A Systems Approach to Hiring the Right People

Kauffman Foundation
Mike Faith

In 2002, I wanted to raise the bar on my management talent and employee competency at the company I founded, Headsets.com. I was weary of having to slog through resumes and interviews, only to end up with average performers. At that time, I resorted to hiring based on my gut, which I knew was the worst way to hire. I wanted more A players and was willing to offer the compensation packages to attract them.

Another entrepreneur introduced me to the concept of Topgrading, the brainchild of Bradford Smart, PhD, a system for proactively seeking and employing the most talented people available. In short, hiring only A players. The key is that while I can apply this system in sourcing and hiring my top team, it also is effective in hiring the best people for all positions in my company.

Before using Topgrading,we talked to mid-sized companies like ours (with about fifty employees) that used this hiring system. We had been told that some of the best companies in the world, including AlliedSignal, Microsoft, and GE, found success with the program.

So, we bought the Topgrading DVD set and taught ourselves to Topgrade. Initially, I thought this hiring system only applied to top management, and since I wasn’t looking to replace myself as CEO, I dismissed the concept. But after a few hires using Topgrading, I can say unequivocally that it gets results for every level of job. It also makes the redeployment of underperformers smooth, a task that’s not always easy to do.

Topgrading allows us to not only hire A players but manage the Bs to better utilize their skills and become As and also to redeploy the Cs. I believe that everyone, in the right position, has the potential to be an A player. According to Brad Smart, managers all too often make the costly mistake of trying to “manage their way” to excellence with low-performers on the team.

One of my longest-standing employees – in fact my only employee in the early days – is a good example. With us now for about ten years, this guy is a genius. Really. He can see the big picture and take an idea and make it work. Because he was so good at what he did, we wanted to get him into middle management. So we moved him into a management position, and it was a disaster. My A player quickly became a B player; management became a millstone around his neck. Recognizing our mistake, we moved him out of management. Now he takes on a variety of projects and is back to being a genius.

Lesson learned: people can be an A player in one position and a B player in another. But I believe that everyone has the potential to be an A player in the right position. Topgrading helps me find the right people for the right position.

Today at our company, I can honestly say we’ve got mostly A and B players. We don’t keep Cs around, and we look for ways to turn B players into As. It’s always hard to recognize a C player and to take action, but in the end, it’s the right thing to do. C players are not good for the employee, the employer, or the team. It causes resentment and stress.

So how do we know an A player when we see one? We look for a great track record and history of accomplishments. We look at behaviors in their previous jobs. We seek out their patterns because people tend to replicate their patterns of behavior in the future.

We do all this investigating as part of the hiring process. Our entire process usually takes about seven rounds of interviews, which includes our hiring manager, four members of the strategic team, a psychologist, and a voice coach. Every interview is a measure of success.

We usually start with an initial informational interview lasting about ninety minutes. We ask what the applicant has done and why he has made certain decisions. From this initial interview, we get a good feel about whether a person can take responsibility and come up with solutions, or is a blamer. C players are blamers.

In our Customer service hires, for example, we look for people who have great patience, are compassionate, and can listen. We also want people who can get into the mindset that we love our Customers.

Before we used Topgrading, finding good Customer service employees wasn’t always easy. Here’s what happened with one of our hires. One person was brilliant in their interview, but we realized after a week into the job that she was a bad fit for the skill set required. While we liked the person initially, she quickly went downhill.

When a hire doesn’t work out, Topgrading suggests a quick release. The right thing to do in all cases of a hire gone bad is to quit the relationship sooner rather than later.

The Topgrading system helps empower our management team with the courage to fire a person. We overcame that procrastination problem by holding each other accountable to do the things that we need to do. If someone needs to go, and I’m not doing it quickly enough, one of my managers will remind me.

In addition, Topgrading reminds me of the importance of performance reviews. We try to be fair and give incremental feedback by being honest and discuss what skills and expectations of the job are below standard. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for employees who have been told all along that their performance needs to improve, and that they did nothing to get better.

While we’re still perfecting how we use Topgrading, it has helped our company boost our talent pool. We’re getting better at it all the time, but I don’t want to make the program sound like a panacea. It has limitations and challenges.

First, the process takes a long time. It can take up to a month or longer to accomplish the string of interviews alone. We’ve lost some good people during their interview stage because they got another job in the meantime or they simply took themselves out of the process.

This hiring system also ties up a lot of our managers’ time because it takes an A player to spot an A player. It can be expensive to have a valuable manager taking time away from his job to sit in on the interview process.

In conclusion, I realize as the CEO I need to be involved in the process. I need to own the process and hire more A players.


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