Access Development

During the last three years of the recession (2009 – 2012) we have continued to grow revenue, we’ve been one of Utah’s fastest-growing companies, and we’ve won multiple awards as a “best place to work.” Having 94%+ A Players at Access is one of the key reasons for this success. Topgrading has been the foundation to help us attract, hire, and retain these A Players.
- Larry Maxfield, CEO

The Company: Access Development

No. of Employees: 185

Industry: Discount Programs


  • Improved from 33% to 94% A Players hired and promoted throughout the company.
  • Three levels of internal certification of Topgraders (for all managers).
  • "Best company" awards attract A Players.

Company History: Founded in 1984 and based in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Access mission has been to inspire consumer loyalty through the world’s best affinity marketing programs.

Topgrading Methods: Fortunately for readers, Access management is willing to share not only their good results and advice, but candid recognition of ways they could Topgrade even better. The following is Access’s status on the 12 Topgrading Hiring Steps. Reading what they share will give you insight into what steps tend to be taken early on.

  1. Measurement: The pre-Topgrading estimate was 55% high performers hired, but since Topgrading Access, standards have become both clearer and higher. So senior management went back to review talent and decided the pre-Topgrading hiring success rate was only 33% across the company. In ratings, all employees are deemed to be A Player, A Potential, or non-A. Every quarter, every manager sends Travis Isaacson, Director of Talent Development, a Talent Review Form with all of their people rated and ranked. The ratings (A, A Potential, Non-A) come from a quarterly Scorecard Review with each employee. Travis compiles all the data from everyone and provides an Executive Summary that goes to the CEO, COO, and president.
  2. Job Scorecard: Done well.
  3. Recruit from Networks: 89% of hires in the past year came from networks. Every employee’s Job Scorecard contains a requirement to have at least 10 people in their networks. LinkedIn is encouraged. “Bounties,” payments for referring someone who is hired, are $100 to $500, but not for managers.
  4. Screen with Career History Form/Topgrading Snapshot: The Topgrading Career History Form is the company’s application form.
  5. Telephone Screen: Done.
  6. Competency Interviews: “It’s our weakest part,” the company reports. Done occasionally, and only after the tandem Topgrading Interview.
  7. Tandem Topgrading Interview: This is required. Normally the tandem interviewers are the hiring manager and another manager that will interact with the new hire (the hiring manager’s supervisor, a manager in a related department, etc.). The Interview Guide and any additional notes are retained for two reasons. One, to help the hiring manager, who periodically reviews the notes to best understand and manage the new hire; and two, to analyze how a (rare) mis-hire might take place.
  8. Interviewer Feedback Form: Generally both tandems use it to give each other feedback for five minutes following every interview. Some feedback is received, however, through the Bronze, Silver, Gold certification process.
  9. Executive Summary: “We could do this better.” Candidates are scored on the Job Scorecard, and there usually are some notes on why the candidate was or was not hired.
  10. Reference Checks With Bosses, Arranged by the Candidate:  Done, and calls are made by the hiring manager, not HR.
  11. Coach New Hire: As indicated in the certification process, new hires receive feedback and coaching, and create their Individual Development Plan (IDP), within 45 days of when they were hired.
  12. Annual Measurement: Once per quarter Travis Isaacson meets with all (30) managers to do talent reviews, with all their people designated A, A Potential, or Non-A. Once per year, another overall talent review is done.

Topgrading Results: From 33% to 94% A Players hired and promoted, company-wide.

The senior team looked for ways to help integrate Topgrading into the Access culture. Without something that accomplished this, a fear was that Topgrading would be reduced to a “program-of-the-month” and would be adopted by only a few managers and never fully adopted by everyone. Giving someone an official-looking certification seemed like a good incentive and a way to track who has adopted it and how much.

So, the senior team reviewed the Topgrading steps, practices, and expected outcomes, and divided them into three categories (beginning certification or Bronze, intermediate or Silver, and advanced or Gold). To show every manager the importance of Topgrading, certification achievement is part of every manager’s Job Scorecard.

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CHAT WITH A TOPGRADER: Call with Travis Isaacson

Brad: Could you tell us what your title is, and just a little bit about the company?

Travis: Oh sure! I'm Travis Isaacson, Director of Organization Development with Access Development; we're based in Salt Lake City. Our company has three different customer types. We have merchants, restaurants, golf courses, ski resorts, hotels, and so forth. We help them drive more sales into their store.  We have discounts arranged with them, and they provide those discounts to members of the membership organizations that we serve. Our company has 150 employees.

