Bradford D. Smart: An interview by Bob Morris

Bradford D. Smart

Bradford D. Smart completed his doctorate in industrial psychology at Purdue University, entered consulting, and for more than 30 years has been in private practice as president of Smart & Associates, Inc., based in the Chicago area. He is frequently acknowledged to be the world’s foremost expert on hiring, having conducted in-depth interviews with over 6,500 executives. He is the author of seven books and videos which include Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People, The Smart Interviewer, Smart Parenting: How to Raise Happy, Can-Do Children co-authored with Dr. Kate Smart Mursau, and Selection Interviewing: A Management Psychologist’s Recommended Approach. Smart has helped companies topgrade by assessing and coaching teams, conducting topgrading workshops, and providing books, handbooks, and videos to help clients topgrade on their own.

Note: This is an interview I conducted two years ago.

Morris: What is the biggest myth about interviewing?

Smart: The most serious myth about interviewing is that round-robin interviews, only one hour long, each focusing on one competency, can sort high achievers from low achievers.  I met with the top human resource executives at the largest 100 companies in the world, and they said only 20% of the managers they hire, turn out to be high achievers.  All of them used that round robin approach.

The good news is that the topgraders in the room stood up and said 80% – 90% of the people they hire turn out to be high achievers.  Wow!  What a difference.  Most managers experience at least 75% mis-hires, and topgraders experience only 10%.

Morris: Which companies have achieved 90% success hiring?

Smart: Hundreds — in Topgrading, dozens of case studies give the names of leading companies, such as General Electric, American Heart Association, Lincoln, Barclays, Honeywell, and lots more.

Morris: How can an individual manager or company improve from 25% to 90%?

Smart: It’s a lot easier than most people think. Companies find they keep most of what they have in hiring practices, but simply add the chronological, in-depth interview in which 15 questions are asked about the given job.  Naturally, managers are trained through workshops and videos.

Morris: Are there any other parts to your recommended hiring approach that are unique?

Smart: Sure.  In 30 years of working on the problem of poor hiring I’ve hit on lots of techniques.  For example, most companies won’t let their managers accept reference calls, for fear that if there is a negative reference and the person doesn’t get a job, there will be a lawsuit.  So, references tend to be worthless.  We found what works — companies ask the person interviewed to arrange the reference calls with most bosses and you know what — 85% of the time those bosses accept the reference call.

Morris: Are reference calls with previous bosses that useful?

Smart: Yes.  Knowing that they have to arrange reference calls with their previous bosses, interviewees are a lot more honest in interviews.  We call this the TORC Technique—Threat of Reference Check, and it’s the most powerful motivator for interviewees to be really honest in interviews.

Morris: Is topgrading more than great hiring?

Smart: Yes.  Topgrading is getting high achievers – or those who can become high achievers — in at least 90% of all jobs, and hundreds of companies have done that.  The same in-depth, chronological interview approach used in hiring is used to assess internal people including all who are candidates for promotion.  Over time, under performers are replaced by high achievers. Year after year, topgrading ratchets up talent.

Morris: Why do so many companies have a problem retaining employees?

Smart: Topgrading companies don’t have a problem retaining talent.  They lose maybe 5% per year, and those typically are the lowest achievers who understand they are holding others back. Topgrading companies get at least 90% high achievers, and listen to them.  High achievers want to work with other high achievers and they want challenge, opportunity, and recognition.

Companies loaded with high achievers are successful precisely because they provide that challenge and that opportunity.  But companies slogging along with 25% high achievers, 50% so-so achievers, and 25% low achievers are not so successful, don’t offer much challenge and opportunity, and don’t provide great rewards, so guess who leaves — the most marketable people, the highest achievers!

Morris: Much has been said and written about the importance of having all A players in a company.  Is that realistic?

Smart: We define an A player as someone in the top 10% of talent at every salary level, and given that unique definition, great companies do have almost all A players.  Each greeter at a Wal-Mart must be an A player, friendly, on-time, aware of where everything is allocated in the store, but will never be promotable.  Great companies have enough promotable A players to meet their goals, but they also have the right number of great, loyal employees who, though not promotable, are treated as valuable A players — because that’s what they are!

Morris: The topgrading process involves fallible human beings assessing other human beings. How can a subjective process be made as objective and valid as possible?

Smart: Good question, very good question, and topgrading companies have the answer.  Jack Welch, the retired CEO of General Electric, asked me the same question and he embraced the solution, which is used at GE even today.  It’s two interviewers who conduct what we call the Tandem Topgrading Interview.  If there is a candidate for promotion, two trained A player managers conduct the Tandem Topgrading Interview, and then conduct oral interviews with 12 of the individuals co-workers — bosses, peers, and subordinates.  The candidate gets the report and a lot of developmental suggestions.  The system is extremely credible, because it’s so thorough, open, and honest. I should add that only constructive criticism is provided.

Morris: In Good to Great, Jim Collins talks a lot about first getting the right people on the bus and the wrong people off, and then deciding where the bus should go.  Do you agree?

Smart: Yes!  All of those CEOs whom Collins refers to were topgraders.  Steven Covey once called to say Collins had written an article for the Covey Leadership Magazine, expressing the importance of having all high achievers.  He asked me to write an article on how to do it.  Good to Great is a terrific book, but unfortunately misunderstood.  CEOs should not clean house, get a great team, and then figure out strategy.  I agree [with Jim Collins] that they should replace all underperformers on the team and I also agree they should have a team so strong it can formulate the appropriate strategy.

Morris: Looking back over the past decade, what has been the most significant change in the American workplace?

Smart: I think the past decade has put more of a premium on talent than ever before.  Just look at the number of companies that have failed and ask why … and in 90% of the failures they were unable to compete with companies with better talent.  A lot of dot coms succeeded — the ones with the talent to change their business model.  GE has changed from heavy manufacturing to light manufacturing, to professional services … from a polluter to Green.  That flexibility requires not just good but superior talent, and that means topgrading has been more necessary than ever.

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To visit Bradford Smart’s website, please click here.

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