Topgrading: Hire & Keep the Best Talent

Building a team without Topgrading is like building the Golden Gate Bridge from a kid’s crayon sketch rather than from clear and detailed drawings by an engineer and architect. – Kevin Lawrence

If your company is going to continue to grow and thrive, you’ve got to get the right people in the right seats – and keep the best talent.

You want to build stronger teams and have as close as possible to 90% A-Players – an excellent fit for your culture and an A-grade for their performance.

I believe that everyone can be a highly desirable employee somewhere – but how do you know if they are right for your company? Are they a fit for their manager and their team?

Finding those answers is hard. You have to be highly skilled and use precise tools to get them right. If you don’t, it will cost you – sometimes up to a million for a high-level executive position.

A Proven System

So, let’s talk about the power of Topgrading™, which I first came across over 15 years ago, as I did the research for Scaling Up Rockefeller Habits 2.0.

Of the 50 CEOs I interviewed around the world, eight specifically called out Topgrading as the game changer for their business. Using it gave them dramatically stronger teams and freed them up to do their job as a CEO.

With those strong recommendations, I learned and mastered the technology, and it is still the best tool we have found to strengthen a leadership and executive team. To the point that I am fanatical about the use of the Topgrading system to build stronger teams for the companies we work with.

It’s hard to argue with a system that gives you at least a 75% success rate when hiring new A-Players or promoting existing team members. That’s significant when most companies have a 25% to 30% success rate with new hires and internal promotions.

The Origin of Topgrading

Soon after Brad Smart created a new, formal methodology for hiring, developing and managing high performers, he was hired by Jack Welch, the new CEO of General Electric (1980). Welch knew that his strategy of becoming #1 in every market in which they operated could only be achieved if he hired great people. Using the Topgrading methodology, more than 90% of candidates hired and promoted turned out to be “A Players,” and Smart’s system became an an embedded part of GE’s hiring practices. Brad later wrote the best-selling book Topgrading, How to Hire, Coach and Keep A-Players.

Mistakes are expensive

Hiring mistakes can be very, very expensive in terms of stress for the team and the people who have to work with someone who doesn’t fit the culture or deliver on their accountabilities – and in pure cash for the cost of recruitment, training and on-boarding, and bad decisions or mistakes.

Success means discipline

Compared to the fast and loose hiring process many people use, Topgrading may seem complicated. It isn’t – it just takes discipline.

If you want to get close to 90% A-Players, you have to consistently pick the top 10% of available candidates, at the pay you offer, for the role – and you need to follow through, on a regular basis, to coach, develop or change the roles of people who aren’t thriving.

We bring these disciplines to ensure all the key people on your team perform at their best and instead of leaving feedback and development to a performance review, once a year.

Here are the core disciplines that get results:

Talent Reviews

Every quarter, a mini-evaluation of the top talent in your company.

People talk about their people being their greatest asset but never do a people review – if they do, it’s once a year and weak. This key activity involves the CEO and executive team to make sure the right things are happening with key people.

  • How can you help people to thrive more now?
  • If they are an A-Player, how can you help them to sustain that level of performance?
  • If they’re a B-Player, how can they become an A?
  • How can you help someone with potential to get promoted to their next role?
  • How do you develop their successor?
  • What’s the best way to help someone who is not meeting the mark? Are they underperforming or not a great fit with the culture?
  • If you’ve done everything you can, is it the end of the road? How do you create a quick and graceful exit?

Expect this process to be challenging when you do it the first time – when you realize, for example, you have 30% C-Players who aren’t aligned with our values or not productive in their role – because the next question is, “What are you going to do about it?”

A manager’s job is either help people to grow and be effective in their role, or to look for a different role in which they can be effective in or to move them out.


A very detailed job description with clear outcomes or goals the role needs to achieve, through the lens of core values, on 50 different competencies.

Hire and promote against this tangible scorecard, so that you and the candidate are very clear about what success looks like upfront, what they need to produce, the required competencies for an A-Player, and how they need to fit the culture.

Deep Assessments

  • The screening interview: 30 to 45 minutes to get a sense of the candidates and if they are enough of a fit.
  • The tandem executive interview: a three-to-five-hour, in-depth breakdown of their entire career, starting with high school. When you ask a few simple questions – when you dig deep to produce data and repeat this for every job they’ve had – patterns emerge. The best indication of how a person will be in your role is how they performed in similar roles, in the past.

A leadership candidate can be a persuasive and spin a good story. Just because you like and connect with them, doesn’t mean they are good for the job. So, take a couple of days to cool down and write a structured report, based on the data uncovered in the Topgrading Tandem interview and scored against the job scorecard to verify.

  • Call past managers. Call three to five past managers – not the references they gave you who’ll say they’re amazing. Ask very specific questions.

Decide by Data

Make your decision based on data not feelings. You can have a gut instinct about someone, but you’ve got to come back to specifically say why something does – or doesn’t – feel right.

  • Which competency or core value are you concerned about?
  • How do you know that’s true and how do you verify that?

Two Final Thoughts:

  • The CEO and executives need to buy in and champion it, to invest in the training and work with experts until they become experts, or it won’t work. This a talent enhancement system, not just a hiring methodology.
  • To get results, you need to make a commitment to build a culture and a discipline of hiring, developing and promoting talented people. If you’re not committed to invest in Topgrading and to move, over a couple of years, to build a team of A-Players, don’t do it.

The Challenge

  • Does your current talent-enhancement system help you to know the percentage of A-Players that you have?
  • Does it ensure that all the leaders in the company do something to support or develop everyone on their team, each quarter – for the sake of the individual and the benefit of the company?

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Don’t hesitate to reach out if you would like help from one of our expert advisors.

Lawrence & Co’s work focuses on sustainable and enhanced growth for you and your business. Our diverse and experienced group of advisors can help your leaders and executive teams stay competitive through the use of various learning tools including workshops, webinars, executive retreats, or one-to-one coaching.

We help high-achieving leaders to have it all – a great business and a rewarding life. Contact us for simple and impactful advice. No BS. No fluff.