My favorite definition of A-players comes from Geoff Smart in his book “Who.” He defines A-players as candidates who have at least a 90 percent chance of achieving a set of outcomes that only 10 percent of possible candidates could achieve, and are the employees who accept responsibility and don’t make excuses. Furthermore, A-players actively find solutions to problems and acknowledge reality. Without a team of A-players, it becomes challenging for a business leader to create a company culture that encourages performance. 

When I became one of the owners of ShelfGenie in 2006, the company was centered on a family culture. However, when we started to grow quickly over the next several years, it became a priority for us to switch to a team culture by upgrading our staff and building a team of A-players who could be the drivers and lead our company to the next stage of business development.

Through new initiatives such as topgrading and focusing on a culture of accountability that recognizes excellence, we have established a strong team of A-players. The results, both bottom-line and culturally, are overwhelmingly positive. The following are tips for business leaders to keep in mind when attempting to build a team of top-tier team employees.

Leverage the ladder of accountability to become familiar with an A-player’s top qualities. Business leaders must be familiar with the qualities A-players should possess in order to create a culture that is centered around accountability and motivation. Developing a team of employees who are accountable to themselves and the rest of the company plays a tremendous role in achieving success.

The ladder of accountability is a great tool business leaders can use to help employees understand the characteristics they need to hold in order to be considered an A-player. The ladder includes eight levels of accountability. Below the accountability line are the bottom four levels that describe people who see themselves as victims and blame others in situations.

The top four levels above the accountability line describe an employee who is results-oriented. The following is a breakdown of the top four levels that ultimately depict how A-players should conduct themselves on a daily basis.

Acknowledge reality: When A-players are put in particular situations, they realize there are tasks that need to be done and that people are relying on them to do their part. Furthermore, they can sort the facts from fiction and realize that something needs to change.

Own it: A-players take ownership of situations. If they are put in an undesirable situation, they take complete ownership of their role in the problem-solving equation and do not find ways to make excuses or place the blame on others. 

Seek solutions: Once an A-player takes ownership of a situation, they actively seek solutions to get the task accomplished. Also, A-players recognize that there is typically more than one way to approach a task, so they are proactive and brainstorm multiple solutions. 

Make it happen: Once A-players have owned the situation and have come up with solutions to accomplish the task at hand, they put their solutions into action. A-players love to execute and continue to problem-solve through or around any obstacles put in their path during execution.

Now that you have a better idea of the qualities A-players should maintain, a business leader must put the best possible strategies in place to recruit these types of candidates. According to, nearly 75 percent of people hired and promoted turn out to be disappointments. Topgrading is an extremely effective technique for interviewing potential employees to ensure companies are hiring people who embody the characteristics of an A-player.

The technique was developed in the 1990s by Brad Smart when he became disappointed by common HR practices used to hire employees. The ultimate goal of topgrading is to develop a comprehensive picture of the candidate’s personality and work history and to most reliably answer the question, “Will this candidate be an A-player in this position in our company?” Here are some steps to take when considering a topgrading hiring approach.

Present candidates with a positional agreement: A-players like to be measured, and they also are attracted to clear objectives. A positional agreement is an upgraded version of a typical job description. It is very clear and breaks down each role of the job by listing daily, monthly, quarterly and yearly goals, and each goal is SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound). A-players like clear objectives, so a positional agreement is a great tool that business leaders can leverage to attract A-player candidates. 

Provide a behavioral survey: It is important for companies to make sure that the candidate fits in with the behavioral requirements of the job. At ShelfGenie, we present new hire candidates with a predictive index survey. The leaders responsible for the position participate in a detailed survey on what the position requires and desired personality traits.

The candidate completes an online questionnaire that results in a quantifiable behavioral assessment that highlights the similarities and differences between the candidate and the behavioral requirements of a job at any level. Hiring managers are better able to evaluate the job fit of candidates and potential challenges, which results in setting clear expectations from the start so the employee is set up to succeed. It’s also used as a recruiting tool, because A-players are attracted to a quantifiable “good fit” as well.

Master advanced interviewing methods: At ShelfGenie, we put all candidates at every level through a lengthy interview process. Candidates first start with an hour-long group interview that usually consists of three interview panelists from several levels of our leadership team and approximately eight job candidates. Each candidate is asked the same question, but the order in which the interview candidates answer the questions rotates.

The questions are very specific and engaging. For example, we might ask, “Tell me about a time when you were in a leadership position and had to make a tough decision.” A group interview is a great tool for measuring how concise interview candidates are. The candidates who handle themselves well the entire time and provide consistent and thorough answers are the potential A-players of the group.

After a group interview, we ask the potential A-players to move forward with the process to complete an online career history survey. Candidates include all of their past jobs, the names of their supervisors, as well as list out what their supervisors would say their top strengths and areas for improvement were.

Once the form is complete, we hold an extremely thorough career history interview with the original interview panelist from the group interview and the candidate. This interview is extensive and covers their entire career beginning with high school and ending with their most recent job. We also conduct phone interviews with their past supervisors to match their answers with the candidates that performed well in the career history interview.

This process is extremely beneficial because when a candidate is awarded the position, we have spent four to six hours with them and know they will fit the organization culturally. Furthermore, from an onboarding perspective, we have spent enough time with the candidate that on day one of the job, they are more confident and comfortable with the company and can hit the ground running. 

Measure hiring success: Once a company starts using topgrading methods to hire employees, it should measure their performance every quarter. At ShelfGenie, each team member has a score of from four to six SMART goals each quarter that benefit our strategic objectives for the quarter. Measuring and keeping track of their success rate will make it clear if they are and continue to be A-players for your organization. 

As most business leaders already know, it takes tremendous effort to hire the right people and train them properly to set them up for success. For a company that looks to grant itself every opportunity to achieve growth, it is crucial to hire A-players who can help motivate fellow employees. The recruitment effort will take an enormous amount of time upfront, but it yields a terrific return on investment long-term.

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