Brad: How did you get into Topgrading?

Travis: In 2007 our COO attended a Topgrading Workshop. He sent me to a workshop just a short time later, and we started training everyone in the company on Topgrading. At the time we estimated that our hiring success rate was probably in the 50s and 60s and we felt like we were doing all right. We are now up to 94%, and we continue to try to improve.

We started with Job Scorecards. As we read the book Topgrading, and then attended the workshops, we realized we've got to get Job Scorecards for every position in the company, because we can use this as a management tool in addition to just a tool to hire the right people. So we mandated Job Scorecards, which were created for everyone in the company, top to bottom. We found as we went along it was difficult to create those Job Scorecards, but we shared best practices along the way with all our managers, and we now have them — and it's been very effective for us.

Brad: It's easy to have job descriptions with generalities about responsibilities and competencies. The benefit of the Job Scorecard is you nail down measurable accountabilities so that one year later if the person meets those accountabilities, this person is an A Player. But it's not easy articulating annual measurable accountabilities, is it?

Travis: No, it's not. And when you think about creating that for the higher level positions, some of that's clear because of the sales numbers or something. But when you get down to customer service reps, IT developers, QA staff in IT or whatever, it becomes a little more challenging — but is well worth the effort.  Topgrading is the central piece of our performance management system now, and has meant the world to us.

Brad: What have candidates for employment said about the Topgrading processes?

Travis: Since we've been Topgrading, all the A Player candidates that come in to interview with us, whether they get the job or not,  comment on our process and how impressed they are with the process. So if they get hired, inevitably we ask them, "What do you like about Access, why did you come here," and they will often tell us, "I was so impressed that you guys put so much time and effort into finding the right candidate; I know that you were serious about me, and I'm ready to prove you right."

Brad: Yeah, going from 50 or 60 to 94% — congratulations, nice job. Because you have used Topgrading to hire 40 or 50 people, tell us what the steps have been.

Travis: Actually we used everything from the book. After we receive resumes, we send out the Career History Forms. We get those Career History Forms back — there's no exception. We screen off of those, then conduct phone screening interviews using the methodology that you outlined, Brad. We are now down to just a few candidates that we bring in for a Tandem Topgrading Interview, and when they come in, we do a two to four hour interview depending on how much experience they have. It's with at least two managers — sometimes we have three; we follow the Topgrading Interview Guide and take  notes.

After we do that interview, we found it helpful to have the interviewers not talk a lot about what they think, but instead go back to their desks and score the candidate against the Job Scorecard based on the data they gathered during the interview. And it helps them not to sway each other too much; otherwise, what you get is the junior level interviewer often just agreeing with the senior level interviewer if you let them talk before they score.

So then if we're interested in the candidate, we do reference checks, and of course we ask candidates to arrange calls with the bosses we want to talk with. When we started doing those, they were just the standard, usual, lame reference checks, and we didn't get anywhere. Then we figured out that there's a guide for this (it's the Topgrading Reference Check Guide) and we followed those questions. We have the actual hiring manager do the reference checks (it's not someone from HR), and we found that if we ask the questions outlined in the Topgrading Reference Check Guide and it's the right person making that phone call, the hiring manager, people will talk with us.

Brad: Do you always have the candidate arrange those calls?

Travis: Absolutely.

Brad: That's a really key point. I was talking to the head of Human Resources to one of the Global Oil companies this morning and she said she couldn't believe candidates actually do it. I didn't believe it 25 years ago either when someone said, "You know, despite what company policies exist against managers in taking reference calls, A Players get their former bosses to talk."

Travis: I think maybe two or three of the questions you have in there are something like, "Hey, we're interested in the person we met, we might hire them, what kind of advice can you give me to help them hit the ground running and to really do well?" If the candidate is an A Player, the former boss really wants that person to succeed, so they open it up and say, "Oh, she's fantastic; here's what you're going to want to watch for, here's what you can do to help her succeed." You just learn so much information.

Brad: What do you think has been the impact of Topgrading on the success to the business?

Travis: Well, at a very high level, we really feel like, in fact we know from our employee surveys, that Topgrading is one of the things that our employees love the most. As weird as that sounds, Topgrading was cited as one of the things employees liked most, and that helped us win the Utah Work/Life Award. We are also one of Utah's fastest-growing companies in a down economy. And honestly, we do attribute a good portion of that to having A Players.

Brad: That is fantastic! I'm just very happy you took the time to share that with us. I think it adds a personal touch for the listeners to here it from someone who has actually done it.

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