What is Topgrading Interviewing?

Female hiring manager topgrading interviewing a female job candidate sitting at a modern desk with her laptop open and a cup of coffee right in front.

We all want to avoid hiring mistakes. The question is, are you using a hiring methodology that sets you up for success? Accurate hiring requires a singular focus on finding the best talent, which requires more than just one recruiter looking through a stack of resumes. We’ll explore an interviewing strategy that can help you evaluate candidates more comprehensively, which can prevent bad hires and take the quality of your entire workforce to the next level. It’s called topgrading interviewing. 

What is Topgrading Interviewing?

Topgrading is a system for interviewing candidates that focuses on filling a team with top-tier talent. The strategy was devised by Dr. Brad Smart, one of the world’s foremost experts on hiring. 

Smart calls the target talent pool for topgrading “A Players”–people who fall within the top 10% of available talent for a given position within a given location. Smart advocates that building a workforce consisting primarily of A Players should be the top priority of a company’s leadership since the company relies on its talent to fulfill its business strategy.

Topgrading takes a more holistic view of candidates than a traditional interview. Whereas a regular interview focuses primarily on identifying a candidate’s skills and experience, topgrading dives more deeply into who the candidate is as a person, including their hard and soft skills, personality, values, ambition, and resourcefulness. Topgrading can help organizations hire more effectively and optimize business results. 

Benefits of Topgrading Interviews

Adopting a topgrading interview strategy can impact various aspects of a company’s operations and performance. Here are the top benefits of this approach. 

Stronger leadership

Your company’s leaders hold the proverbial keys to the kingdom. Their decisions guide the actions of their team, and their teams’ activities, in turn, determine the company’s performance. When you hire leadership team members using topgrading, they can then use topgrading to make their own hires. This results in an ever-strengthening talent base. 

Improved operational performance

The additional effort it takes to hire A Players pays off in the form of increased output in almost everything those employees do. Topgrading results in better productivity, customer service, innovation, quality, and speed, all demonstrably impacting company KPIs. 

Increased value

Talent isn’t the only factor driving a company’s value, but it’s among the biggest. Increasing the quality of your workforce can lead to increased revenue, decreased costs, and better market positioning, which will set the organization up for lasting success. 

Example Topgrading Interview Questions

Topgrading interview questions probe a bit deeper than the typical “tell me about yourself.” These questions aim to learn about all aspects of a candidate’s aptitude, motivations, and personality. Here are a few good topgrading questions to ask.

  • Who were some of the most influential people in your early life?
  • What were your earliest career goals?
  • What are your current career goals?
  • What are you looking for from your next position?
  • Describe your biggest successes in your current job.
  • What has been your biggest failure in your current role?
  • Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently?
  • How would your current supervisor describe your strengths and weaknesses?
  • Why are you leaving your current job?

12 Steps of Topgrading

1. Assess your hiring process

Begin by examining your current process for interviewing and hiring. What methods are working, and which ones are falling short? Where are you experiencing turnover or skills gaps that indicate weaknesses in your hiring? 

2. Create a job scorecard

This is a thorough framework for the criteria you need in a candidate. It should be developed before you begin recruiting and should guide you in creating the job description. Here’s an example interview scorecard for a company CEO. 

  • Intelligence: Able to rapidly perform quick analyses
  • Vision: Can create and communicate a strategic vision
  • Leadership: Initiates necessary change and can “sell” that change to the organization
  • Drive: Passionate, high energy level
  • Resourcefulness: Able to find creative ways to overcome barriers
  • Customer Focus: Sensitive and adaptive to stated and unstated customer needs
  • Hiring: Hires A Players
  • Team Building: Energizes others, can create focused and driven teams
  • Experience: Track record of delivering results that exceed expectations
  • Integrity: Unequivocally does the right thing
  • Communication: Excellent verbal and written communication skills

3. Recruit candidates

Use the job scorecard you created to write a compelling job description and begin recruiting candidates. Prioritize internal candidates and referrals. 

