skills and abilities. After all, you are entrusting your business to their decision-making skills. This can help weed through multiple candidates to find the best of the best.

However, there is a caution: you will find great candidates who aren’t willing to jump through your hoops. This is a risk you have to take when you dedicate your process to topgrading.

Example topgrading interview questions

Topgrading interviews are broken into four parts: Early influences, work history, plans and goals, and self-evaluation.

For example:

  • Early influences: “Tell me about the high school teacher who influenced you the most? How did that impact your future?”
  • Work history: “What is a problem you had to overcome in [specific position]? How did you solve it?”
  • Plans and goals: “What are your career aspirations? What do you hope to achieve in this role?”
  • Self-evaluation: “What are the things you struggle with? What are your strongest talents and skills?”

Candidates can answer none of these questions with a quick yes or no. They involve thought and require the interviewer to listen carefully.

Incorporating topgrading into your interview process

You don’t have to switch to a complete topgrading process to use some of its best aspects. Using job scorecards for all positions can help ensure that your interview process is fair and as unbiased as possible. Having multiple interviewers meet with each candidate also gives the possibility to tease out different skill sets. If the job has technical aspects, but the hiring manager isn’t a technical person, you want someone who understands those aspects to be part of the team. Otherwise, you may not get accurate answers.

As noted above, some aspects, like a compensation history, are illegal in some states and jurisdictions and should be avoided altogether, as it helps promulgate earlier discrimination problems. Look instead for growth in positions, regardless of salary.

Having candidates reach out to former bosses can make reference checks much easier, but keep in mind, just as there are bad employees, there are bad bosses. If someone has a bad relationship with a former boss, it doesn’t always mean that the candidate was the problem.

The best aspects of topgrading are careful, detailed planning, and consistent candidate evaluation. It really can help you get the people you need into the position.

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