People: Building the A- Team

by Nov 10, 2021High Growth Businesses, Leadership

This is the forth installment in a series on Building a High Growth Business and scaling it up. Click Here for Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

People: Building the A- Team

When the CEO of MOM’s Organic Market, Scott Nash, needed to hire a CFO, he knew that simply asking a recruiter to search for a financial expert who understood the grocery industry well wasn’t going to be good enough for them. Nash had founded MOM’s when he was only 22, as a mail order and home delivery company and just like many entrepreneurs, he had started scrappily, setting up shop in his mother’s garage. However, from the start, the company was built for growth, centered on one strong principle, to protect and restore the environment.

A few years later, MOM’s had now grown into a chain of 11 stores with over 700 employees and was still willing to walk away from potential sales so as to stick to its core principles. For instance, it banned the sale of plastic water bottles in all its stores, leaving millions on the table.

So when the search for an outstanding CFO came about, they needed someone not only willing to embrace the spirit the company was built on but also skillful enough to navigate any financial trade-offs that may be involved.

Rather than advertise on job boards as is customary, they placed an ad where those most likely to be interested in the company tend to hang out- on, an environmental news and green-living website. The ad too was unusual in its approach. It asked a few questions that read along these lines:

  • Do you want to work for a David, rather than a Goliath?
  •  Are you an entrepreneur in a CPA’s body?
  •  Would you rather come to work in jeans?

And the list goes on. 

The result: MOM’s received more than 40 resumes in a week from a group of great candidates who clearly understood and appreciated what the company stood for. Ultimately, Kelly Moler was hired and in less than 8 years, she helped MOM’s grow to a $130 million annual revenue company. 

She was also instrumental in helping navigate the challenges brought on by such explosive growth amid competition from industry Titans such as Whole Foods. MOM’s now has over 21 stores with the latest one opening up in New York City in the suburbs of Dobbs Ferry. 

They have since taken a similar approach for all other vacant positions which has helped the company save money and time in attracting and retaining talent.

“Ten years ago or so, before we did a lot of this stuff, people were just passing through,” recalls Nash. “The typical candidate”, he adds, “was someone who just wanted a paycheck. To them, MOM’s was a stepping-stone to go someplace better.”

Since MOM’s adjusted its recruitment strategy to fit its core culture, he says, “Retention rates have just skyrocketed. It seems to be easier to hire people and find people.” The ad, he notes, “is an example of how we prioritize our company culture and values.”

Nash and MOM’s success can also be replicated in your business, but for that to happen, you first need to build an A- Team around what you stand for. Luckily, how to go about it is what we will explore together in the next few minutes. 

Follow along as we share how Nash, and other leaders recruit and hire tough-to-find talent.

Attracting the best talent 

Before you begin your search, it is important to create a Job Scorecard for the key executive or frontline associate you would like to work with. This tool was developed by Brad and Geoff Smart as part of the Topgrading Methodology for hiring A- players.

A Job Scorecard differs from the standard job description in a few ways in that it:

  1. Details a person purpose for the job,
  2. Clearly states the desired outcomes of this individual’s work, 
  3. Highlights the competences- both cultural and technical – required to execute the job.

By Brad and Geoff Smart’s definition, an A-player is: “Someone in the top 10% of the available talent pool who is willing to accept your specific offer.” (Read that definition again)

This does not imply that you have to pay beyond what your business model can sustain. What it means though, is that you need to attract the largest and most capable talent pool, who are excited about the job and are willing to accept your compensation package. For this reason, any company has the same chances of hiring A players, from the Fortune 500 companies to the smallest startup of 1.

A key element of a Job Scorecard is a few specific and measurable outcomes that a potential hire needs to accomplish over the next 1 to 3 years. This is a very important distinction between the Job Description and the Job Scorecard. While a Job Description typically lists what people will be doing (eg. building client relationships, coaching sales reps), a Job Scorecard describes the outcomes that you want from these activities. These could be:

  • A 100% contract renewal rate among the customers our software company serves
  • Eight new S&P 500 clients
  • $12 million in revenue
  • And more.

