This post was published in February 2009, and we’ve tightened our definition of top performer a bit since then. Read our new definition and the latest thinking behind it here.

I cringe every time a hiring executive tells me they use Topgrading. My reaction is especially visceral when people mention “Hiring A Players.” (So naturally I cheered when Harvard Business Review published the far more sensible “Let’s Hear it for B Players.”)

I acknowledge that Brad Smart is a very credentialed guy and he has built quite a dynasty on the Topgrading concept. I just never see it applied intelligently in small and midsize enterprises. Never. (And I work hard to avoid using absolutes in sentences, so I’m clearly adamant about this).

OK, I also freely admit that I only made it halfway through the book before giving up (worst beach read ever). I find Topgrading too rigid and impractical. And no way will most managers first learn the interview techniques and then spend 3 hours in a CIDS interrogation…I mean interview…no, I do mean interrogation.

But what I object to most about Topgrading is the vague definition of an “A Player” — “the top 10% of available talent for the compensation level.” Like anyone could possibly determine who exactly qualifies. But what really irks me; even if you did figure it out, it would NOT help you hire correctly.

One thing I know for certain: top performance in one environment does not necessarily predict top performance in another. A hiring process where you simply hire Olympic athletes, or a hiring process that poaches your competitors’ top people will guarantee you nothing.  Nothing.

So rather than filling your company with Topgrading’s mythical “A Players,” here is a strategy that will dramatically improve both your results and the quality of your hiring:

  • Set performance goals and manage your people against their results.
  • Fire your bottom performers and replace them with highly competent, hard-working people who fit in your culture.
  • Then train the new people and hold them accountable for their results. Rinse and repeat. 
  • Do this for every job in the company. Then go on a 2 week vacation without checking your email. If things are still running well when you get back, you did it right.

So what exactly is my definition of a top performer?

A top performer is someone who is capable of, and interested in, driving the business results you need – someone who will take responsibility for getting results within the norms of your company culture.

There is no universal set of attributes that you can apply to your hiring process. It depends on the job.

Some jobs require people to “go with the flow.” Others need someone to act as a change agent – it depends on the goals you have. Some jobs require individual accomplishment; others require teamwork. In exchange for results, some people require more money and recognition, some require management attention, some just want to be heard, and some require that you leave them alone. Some people get results quietly, some help others get results without drawing attention, some are instigators and squeaky wheels who hold others accountable. Some are exacting, punctilious and precise, some are big picture, inspirational visionaries (who never turn in their reports on time).

Most organizations need a diverse mix of skills and work styles, but all within a common shared set of values. But really, any staffing decision should start with the business results you want to achieve.