What Does Topgrading Mean for Your B+ Players?

by Michael Brown

Affirma StaffingMany successful business leaders attribute topgrading as a pivotal component of their company’s growth

. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, is an outspoken proponent of topgrading principles. His success with driving GE to become a “talent generating machine” has sparked tremendous interest in topgrading. We have found that many companies struggle with initiating their own topgrading campaign due to the varying nuances of topgrading principles.

​As a general concept, topgrading is intuitive, but the finer points of topgrading can leave management with feelings of discomfort and confusion. One of these core scenarios is what happens when your B+ players are consistently on the line. If you have read “Topgrading,” the process is described as a black and white, but when dealing with people there are always shades of gray.

What exactly constitutes an A-player? An A-player is someone “who qualifies among the top 10% of those available (willing to accept the job offer) for a position,” they are “the best in class” at any compensation level.[1] Topgrading does not necessarily mean that you must fire every B player in your company; however, if you currently have less than 90% A-player employees, then you will likely engage in a painful, uphill battl​e.
Bradford D. Smart, author of “Topgrading​,” advocates that all topgrading companies should strive to hire 90% A-players, promote 90% A-Players, and eventually achieve 90% A-players in management. So what does this mean for your B, or even C players, if only 10% of them can remain in your company?
Dr. Smart argues that you have a few options when it comes to dealing with your chronic B’s and C’s:
  1. Give them a fair, but brief, chance to become an A-player. Offer them extensive training and coaching, decrease their pay until performance improves, restructure their jobs so the B/C’s can perform like A’s, or redeploy them internally to a position where they will become an A-player. If after 6 months you cannot see an improvement in performance, you must choose the more difficult course of action.
  2. Force your B or C to resign. This is not necessarily “firing” your employee, but forcing them to resign in exchange for a severance agreement. This allows the employee to save face and dignity, and gives them the option to say, “I resigned” or “The decision was mutual,” in the future. Smart also encourages helping these average performers to find external placement.
To many managers and executives, these rigid guidelines for handling less-than-star-performers seem incredibly inflexible and cold-hearted. Topgrading thrusts managers into an uncomfortable gray area, with few answers to the difficult questions.
  • How can you replace a B-player that is essential to your company’s culture?
  • What about employees who received coaching/training and are at the absolute brink of becoming an A-performer, but just can’t make it beyond B+ performance?
  • Can B+ players be healthy for your company in different roles?
  • Is there a guarantee that you can replace all of your B+ players with A-talent, especially in a highly competitive market for talent?
  • Should lifestyle companies approach topgrading differently than aggressive growth companies?

Although Dr. Smart encourages us to rid our companies of B’s and C’s forever, saying that “protecting incompetent people is corporate suicide,”[2] he does not adequately explain how doing so may impact culture. If there are certain chronic B players that are pivotal to the culture of your company, perhaps you would be better off interpreting the “90% A-players” as nothing more than an arbitrary number. Could your company still maintain a competitive advantage with 80% A’s, or even 90% of employees performing among the top 15% available? Percentiles seem to convolute the real issue here, a B or C player is one that is overpaid and/or under-performs. Perhaps a reinterpretation of what it means to be a B player is needed in order to clarify the gray area, and encourage a more widespread adoption of topgrading.

When drawing the line between B and A players, Charles Bender, President of Biz IT Pros, emphasizes the importance of culture, “My advice to anyone trying to implement Topgrading is to first know what an A player looks like in your corporate culture. I found that most of my B’s were A’s in job talent and D’s in culture fit.”

“My feeling is that topgrading existing employees is like First Aid. You must stop the bleeding of productivity first then move on to the higher level of expectation. When topgrading my business, I created the scorecards for each position, including the deliverables that reflected not only the needs of the job, but also the expectations of our culture.  It is my belief that culture is what creates an environment to allow A players to succeed,” explains Bender.

We invite you to share your own experiences with topgrading. How has your company dealt with borderline A/B employees? When does topgrading make the most sense? What were your most difficult challenges while topgrading? What is preventing you from topgrading your company?


Build a common language of innovation on your team

Don’t miss an article (3,650+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Innovation Excellence group!


Michael BrownMichael Brown is CEO & Founder of Affirma, an award-winning Business, Technology, Creative & Staffing consultancy specializing in Mobile, Cloud, Business Intelligence, SharePoint, Custom Development & Visual Design. Learn more about Affirma at https://www.affirmaconsulting.com or visit our blog.

No comments

  1. Topgrading may be necessary to reward your A players, but you should be developing B players as part of your bench and succession plan. Your A players may not stay forever and may not be your A players forever. Also, people need to be considered as individuals and the value of what they can provide to a team as well as the success of the company. Topgrading should be considered one of many tools used to manage, develop and reward the ever changing needs of your business.

  2. Great in concept but inhuman in reality as far as the Indian scenario is concerned. Topgrading sounds like a euphemism for Hitler’s vision of purifying what he believed to be the Aryan race.

  3. The whole concept of A and B players is not a viable solution for businesses. It’s a false sense of security for a company whose owners think they can create success by having only certain people in their organization. I’ve seen first hand peoples careers destroyed, families go hungry, and loss company moral by this mentality. Anyone that stands out becomes a target for being ‘fired’ or ‘resign’.

    Sorry, but this is a failure in someone’s wantingness of greed over people.

  4. The best way to recognize B or C players is to see who is moaning after hearing about this “theory”. A players are willing to take risk, change and adapt fast and make a company adaptative to face challenges. B players (or C) are always resilent to change and get A players playing in a lower league.

  5. As the founder of Topgrading, I found Mike’s concerns to be mostly on target but a bit off target. My recently released 3rd Edition of Topgrading was totally rewritten and clears up some of these questions. By the way, it has made all the best seller lists and a couple of weeks ago it was the top selling book in the US, of 16 million sold by Barnes & Noble. To help clarify:
    o Yes the A Player definition: “top 10% available” is arbitrary, but works for 95% of companies.
    o It would not work for a pro sports team.
    o B/C Players are NOT typically bought off with a severance; some companies do this but most of the time the B/C knows that to keep the job they have to sell 75 widgets and after all the coaching and training they know they will fail, they quietly look for another job.
    o “Essential” Bs might in fact be As. How can you tell? Simple — do the recruitment and Topgradiing assessments (including reference checks) and when a clear A is ready and willing to join you make the decision.
    o Of course B and even C Players frequently are square pegs in round holes. Great sales reps get promoted to sales manager, where they are a C Player, and become an A Player when they return to sales rep.
    I hope this helps!

  6. I have been using this methodology for just over a year now and I have to say it has revolutionized my business. Just having A players has elevated former B’s to A’s. We have hired 5 new people and all have been outstanding additions to our team. One misnomer is that an A player represents one type of person. What it represents to me is the right person for the job and the team. Brad thanks for posting.

Leave a Reply