Thought Leadership


Deffet Group’s thought leaders regularly produce educational content, keeping our firm current on industry trends and research in aging services, human services, and best practices in not-for-profit executive search. Our senior leaders participate as regular attendees and presenters at national and state-level LeadingAge and other not-for-profit association conferences. To discuss how our firm can provide your organization with personalized educational sessions for board members and senior leadership teams, please contact Elizabeth Feltner at


Bring Out the Best: Maximizing Your Employee Performance

Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D.

It’s a widely-held maxim of the business world: Great organizations begin with great people. As is any employer in today’s especially challenging economy, you are no doubt concerned about developing a support staff that performs at their top capability levels. This, of course, begins with the hiring process—ensuring you bring on board those individuals who can genuinely help your organization continue to succeed and grow—which is where hiring a qualified, experienced executive search firm can really make a difference. But of course it doesn’t end with the hiring process. Oftentimes employers believe they are bringing the best talent on board, only to discover later that these key players are not performing at the level reported at their previous institution. How do you make sure your employees are performing at the maximum level after you bring them on board? And what should you do when they’re not? What follows are some basic principles for addressing both of these concerns.

The single most important factor in your organization’s overall success is talent. When you have the very best talent in the field at all levels of your organization, there is no limit to the success you can achieve. The key to reaching this place, though, is regular evaluation and assessment of your staff’s performance. How do you know you have today’s A talent, operating at an A level? One method for determining the level at which your staff is performing is the systematic method known as “topgrading.” Topgrading is a branded approach to building a team of all high performers. Developed in 1972 by Brad Smart, founder of Smart & Associates (an executive assessment and development consultancy), it is a method best-known for its successful use by Jack Welch, then the CEO of General Electric, in developing General Electric’s successful management practices within GE. The components of Topgrading include the originator’s special principles for hiring, developing, redeploying, and retaining employees. Their tenants have helped leaders build valuable companies, and have also helped individuals achieve greater career success.

The basic concept of topgrading is that in order to maximize success and growth, an organization should pack its team with what are considered A players (the top 10% of talent available at all salary levels), remove those employees that are considered performing at a C level or lower, and use expert coaching techniques to turn B players into As. The method is based on more than 4,000 career case studies and has been deemed successful by organizations world-wide. Essentially, it is a systematic approach for hiring, and then regularly evaluating, your staff in areas of key competencies on a level of A – C, with A denoting “high performers,” B denoting “adequate performers with potential to become high performers,” and C denoting “low performers”. Key competencies for upper level managers include the following areas: overall talent, problem-solving, leadership, energy/passion, resourcefulness/initiative, topgrading (their own ability to hire high performers and those with potential to become high performers), training/development/coaching, team building, track record, integrity, and communication. This level of assessment is one that few organizations, particularly in the nonprofit sector, are utilizing, but thoroughly understanding each of your employee’s key competencies—and bringing them on board about where they rank in each of these areas—could very well be the best way to promote your organization’s continued success.

For a full report of how to employ topgrading methods in your organization, you may want to consider investing in the book, Topgrading: How Leading Companies Win by Hiring, Coaching, and Keeping the Best People (Prentice, 1999, 2005), or subscribe to their company website,

Before you rule out the concept of evaluating and assessing employees’ performance, offering training in the necessary areas of growth to fully perform, and then taking action based on these results as too “harsh” of an approach to maximizing employee productivity, consider the following:

  • While as a mission-driven organization, you may feel hesitant to utilize methods that hold employees firmly accountable for their productivity, your (and the employees’) main accountability is to your constituency. You have made a commitment to providing them with the very best services possible, and to do so, you need to employ those people best equipped to serve those needs. This is central to actualizing your organization’s vision.
  • It is unfair to allow employees to work without receiving feedback about their performance. Topgrading procedures include performance evaluations up to 4 times a year, but very few organizations are following through with this level of interaction between management and support staff. A systematic approach to regular evaluations is the best way to keep your employees informed of their strengths and weaknesses, and it better positions them (and your organization) for overall success.
  • If you allow individuals to stay in positions where they can’t truly excel, you are doing not only your organization, but them, a huge disservice.

Finally, in order to hold your staff accountable for performing at their best, it is important to evaluate your own organizational climate to see if you have created a workplace that maximizes employee performance while minimizing employee stress. What follows are some recommendations, adapted from David Lee’s article titled, “Becoming a Talent Magnet: How to Maximize Employee Performance While Minimizing Employee Stress.” In the article, Lee points out that scientific research on stress, combined with some of the best practices of high performance companies, can make the difference in how your employee responds to the demands of the workplace. (The full article can be accessed at

  • Give employees as much control over their jobs as possible. Research indicates that control is the biggest factor in whether people feel stressed out or invigorated when facing a challenge. Ways to give control include: the power to make job-related decisions, flexibility over the way they organize their work in order to produce optimal results, and the right to find and implement improvements on how they do their job. When we feel empowered and in control of our situation, we also recognize that we are responsible and accountable for our own results.
  • Communicate clearly and often about everything important. Don’t leave your employees in the dark about important changes within the organization—especially those changes that directly affect them. This leads to questions, and oftentimes, to individuals making negative assumptions about why changes are taking place. This ultimately can have a very powerful, negative effect on their ability to perform at their maximum capabilities, as they may waste countless, valuable working hours worrying about what those changes might mean for them. Keeping them informed prevents this from happening.
  • Talk with your employees about what makes your organization great. We all want to feel that we are a part of something great—and that we are making a significant contribution to this success. Providing regular reports and holding informal meetings which review and applaud recent successes are just two of the many ways you can keep your employees informed about the good work you are all doing together, and keep them both positive about and focused on the success you are achieving together.
  • Make sure supervisors know how to bring out the best in people. Have your supervisors been trained concerning ways they directly affect employee morale, performance, and stress levels? If not, it’s time to invest in this process—research indicates that supervisors with poor management skills increase employee stress and reduce overall productivity.

Ultimately, if your employees are receiving regular assessments with constructive feedback about ways they might improve their performance, and they are working in an environment designed to maximize their success while minimizing their stress, chances are you are going to find that you are surrounded by A and B performers. If that still is not the case, you owe it to yourself to look into those methods outlined in today’s topgrading literature to see what further steps you need to take—not only to ensure your organization’s success, but also the individual success of everybody currently serving within your organization’s doors. And most importantly, it may very well be the best way to make sure those who have entrusted themselves to your care are receiving the outstanding level of service that you are committed to providing them.

About the Author
Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D. photo

Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D., is Vice President of Deffet Group, Inc. She works collaboratively with clients nationwide to identify and retain executive leaders and advance organizational success. An accomplished public speaker for employers and national conferences, frequent topics include succession planning, on-boarding, and leadership development.