If you’re specific about the outcomes, it allows you to directly evaluate each candidate’s capacity to deliver those results. For example: Do you really see the person you are interviewing taking your top line from $10 million to $25 million over the next 3 years? Is there anything in their history of results that supports such a conclusion?

Another key element is a list of competences by the candidate that align with your strategy and culture. It’s more important to hire for this kind of fit than for specific skills, as long as the person has the capacity to learn and grow (though it would be best to find someone who is a match in both skill set and cultural values). 

In addition to looking for cultural fit, it is also important to hire people who can deliver on your Brand Promises and the activities that underpin your strategy.

Finding The best hires 

Researchers Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, authors of ‘First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently’ use chess vs checkers to describe how teams operate. They argue that great managers play chess while the good ones play checkers. In chess, each piece moves differently, allowing you to bring their different strengths to the game whereas in checkers, the pieces move in the same way.

Just like the A-Team in television action films, a group of renegades who bring their unique individual personalities, talents and strengths together to fight on the side of good, so too should the components of your team be.

You need a team of absolute specialists- chess pieces- to help you achieve your ambitions goals. The learning curve for the well-rounded generalists (the checker pieces) is simply too long and too steep to survive today’s fast-paced complex world. That is why you might benefit more as a leader to look for “idiot savants” (i.e. people who are extremely talented at one particular thing and quite possibly terrible at others).

Daniel M. Cable, author of ‘Change to Strange: Create a Great Organization by Building a Strange Workforce’ suggests that you hire people who are downright strange. “If your competitive advantage depends on your people creating something distinctive and valuable, then your workforce can’t be normal”, adds Daniel.

On working with specialists in the team, Geoff Smart puts it best, “You would not let your family-practice doctor perform open-heart surgery on you.” The teams need to be well rounded but the individual members don’t have to be. Leaders do not always understand this, which is why we tend to hire people who are most like ourselves and we end up with a company of look-alikes. 

Instead, we should aim at tapping the diversity of talent, backgrounds and personalities that is needed to drive fruitful debate, innovation and differentiation that powers growth.

Recruiting as a marketing function  

Research strongly suggests that you need a minimum of 20 applicants per position (frontline to senior) if you want to dramatically increase your odds of hiring A players. This is why the marketing team must be as actively involved in recruiting a steady stream of potential employees as it is in attracting potential customers.

The best candidates are most likely working somewhere else and they need a reason to consider your organization. And because budgets are usually tight in growing firms, you must also find clever marketing approaches to attract the ‘strange’ talent you are seeking.

Google, in its early years (2004) launched a recruiting campaign that has now become the stuff of legend in HR recruitment courses. They placed a single billboard (near Yahoo headquarters- “fish where there are fish”- right?), with no mention of the company which displayed a complex math riddle. 

The billboard read:“{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits e}.com.”

The mere intrigue of the billboard generated millions of dollars of free publicity and it exposed the ad to tens of thousands of potential hires. The answer,, would lead a puzzle-sleuth to a Web page with yet another equation to solve, with still no sign that the game was hosted by Google.

Mastering that equation would then lead someone to a page on Google Labs, the company’s research and development department, which read: “One thing we learned while building Google is that it’s easier to find what you’re looking for if it comes looking for you. What we’re looking for are the best engineers in the world. And here you are.

As you can imagine, Google gets many, many resumes every day, so developing this little process certainly helped to increase the signal-to-noise ratio.

This kind of guerilla marketing is within any company’s reach. Atlassian, an Australian software company hired 15 developers in 15 days after touring 4 European cities with a flashy bus that read, “Europe, We’re Coming to Steal Your Geeks”. They have since snatched up several Recruitment Awards for the bold and unusual campaign.

The Hiring Process (Interviewing and selection) 

Once you have attracted a large number of qualified candidates, you need a rock solid evaluation process (not just your gut feeling) to bring the numbers down from 20 to ten then to 3, and finally to the top candidate who can deliver 150% of your Job Scorecard.

For the application stage, it’s common to ask gatekeeper questions to help narrow the long list of applicants. These, however, should be used to get a sense of the candidate’s values, not just eliminate many. For example, at MOM’s the online application asks questions such as, “What companies do you admire?” and “Why are you interested in working at MOM’s?” 

