How to Hire High Performers

You may have seen me write about Topgrading before. I’ve been using and teaching this talent management sytem for a couple of years now.

Founder Brad Smart has fine-tuned best practices to help every manager hire better and nudge out chronic underperformers. Brad’s consultation with General Electric and other leading companies showed that almost all managers can at least double their hiring success, and if you really master the commonsense Topgrading methods, you might achieve 90% success.

I’m pleased to annouce that Brad has agreed to be an occasional guest blogger for Great Leadership!

He’s provided the following short article, and at the end of it he explains how you can get a free 50-page eBook.

How to Hire High Performers

The old adag “People are your most important assets turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are.”
— Jim Collins, author of Good to Great

“Topgrading is a continuous process of identifying and developing top talent to enhance overall organizational vitality.”
Bill Conaty, Sr., V.P. Human Resources,
General Electric

As reported in the classic Topgrading: How Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People, world-class companies have achieved 90% hiring success. This article tells how these techniques can help you at least double your success hiring.

If you are reading this article, you value talent, you really do! But if you’re like most managers, hiring people is a major challenge and source of frustration. Recruiters don’t do a good job screening people, resumes are deceptive, so-called competency interviews are easy for candidates to fake, and candidates only want reference checks with their buddies. Surveys of thousands of managers show that only 25% of people they hire turn out to be the high performers they feel they’re paying for. Another 50% are “disappointing but adequate.”

The good news is that you can dramatically improve your hiring success by using commonsense methods you’ll learn in this article. I’ve conducted 65,000 verbal case studies, asking managers to describe their hiring methods. I’ve borrowed some of their successful methods, added some ideas of my own, and for three decades have fine-tuned the most practical advice. This article explains four practical methods that have helped companies such as GE, Barclays, American Heart Association, and Lincoln Financial achieve 80% – 90% success selecting talent.

1. Early in the hiring process, let candidates know that in order to get a job offer, they will (at an appropriate time) be asked to arrange for personal reference calls with former bosses. High performers, the people you want to hire, will be happy to do this, and C player candidates will withdraw. Perfect! And all candidates will be quite honest in interviews, knowing they will be arranging reference calls. Despite the fact that most companies prohibit managers from taking reference calls, high performers get their former bosses to talk 90% of the time.

Suggestion: If you use recruiters, require them to tell candidates this requirement.

2. Recruit from your network of high performers you know or have personally worked with. The thousands of high performers I’ve worked with say recruiting from your network is quick (high performers are in your PDA), effective (candidates are already prescreened), and inexpensive (no recruiter fees).

My son Geoff is CEO of the largest Topgrading company and author of Who: The A Method for Hiring, in which dozens of billionaires share their most valuable recruitment method: hire from your own network and get high performers to refer more high performers.

Suggestion: Ask all your high performers to stay in touch with the sharpest people they know, people you might consider hiring.

3. Use the chronological Topgrading Interview, the most powerful hiring tool. If you use round-robin competency interviews, keep them and allow time for candidates to ask questions about the company, culture, etc. Competency interviews ask questions such as, “When was a time you were a good team player?” Such questions are easily faked by candidates, so only 25% high performers are hired.

The Topgrading Interview is the “silver bullet. All managers we know of hiring 90% high performers use the Topgrading Interview Guide. It’s a “road map” for interviewers.

Key questions from this guide, questions that will enable you to immediately hire better are:


a) What were your major successes (and how did you achieve them)?

b) What were mistakes or things you wish you’d done differently?

For a) and b) use follow up questions to get specifics about every key decision and every key relationship.

c) Who was your boss, and what were his/her strengths and weaker points?

d) What would that boss tell me were your strengths, weaker points, and overall performance … in a personal reference call we might ask you to arrange?

The chronological interview reveals patterns of how the person evolved over time, and that is what enables you to clearly understand what the person is apt to be like in the near future. It works.

Suggestion: Use a tandem partner – two heads are a lot better than one and the two of you ask the most follow up questions for the most recent jobs. About 12 years ago Jack Welch approved the tandem process at GE, and GE’s success picking top talent improved from 50% to over 90%.

4. Ask finalist candidates to arrange personal reference calls with former bosses. As stated in #1, high performers are happy to do this, and 90% of former bosses will talk. C players can’t get those former bosses to accept reference calls – gee, I wonder why!

Suggestion: You and your tandem interviewer make half the calls each, after the candidate gives you the times references are available and the numbers to call.


Use these four of the ten most important Topgrading best practices, and you will join the ranks of thousands of managers who have found the solution to the chronic problem of hiring the best people available for the pay. You will definitely improve your hiring success!

Would you like to learn about all ten Topgrading hiring methods? Go to, sign up for the monthly newsletter, Topgrading Tips and you can immediately download the 50-page eBook, Avoid Costly Mis-Hires.