“Topgrading”: it’s possible to be talented AND be an effective team player

‘Topgrading’ by Bradford D Smart1, is a wonderful testament to the existence of talented individuals who can also ‘work smarter’, ‘deliver higher quality work’, ‘demonstrate greater team work’, and ‘find ways to get the job done in less time and with less cost’.  Smart argues that it’s the proportion of ‘A’ players in an organisation that will enable it to succeed over other organisations that are also focusing on customers, quality and process improvement.

In a sense, this book contradicts somewhat the conclusions drawn by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in ‘Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.’2 which I’ve written about previously – see http://wp.me/pAUbH-1n.3 They would seem to suggest that talented people find it more difficult than others to be effective team players.  However, Smart’s approach seems to focus very much on managers, whereas Goffee and Jones’ could be said to be more about individuals within teams.

What is ‘Topgrading’ about?

‘Topgrading’ is about several things:

  • Attracting and retaining the most talented people / high performers / top 10% of those available for a position: the ‘A’ players
  • Aiming to fill the organisation with 90% (or better) A players
  • Improving existing resources by coaching people who are B/C players to become A players
  • Redeploying B/C players into internal positions where they might be a better fit to become A players, or if not, helping them to find positions where they can be A players outside the company.

We can / should take responsibility for ‘Topgrading’ ourselves

What is also interesting about Smart’s approach is the idea that we should, individually, take responsibility for finding those positions or roles where we can be A players, instead of being satisfied with playing a B/C role.  Indeed, in the right role, we can all be A players.  In this, he echoes people like Stephen Covey, in his ‘8th Habit’4 who stresses the importance of finding one’s personal voice, and others that I’ve quoted in another previous blog http://wp.me/pAUbH-1h 5– about taking control of one’s working life.

Smart’s quote from Peter Drucker: Managing in Times of Great Change, is very apposite: “The stepladder is gone, and there is not even an implied structure of an industry’s rope ladder.  It’s more like vines, and you bring your own machete.  You don’t know what you’ll be doing next or whether you’ll work in a private office, or one big ampitheater or out of your house.”

Smart has a wonderfully refreshing approach for the manager, VP or CEO who is aiming to be both successful and happy.  It’s not just about career success, but about addressing 7 other critical life dimensions: wellness, family (relationships), pleasure, spiritual grounding, financial independence, giving something back (to the community), being creative – and also being resourceful to achieve balance in all of these.

He suggests that people perform periodical personal career reviews of their competencies relative to the marketplace, and that we cultivate networks of knowledge people as well as reading widely and attending seminars and trade-shows to help us with this.

‘Topgrading’ is especially about the role of the recruiter, manager, HR

This book seems a ‘must read’ for anyone looking to improve the capability of their organisation.  It is filled with guidelines and templates for interviewing, coaching, retaining and generally ensuring that your organisation has the best talent it needs.  There are dramatic case studies of the impact of Topgrading on individual companies’ stock performance.  It describes 50 competencies (!) that any manager should aim to achieve, in the categories of intellectual, personal, interpersonal, management / leadership, motivational.

Smart also challenges the school of thought of only focusing on ones strengths: he argues that a fully competent manager should aim to address his/her weaknesses, rather than relying on others to compensate for them.


1. “Topgrading” by Bradford D Smart, Portfolio, 2005

2. “Clever. Leading your smartest, most creative people.” By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Press, 2009

3. Why conventional knowledge management, process improvement and project management won’t work with ‘clever’ teams.  Or will they? http://wp.me/pAUbH-1n

4. “The 8th Habit. From effectiveness to greatness”, by Stephen R. Covey. Simon & Schuster Sound Ideas,1980.

5. Taking control of your working life as an employee; a first 100 days approach? http://wp.me/pAUbH-1h

6. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, using process improvement, knowledge and change management to enhance team effectiveness.

Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman.

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