Although quite simple, the answers provided will show if the candidates align with the company’s values or not.

After the application process, the interview process follows. The process we will dive into for this is the Topgrading Methodology. For an overview of the same, read Geoff Smart and Randy Street’s book ‘Who: The A-Method for Hiring’. To get the intricate details, grab Bradford D. Smart’s book ‘Topgrading:The Proven Hiring and Promoting Method That turbocharges Company Performance’, and learn the 12 steps encompassed in the process.

An overview of the Top-grading Interview method 

The Interview process consists of 4 main steps which are:

1. Screening  interview.

This interview consists of five powerful screening interview questions. They work for any position for which you’re hiring and can be addressed in 30 to 45 minutes over the phone or in a short meeting.

2. Competency interview.

Ask more generalized questions about attitude, proficiency, and behavior for quick insight. These are more traditional interviews where the candidate meets with different people in the company who evaluate the knowledge, skills and background of the candidate. This is an important step, but one that with the right interview skills training, a bad candidate could slip through. If the candidate makes it through this step, reference checks are positive and the A-player is still excited about the position, then they move to the CIDS interview.

3. Chronological In-Depth Structured (CIDS) interview.

Have a conversation with the candidate about how they ended up where they are today. This is a lengthy, in-depth, chronological interview conducted by multiple people in the company at one time, not just the hiring manager. This is an integral part of the hiring process. 
It usually lasts 3-4 hours and covers the entire work history and personal accomplishments of the candidate.  The length of this interview offers several benefits:

    1. A- Players like a vigorous process and are leery of companies that make it too easy. 
    2. “Professional” interviewees can’t keep up the façade for hours.
    3. Meanwhile, those who are not initially comfortable will have time to relax and open up.
    4. Besides, what’s three to four hours now vs. thousands of hours of headaches if you hire the wrong person?

4. Provide feedback to interviewers.

Instant improvement is the name of the game, and interviewers should receive critique, tips, and additional training as needed after each interview is conducted. 

Test Drive potential Employees 

Although it is not always possible,the best way to select the right people is to have candidates work with you for several weeks. For frontline hires, temp-to-perm placement firms are popular because they allow you to test-drive candidates. For management hires, see if they can work with you in the evenings on a consulting basis. 

The founders of Google appointed Eric Schmidt chairman of the board of directors four months before making him CEO. 

Zappos requires all new hires, no matter what the position (executive, programmer, marketer), go through a four-week training program that includes extensive time working in its call center serving customers. During this trial period, they offer these newbies a $3,000 bonus (besides their salary for the month) if they quit, guaranteeing that only those who really want to work at Zappos stay. 

Since acquiring Zappos, Amazon has adopted something similar for fulfillment-center workers called Pay to Quit. In an employee’s first year of work, the offer is $2,000. It goes up by $1,000 every year after that until it hits $5,000. The idea, writes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in his 2014 letter to shareholders, is “to encourage folks to take a moment and think about what they really want. In the long run, an employee staying somewhere they don’t want to be isn’t healthy for the employee or the company. 

For you to build the A team…

You need to hire the best A players you can find for each position based on four criteria as discussed above: 

Will- a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere, learn, and innovate.
Values- this is the test for culture fit – do they align with your core values?
Results- in the end can they deliver on your KPIs/outcomes?
Skill- this the least important, since most skill-sets need updating every 3-5 years. 

Attracting and hiring A- Players, at all levels of the organization, is as critical as landing the right customers. This requires the active participation of the marketing function in the recruiting process and the use of Topgrading methodology in the interviewing and selection process. With both, your company will have a huge pool of candidates from which to choose enough “strange” people (who fit your differentiated strategy and culture) to scale up the business.



Samuel Njoroge writes and speaks about Creativity, Strategy, Leadership and Productivity. 

Through his boutique firm, Azelea Coaching Advisory, he works directly with over 100 business leaders and entrepreneurs each year to help them design the necessary framework to achieve their biggest business targets. 

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Samuel's specialty is designing and breaking down complex projects to really simple steps. 


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