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Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People (ISBN 1-59184-081-3) is a book by Bradford D. Smart. The book discusses a set of best practices for improving business performance by upgrading teams until at least 90% are high performers. Topgrading methods are used to assess candidates to hire, candidates for promotion, and internal talent (to determine an employee’s potential).

The author's Topgrading methodology relies on unusually detailed, chronological interviews; conclusions are gleaned from patterns which have emerged across layers of competencies as interviewers probe every success, failure, relationship, and major decision in a person’s career. The results from a Topgrading interview are used to coach people to become high performers.

The fundamental concepts outlined in the book are:

• A Player - Someone in the top 10% of available talent for the compensation level. It means, “You are paying for all A players, so why not use topgrading methods to be sure you are picking A players.”

• Topgrading Interview - Chronological interview including 15 questions about every full-time job.

• Scorecard - Job description including all important accountabilities stated as measurable goals.

• Virtual Bench - The best way to recruit is to call on talented people one has worked with or met.

• 30-to-1 Topgrading Advantage - If one has 25% success hiring, 40 people have to be hired and 30 fired to end up with 10 high performers. With 90% hiring success, only 11 people must be hired and 1 fired to get 10 high performers. Thus, a 30 mis-hires to 1 mis-hire advantage.

• Topgrade from the Top Down - The “First Principle” of Topgrading. High performers at the top attract and hold high performers at the next level. Topgrading occurs as the high performance standard cascades down throughout the company.

Advantages of Topgrading

Some companies named in the book (General Electric, Lincoln Financial, Barclays, American Heart Association and others) attribute their success in part to the application of topgrading methods. Research cited by the authors suggests that only 25% of managers hired by most firms turn out to be the expected high performers, yet topgrading companies cited eventually achieved up to 90% success.


The word “Topgrading” first occurred in an article by Brad and Geoff Smart, published in 1998, and is the main title of hard copy books published by Brad Smart in 1999 and 2005, and a handbook authored by Brad and Geoff, published in 2005.


Some companies have laid off people claiming they were “topgrading.” The author is adamant that topgrading is abused when low performing executives resort to layoffs that high performers would have avoided.

The author readily admits that the thorough topgrading methods that can strengthen companies and individual careers can be ineffective in the hands of C players, since it is hard for them to recruit and retain top performers.


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