4. Create work history forms for candidates

In the topgrading system, work history forms are used in lieu of resumes to assess candidates’ work experience. Distribute questionnaires for candidates to fill out that prompts them to provide a detailed account of their work history, their reasons for leaving each job, and their strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes for each position. These forms should be used to create a candidate shortlist for your interview process. 

5. Conduct phone interviews

Conduct phone interviews with your initial shortlist. Use this opportunity to weed out candidates whose actual qualifications don’t match what they submitted on their work history form. Only those candidates who qualify as potential A Players should move on to the next round. 

6. Conduct competency interviews

Interview your narrowed-down pool of candidates with a list of questions developed based on your job scorecard. The goal is to identify proficiency in the required skills. Give candidates a chance to ask questions of their own. 

7. Conduct topgrading interview

A topgrading interview is much more thorough than a traditional interview, typically lasting several hours. It’s an in-depth exploration of a candidate, their personality, their various jobs, and their experience in each one. Multiple interviewers should take part. 

8. Give interviewers feedback

Once the interview has wrapped up, interviewers should take the time to offer one another feedback. This helps to continuously refine the topgrading process.

Related: How to Give Interview Feedback

9. Create candidate summaries

Create executive summaries of candidates, referring back to the job scorecard to analyze strengths and weaknesses. Compare summaries between interviewers, looking for similarities. For a candidate’s weaknesses, identify whether they can be easily remedied or if they’ll be more challenging to overcome.

10. Check references, make offer

In the topgrading system, candidates coordinate their own reference checks. The idea is that an A Player should have positive relationships with their former supervisors. Speak with references and make an offer to your selected candidate. 

11. Provide coaching

Use the weaknesses you identified in your candidate summary to provide constructive coaching. Set expectations for success and provide an environment that’s conducive to growth.

12. Measure performance

Once your new hire has had a chance to get acclimated, gather feedback about their experience with the topgrading process. Once a year, assess your overall topgrading progress and pinpoint areas for improvement. 

Tips for Topgrading Interviews

Prepare candidates ahead of time

Topgrading isn’t your average interview process. It’s more in-depth and is a heftier time commitment for both candidates and recruiters. Some candidates may not be comfortable with certain aspects of the system, like the fact that they’ll need to reach out to their former bosses personally. Ensure applicants’ willing participation by letting them know what to expect from the start. This allows candidates to opt-out if the process isn’t for them. 

Use it selectively

Topgrading isn’t a fit for across-the-board hiring. If you’re onboarding a high volume of seasonal staff or hiring for an entry-level position, spending multiple hours interviewing every candidate is not practical. The process is most suitable for high-impact roles like leadership positions and core business functions where the stakes are higher to find an excellent fit. 

Incorporate beneficial elements

You don’t have to use the entire 12-step topgrading process to benefit from its philosophy. Incorporate individual parts into your broader hiring strategy, like using job scorecards to define the requirements for your openings or using holistic interview questions to gain a more comprehensive understanding of candidates. 

As your business evolves, so should your hiring process. Embracing the topgrading interview methodology can be a transformative step in improving the quality of your workforce. By prioritizing in-depth assessments of candidates’ past experiences, performance, and potential, topgrading ensures a strategic and thorough approach to hiring that not only enhances the accuracy of hires but fosters a culture of continuous improvement. 

Pete Newsome

About Pete Newsome

Pete Newsome is the President of 4 Corner Resources, the staffing and recruiting firm he founded in 2005. 4 Corner is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance, and the top-rated staffing company in Central Florida. Recent awards and recognition include being named to Forbes’ Best Recruiting Firms in America, The Seminole 100, and The Golden 100. Pete also founded zengig, to offer comprehensive career advice, tools, and resources for students and professionals. He hosts two podcasts, Hire Calling and Finding Career Zen, and is blazing new trails in recruitment marketing with the latest artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn