Why I Still "Top Grade" Managers
I remember back in 2014 needing to hire our first managers. We didn't have a hiring process. We didn't have a recruiter on staff. Sure, most of the business side had recruitment backgrounds, but we were fixated on other things and honestly, with no owner, no one took the time to actually put together a thoughtful hiring process.
It worked okay for the first 20 employees, but then we started hiring managers and specialists. Playing it loose wasn't good enough.
A candidate I interviewed actually gave me a copy of Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. It was what we needed: A straight forward process that we could just take lock stock and barrel and implement.
Part of the Who process is the Top Grade, which was a prior piece of art put out by Geoff and Randy's consulting company, this is a critical piece of how I still hire for managers today.
Back in the day, we just Top Graded everyone. Again, we weren't thinking, we were moving fast and doing. In reflecting on that experience, and through refining our own internal process, it became clear that Top Grading is really a tool for high impact hires, generally folks with a good deal of professional experience. It is still in this context that I effectively "Top Grade" (with the caveat that I have my own version of this process now).
What do I like about Top Grading?
Like any good part of a hiring process, the Top Grade process is consistent. You can apply it evenly to every candidate. This allows for a even baseline when evaluating folks.
In the Top Grade, I like to start from the back of the resume (usually all the way back to their first job) and work to the present time. For an experienced candidate, this can take an hour.
Key pieces that I get out of the Top Grade:
- What has their career arc been? What moves did they make and what is their total work experience?
- What types and sizes of teams have they managed?
- How much hiring have they done? How much success did those hires have in the role they were hired into?
- How many people-problems did they run into? How did they address them? What did they learn?
- How did they make their moves through their career? Were they headhunted? Did they follow an important mentor?
if you are hiring a manager, or someone that is going to own something as an IC, you need to understand this context at a minimum. A Top Grade is not sufficient for a hiring manager to make a decision. There will need to be at least one other interview covering more domain specific and values type areas of the candidate, but the Top Grade absolutely plays into my final evaluation of a candidate.
As a big bonus, by following the Top Grade process, you learn the names of specific individuals from the candidate's past. This allows you to go on the offensive when asking for references. Management candidates are great at giving you the references that are most partial to their candidacy (as they should), but you as a decision maker in a high impact role need to take the reigns and dictate at least a few of the people you want to talk with about the candidate. Moreover, the Top Grade can provide valuable areas to push on during references (like: "There was a lot of turnover on Candidate X's team, how did you interpret that?")
The art of a great reference check is a blog post itself, but Ill leave it as this: Reference checks are the most important part of determining whether you should offer the candidate.
Top Grades are a specific tool for evaluating experienced talent. Use it as such. Make sure you don't hire someone that won't get the job done. it will happen, but it will happen less if you are methodical in how you interview candidates for high impact roles.
If you are just starting to hire folks into high impact roles, or if you have had some spectacular failures in your exec hires, pick up the Who, read it and have it on your desk. Go from there.