ghSMART attributes its success primarily to the talent of its team. ghSMART has been extremely selective, hiring fewer than 1% of the applicants for ghSMART who make it to the interview process, making it one of the most selective professional services firms.
- Geoff Smart, CEO

Company: ghSMART

No. of Employees: 37

Industry: Professional Services (assessments/coaching executives)


  • 100% of those hired with Topgrading methods have turned out to be A Players; a start-up, so there are no pre-Topgrading statistics.
  • Topgrading methods:
  • Two in-depth assessments.
  • $100,000 referral bonuses.
  • Professionals are only accountable for superior client satisfaction; financial goals are up to the professional.
  • Extremely high retention.

What would a firm look like that applied all of the Topgrading principles?

It would look like ghSMART.  In this case, the cobbler’s son did not go without shoes.  Geoff Smart, my son and collaborator on the concept of Topgrading back in 1997, has applied Topgrading principles to the extreme in building the leadership consulting firm ghSMART.  Near-perfect hiring, rapid removal of mis-hires, and rigorous development of everybody is how ghSMART maintains its fundamental competitive advantage.

Near-Perfect Hiring

ghSMART’s mission is to use its expertise in human behavior to help CEOs and investors build valuable companies.  Geoff founded the firm in 1995.  The 30-person firm is today considered a leader in the field of leadership consulting.  It was named one the "world's top firms" in Broderick's The Art of Managing Professional Services, in which the firm’s hiring practices are featured as a best-in-class process among the most elite professional services firms.  ghSMART is also the subject of two Harvard Business School Cases that are currently being taught in the classroom, titled "ghSMART & Co.: Pioneering in Professional Services."

ghSMART’s Hiring Process

  1. ghSMART sources over 90% of its hires through employee referrals.  The firm offers a $100,000 referral bounty to team members who source a candidate who is hired.  $10k is paid at start date + $10k for every year that both the new hire and referring person are at the firm up to 9 years).  The first step is a team member proposes a candidate to the Head of Recruiting.
  2. Head of Recruiting conducts a screening interview by phone.
  3. Two Partners conduct two separate Topgrading Interviews—one to focus on getting the chronological facts correct, one to probe more deeply on the candidate’s greatest strengths and risk areas.
  4. Around this point, a Closer is identified—a team member whose job it is to communicate frequently with the candidate and to close him or her if an offer is made.
  5. Five peer interviews are conducted—some by phone, some in person—by would-be colleagues to a) allow the candidate to ask questions and b) to discuss targeted areas (e.g. technical skills, etc.).
  6. Seven reference interviews are conducted by team members.
  7. A Kroll background check is run to verify education and work history and flag any legal issues.
  8. Partners vote and a majority is required to extend an offer.
  9. The Closer arranges for the candidate to sign his or her employment agreement.  If the candidate has any hesitations, often the Head of Recruiting, the Closer, the President of the Firm, and Geoff the Chairman & CEO fly out and have a special dinner with the candidate to help them make their decision.

Geoff admits that this process takes time.  However, he contends that the time that is saved by not having B or C Players on the team is at least 100 to 1 vs. the time that is wasted through undisciplined hiring and the inevitable costs to an organization.

Rapid Removal of Mis-Hires

The firm is the only one  Brad Smart is aware of that has a 100% A Player policy.  Not one B.  Not one C.  Imagine that!  The last time the firm made a hiring mistake was in 2002, when a consultant was hired who lacked sufficiently strong teamwork skills.  The employee was not a bad person.  He preferred working alone, and did not fit the firm’s teamwork-oriented culture.  Once this mis-match was revealed (six weeks post start date), the firm and the newly hired consultant had a meeting to discuss the issue, and a mutual agreement was reached for the person to leave the firm and to continue his career in a place that would better fit his preferred working style.

Rigorous Development

Every new person to join ghSMART goes through a rigorous onboarding process.  This process includes a feedback discussion of the person’s biggest strengths, risk areas, and career goals, a bootcamp-like orientation, the assignment of not one but two mentors (typically two senior people with different skills), review of books, materials, and videos, simulation exercises with actual CEOs, shadowing experiences in the field, real-time feedback by colleagues who shadow the person for their first six months on the job, and anonymous 360 survey feedback at various intervals.  For experienced consultants, there are opportunities to learn new skills by forming “interest groups” to focus on certain topics or areas of expertise, or to participate in training programs hosted by experts in areas such as finance & economics, leadership, psychology, and client management.

Topgrading ghSMART has led to the building of a client-satisfying, high-end consulting boutique that has enjoyed profitable growth and provides a fun atmosphere of talented colleagues.  Geoff and the ghSMART team recognize that they could have grown faster in the short term if it lowered its standards to accept non-A Players.  But the team feels proud that they are building something that is sustainable, meaningful, and special — which could have only been accomplished through strict adherence to Topgrading principles.
Geoff’s advice may be a bit biased:

  • “Read Topgrading! Then read it again!”
  • “Follow all its principles!”

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