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The 10 Steps To Hiring An “A-Player”

I was thrilled when I saw that Geoff Smart and Randy Street of ghSMART came out with the book Who: The A Method For Hiring on how to improve hiring. If you are involved in any hiring, I suggest you acquire this book right now!

You may recall that I had an incredible experience studying under Topgrading guru Brad Smart (Geoff’s father) in Chicago a few years ago with Eben Pagan and some of the Hot Topic Media gang — that meeting inspired this post: A Mis-Hire Costs You 13X That Person’s Salary: Why You Must Topgrade.

It’s good to see that the Smart family has the additional hiring horsepower of Geoff Smart.

"If you have anything to do with hiring, buy this book now!

I thought I’d combine what I learned from both Who and Topgrading, along with my own experience, to form a simple set of 10 steps for hiring an A-Player.

Note: A reminder on the definition of an A-Player from Brad Smart himself:

An A player is someone who is in the top 10% of talent available for the job – “available” meaning at a certain comp level, in that location, in that industry, and reporting to that manager (B players are in the next 25%, and C players are in the bottom 65%).

I mentioned some of these steps in my original Topgrading article after my workshop with Brad and then Geoff and Randy inspired ideas for additional steps.

Here are the 10 steps to hiring an A-Player.

1) Keep a “Virtual Bench”

Duhh, we should all actively keep a list of people we’d like to hire some day — a “bench” of talent for you to go to when it comes time to needing a hire.

I keep my Virtual Bench in a Google Doc spreadsheet and it includes contractors I’ve worked with or people who have impressed me.

I have a tab for each type of hire (Developers, Designers, Sales, Product, etc.).

The main tabs I have in the virtual bench are:

  • Name
  • Tier/Ranking — I rank each candidate with either a 1″(top tier), 2 (mid-tier) or 3 (low-tier). This allows me to quickly sort/rank candidates.
  • Title — I have found this useful later on in helping me name the title of the position).
  • Candidate or Connector — The intent of the Virtual Bench is to identify candidates, however many people you need to talk to are not going to be candidates but instead are “Connectors” to your candidates (and you sometimes won’t know this until you talk to the person).
  • Source — I list how I found the person (usually through a person or a perhaps a job board).
  • Last Contacted — I put in a date of when I last connected with the person so that I can quickly sort through who I haven’t talked to in awhile.
  • Notes — This is a field where I keep some basic notes on my thoughts on the person.

2) Create a “Scorecard”

Writing a scorecard (a tip from Geoff and Randy) is a hard step, but will help you throughout the process.

A scorecard contains 3 parts:

A) Mission of the Job (e.g. to create and lead [your company’s] a world class sales organization).

B) Outcomes — Examples include:

  • Grow sales by 50% in year 1.
  • Lead the launch of a major product launch by Q3.
  • Hire 5 people by Q4.

C) Competencies — Examples include:

  • Transparency — You are honest and clear about everything you do and provide constructive feedback for those around you.
  • Ego — You check it at the door. This is about teamwork.
  • Coachability — You are willing to develop yourself through listening to those around you.

You can refine the scorecard along the way.

3) Sourcing: Create a Job Ad, Drive Traffic, etc.

Note: Be as transparent and specific about the job as possible — it’s ok to alienate the non-prospect!

At this point you should create a job ad. If you want to stand out, I recommend that you leverage video, pictures, social media and comments and measure how you are doing through analytics (disclaimer: I am a co-founder of Ongig and this is what we do). Check out these next-gen job ads as examples.

You should then drive traffic to your job ad through whatever places you believe your candidate likes to hang out. These might include:

  • Craigslist — For my last hire, I paid for an ad on Craigslist and then drove that traffic to the free ad I had on Ongig
  • Your own contacts/rolodex
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Anywhere people like the one you want to hire are hanging out!

If you want to read the full story of the approach I took with a recent hire (a designer), check out How Ongig Hired Its Designer for Free (Well Almost!).

4) “Knock-Out” Questions

As candidates begin to contact you, it’s important that you weed out ones that are not worth your time.

I recommend asking them knock-out questions (via email is ideal).

When I posted an ad on Craigslist for a designer (mentioned above), I specifically asked all candidates to visit the Designer Job Description on Ongig and then decide to apply. Many Craigslist users instead just chose to skip that step and reply to me through Craigslist. I immediately “knocked out” those candidates.

For the candidates who did follow my instructions and applied through the Ongig job description, I sent them a follow-up email with questions such as:

  1. What’s the closest project you’ve worked that had to do with designing an enterprise software program?
  2. What’s an example of a complex page you’ve designed?
  3. How would you break down the mix of your following skills (UX Design, Visual Design, Front-End Development (CSS/HTML, JavaScript).

You should cater your knock-out questions to the type of candidate you’re looking for.

The purpose here is to “knock out” candidates who are either too lazy to answer or have answers that show they are not a good fit.

5) The Screening Interview (30-minute phone call)

This step is killer, especially the “threat of the reference check” questions!

For those candidates who make it past the “knock-out” questions, I then do a short phone screen

The Who book recommends that the first interview with a candidate be a phone-based 30 minute call that includes questions such as:

  • What are your career goals?
  • What are you really good at professionally?
  • What are you not so great at or not interested in doing professionally? (this is often a tough question for people to answer but vital for you to hear about. If the candidate has a hard time answering these, the Who book recommends you ask them what their past bosses would say were things that the candidate was not interested in doing).
  • Threat of the Reference Check — Who were your last 5 bosses and how will each of them rate your performance (1 to 10 (with 1o being high)) when we talk to them?

One more question I recommend relates to compensation. For example, I sometimes ask this 2-part question at this point:

  • What’s more important to you: salary or equity? And how much pay do you need to live on?

