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photo by Matthew Knot
photo by Matthew Knot

Hiring by intuition goes awry 75 percent of the time.

So suggests research conducted by talent consultant Brad Smart. Smart, whose clients include Citigroup, Salesforce, and Siemens, advocates using hard data instead of gut feelings when selecting employees. The key, he tells ERE Media, is to unlock the source code that powers your company’s “A-players” — the top 10 percent of performers in any given field or position who produce up to 10 times that of other employees — and then use it to build an evidence-based hiring scorecard.

Here is Smart’s six-step process for reverse-engineering your A-players’ success into well-defined, objective hiring metrics that enable strategic recruiting decisions.

1. Drill down into the DNA of success.
“Evaluate the characteristics of top performers already in your company, since those traits are likely to be predictors of success in that job,” Smart says. Ask: Who are the organization’s most successful employees? Why? Are they successful because they hit deadlines or because they produce the highest-quality work? What skills — communication, collaboration, focus, etc. — are most critical to their success?

2. Create scorecards for each role.
Based on your findings in No. 1, clearly communicate what success looks like for every position in your company. Include goals and deliverables, as well as interpersonal skills, in what Smart calls a “talent profile.”

3. Build your virtual bench of A-players.
Begin recruiting for your future hiring needs “using forward-looking business plans and strategic directions, as well as a view of how the culture will need to look in the future,” Smart says. “These talent profiles can then be embedded into job/role descriptions, to ensure that they account for both current and future success requirements.”

4. Screen candidates over the phone.
Ask each candidate these four questions: What are your career goals? What are you really good at professionally? What are you not good at or not interested in doing? What would each of your last five bosses list as your greatest strengths and weaknesses? “When candidates tell you the rating their past bosses would’ve given them, something fascinating happens,” writes leadership columnist Christine Comaford in Bloomberg Businessweek. “They either reveal their arrogance, or they reveal their humility. I have a follow-up question, which is, ‘What would you have had to do to have gotten a score of five?’ This further reveals any disdain for authority, exposes a difficult working environment, or some other potentially useful nuggets.”

5. Conduct tandem “topgrading” interviews.
Begin by asking about the requirements, accomplishments, and mistakes of the candidate’s past jobs. Delve deeper into the team surrounding each candidate by asking, What was the caliber of the employees you inherited (A’s, potential A’s, and non-A’s)? What changes did you make to the talent mix? How would your direct reports rate you on a scale of one to five? Why did you leave? “Remember, we all need to manage up, manage down, manage across,” Comaford writes. “Everyone can stand some improvement at one of the levels. Find out from your candidate where he or she needs help in advance.”

6. Ask the candidate to coordinate reference-check phone calls.
During your conversations with references, request examples of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, ratings of the candidate’s overall performance, and details about any weaknesses identified by the candidate. “At every step in the hiring process, remind candidates that before receiving a job offer from your organization, a final step is for them (the candidate) to arrange reference calls with former bosses and others that you select,” Smart blogs at Topgrading.com. “It’s a powerful ‘truth serum.’”



Last year, Globoforce CEO Eric Mosley penned a controversial post on the HBR Blog Network titled “Crowdsource Your Performance Reviews” that espoused collecting continuous, real-time peer feedback when evaluating an employee’s performance. “Unlike 360-degree reviews, which require specific colleagues to provide a formal, forced review of an individual, crowdsourcing is inspired peer-to-peer performance feedback,” he wrote. “This stream of recognition, which often appears in internal social newsfeeds, provides timely, measurable insights into your talent, top influencers and performers.”

The problem with that, says Fortune writer Anne Fisher, is that P2P feedback is also often misguided and just plain wrong. “Employees often don’t have as clear an understanding of other people’s duties, their performance goals, or their success at meeting those goals as bosses have,” she asserts. “Lacking enough information to judge colleagues’ work accurately, people tend to turn evaluations into ‘a popularity contest.’” Few things could make a corporate legal department more nervous than that.


  1. k
    Kudos for providing a very specific roadmap in hiring. Especially liked the emphasis on talent as opposed to skills. Reminds me of the Gallup research on what truly great managers hire for
    ONot so sure about the reference check process On the surface makes great sense to ask the interviewee to arrange the reference check calls but most job seekers carefully choose references that will likely say great things about them, some even coach their references in what to emphasize. So do you recommend employers to identify certain people and demand to talk to them?

  2. Thanks for your comment, msobus, and great question about reference checks. Here, the point is to use the reference-check process as a test of the candidate’s ability to follow through quickly and professionally on a commitment. You’re absolutely right that most reference checks are far from impartial information-gathering processes. That’s not addressed here, but I’d recommend reading this article (http://thebuildnetwork.com/team-building/better-reference-checks/), which suggests 3 ways to glean unadulterated feedback from otherwise hesitant or, as you say, ‘well coached’ references. I hope that helps!

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