A-Players will be able to answer these questions fairly easily. The B-Players and C-Players will struggle more with them.

On the Threat of the Reference Check question, most candidates answer honestly about how their manager would rate them. In my experience, if the average rating is 6 or lower, you are probably talking to a B or C-Player (not an A-Player).

An A-Player is going to answer with a mix of 7’s, 8’s, 9’s and 10’s. If they have a 6 or lower, it is likely to be the exception and they will have a very clear explanation for it.

After doing such screening interviews with candidates, you’ll have a much better idea about whether your candidate is an A-Player and should advance to the more in-depth Topgrading Interview (step 6 below).

6) The Focused Interview Guide (aka “The Scorecard Interview”) (60 minutes)

The next step is an interview focused on the actual projects you have in mind for the candidate.

I like Smart and Street’s recommendation here.

They suggest you take an outcome you want out of the position from the “Scorecard” we mentioned above.

For example, one outcome might be “To grow sales 50% in year 1”.

In that case, you might ask the candidate:

  • What are some accomplishments you have in growing sales 50% or more?
  • What are some mistakes and lessons you’ve learned in growing sales by 50%?

If another outcome you want is to lead the release of a major software product launch, then you ask the same types of questions about that.

At this point, you and the candidate are starting to envision the actual work you would be doing together and the conversation should be quite natural.

7) The Topgrading Interview (2 to 4 hours)

I’ve seen candidates cry during this phase and one even walked out of the interview…it’s hard work, and an investment of time, but the Topgrading works — I’ve used it for my last 20+ hires.

If a candidate makes it past the 30-minute screening interview, you are now ready to take on the biggest step in the hiring process: an in-depth interview.

I recommend some form of a Topgrading interview — the version I use is a hybrid of Brad Smart’s Topgrading Interview Guide and questions from the Who book.

In Brad Smart’s unique Topgrading interview, you start by asking about College (if they attended) with simple ice-breaker questions like: how did you fit into school?; high/low points?; any awards/achievements?; greatest influence?; hold any jobs?; etc.

For the job-related questions, Brad’s son Geoff and partner Randy Street have simplified the set of Topgrading questions to ask with these:

  • What were you hired to do?
  • What accomplishments were you most proud of…and what were your low points?
  • Who were the people you worked with and how would you rate them and they rate you
  • Why did you leave that job?

You should select a set of questions that feel right for you, and then keep them standard for all candidates.

This type of topgrading interview should take about anywhere from 2 to 4 hours depending on how experienced the candidate is.

Trust me, the time is well worth it.

Note: At this point, I usually start writing a Topgrading Summary with the following sections:

  • Good fits for this hire in this role
  • Potential challenges this candidate will face
  • Advice from references (I add this after I’ve completed the Reference Interviews in step 8 below)

In my experience, you may need to do anywhere from 1 to 7 or 8 topgrading interviews to find your A-Player. But this is well worth your time given that you will increase the liklihood of hiring the right person who perform for your business for years to come!

8) Reference Interviews (30 to 45 minutes each)

The reference step is one that 90%+ of employers screw up. Trust me, it is worth investing time during this stage!

At this point you know the candidate super-well

If the candidate still looks like a good fit, it is then key to get in touch with at least a few of the candidate’s references to go over the same types of questions as you did with the applicant in the Topgrading section (so you can cross-reference answers). So make sure to cover things like:

  • What was their role?;
  • What were ups and downs of their performance?;
  • How would you rate their performance on a scale of 1 to 10?

Then, describe the role you envision for the applicant and ask them what’s a good fit and what’s a bad fit.

As the references are giving you this feedback, you are of course comparing it to what the candidate told you during the Topgrading Interview.

If you are talking to an A-Player’s references, the reference should be giving you feedback and stories that are consistent with what the candidate told you in the Topgrading Interview.

If the feedback is inconsistent, this may be a sign that you do not have an A-Player; and you should dig into this with either the candidate, reference or both to get to the truth.

9) The Skill-Will Bull’s-Eye

Finally, Smart and Street recommend that you look at the data you’ve collected from the interviews and compare it to the Scorecard and answer the following two questions:

  • Skill — Do the facts show that the candidate has 90%+ of the skills needed to achieve the outcomes?
  • Will — Do the facts show that the candidate has 90%+ of the will (desire) to achieve the outcomes?

If the answer is “yes,” then you have an A-player.

10) Make the Offer & Close the Deal

Don’t skimp on this last important step. Try to think through all responses your candidate will have and the scenarios that might come up. I sometimes role-play “The Offer” conversation with a friend or colleague ahead of time.

If you have an A-Player on your hands, you want to close the deal as soon as possible.

Here are some thoughts/philosophies I live by:

  • Move fast — A-Players are rare so don’t dilly-dally.
  • Compensation — The two of you should feel like old friends at this point and you will have all of their past compensation information. The comp. offer you make should be fairly easy and if you are off at all, an A-Player candidate will usually be easy to deal with.
  • Counter-Offers by the A-Player’s Boss — If your candidate is already employed, be prepared for what their employer/boss might do. You can even help coach your candidate into how to resign.
  • Show them you care — Go out of your way to close the deal through things like helping them to move (if they are relocating), giving them some upfront cash (if they might need it), etc.

The steps above have helped me hire some amazing people, most of whom I am proud to still call friends (note: I screwed a couple of hires up for sure).

I want to thank Brad Smart of Topgrading and Geoff Smart and Randy Street of ghSMART for helping me to craft an effective approach to hiring.

If you have just two books to read about hiring, I recommend the 2 books that inspired this post: Topgrading and Who.