Boost the nine-box talent grid

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Written by James Brook on 1 September 2014 in Features

James Brook suggests ways to improve results when using this talent management tool

As one of the most frequently used talent and succession management planning frameworks, the nine-box grid is a key tool when looking to identify employees who show the potential to succeed in top roles within your organisation. Popular for its simplicity, the nine-box grid provides a format in which senior leaders can place the names of individuals based on both their current performance and their potential to succeed in the future. While the method is widely used across a number of businesses, there are various gaps in knowledge about the tool, which may have a negative effect on its accuracy. Here we address some of the most common assumptions made about the tool and suggest how to overcome them:

It is possible to assess potential objectively

The assessment of potential is largely subjective and is an extremely challenging exercise, even with access to the most up-to-date methods and the best psychometrics. Many leaders will have differing views as to how much potential an individual has and it is often these opinions, rather than measured successes, that will be used to choose candidates for senior roles. It is worth noting that Peter Drucker, the ‘father’ of modern management, went as far as to say we should not try to measure potential at all and should instead focus on demonstrable performance, which is much more objective and easier to quantify.

Proposed solution:

Rather than looking at potential in its subjective form, try to assess the separate traits that are indicators of potential, such as agility/flexibility, self-improvement and resilience/grit. It is much more accurate to measure these less abstract characteristics than to attempt to assess potential in general. The use of ‘stretch’ assignments, which test the abilities of hi-potential (HIPO) candidates in different situations, is recommended in order to confirm that the employee’s key skills are transferable to multiple situations and identify them as a ‘key talent’. Assessment and development centres offer a cost-effective and low risk way to test the performance of a HIPO candidate’s leadership strengths and qualities when taken out of their comfort zone and placed in challenging and changeable situations.

Performance and potential are consistent throughout changing situations

As well as the problems associated with the measuring of potential, it is important to remember that performance is rarely consistent when situations and environments change, be it at home or in the workplace. This is especially apparent when an employee is transferred to an alternative role or a different geographic location. A high-achieving finance leader may not be able to maintain performance levels when promoted to a CEO role, as the nation saw when Gordon Brown was promoted from Chancellor into the Prime Minister role and arguably became one of the least popular and largely ineffective PMs ever. Similarly, a change in geographic location can lower an employee’s performance, particularly if they do not have a high level of agility to adapt to the situation, or the cultural sensitivity needed to continue their successes in a different location. The final factor affecting the consistency of performance is time. Changes within an individual’s personal or family life can affect their productivity in the workplace, as their focus can shift onto other, newer priorities. An example of this is the arrival of a child in the family, which could alter both the HIPO’s flexibility and their motivations for being at work, which in turn could affect their overall productivity.

Proposed solution:

It is important that senior management or a talent steering group review talent and succession plans on a regular basis, to ensure they are still relevant. It is essential to take into account any changes that may have occurred in the HIPO’s daily life, which could have an effect on their time, priorities and motivations. As indicated previously, it is also crucial for those identified as having promise as future leaders to be given the chance to prove themselves in different geographies or business areas as part of the development and assessment process, before they are offered a new role.  Regularly reviewing a HIPO’s abilities in a range of assignments and varying situations will clarify whether the candidate consistently demonstrates the strengths and skills needed for key roles and highlight those who may need more time to develop and explore their skills before being given any extra responsibilities.

Once the boxes are filled, the job is finished

Many clients we encounter do a great job of producing a nine-box grid but do not continue to use it to its full potential. It is often completed with the input of senior line management in order to cross an item off the to-do list, before being forgotten, as other tasks become the priority. In our experience, the real work starts when the grid is completed and the organisation needs to decide what to do next. Choosing how to stretch and develop a HIPO’s abilities and working to move more people into the star or top talent box are the next tasks needed to ensure that the company has the best possible choice of successors in its workforce. Usually the company needs to create a thorough talent development plan encompassing training, coaching and high-level sponsorship as well as mentoring by senior executives. Relevant stretch assignments are a key part of these plans as they allow organisations to push employees to reach their greatest potential and to confirm whether high performing individuals will be able to continue their success in the future.

Proposed solution:

It is crucial to ensure that those in senior level roles take ownership of the talent management process the company has in place and understand the importance of its co-ordination. Companies such as GE, Novartis Pharmaceuticals and Google make this a key priority of the top-level executive, ensuring it is not delegated to HR and is completed by those in the best position to assess the abilities of employees. Considering the benefits to the organisation if talent is effectively managed, we recommend the creation of a small talent steering group in order to ensure it receives ample investment, energy and attention and it becomes as accurate and efficient as possible. Comprising no more than six to eight people, including the head of HR or learning and development and several top executives, the group will work with senior leaders of the business to identify strategically relevant stretch assignments across the business, testing the abilities of employees identified as key talents or HIPOs. The use of a designated steering group will prevent the diffusion of responsibility across the whole top management team, which can result in top executives blocking their HIPOs from moving to other parts of the business, an issue that is also common when the HR department manages the talent and succession within an organisation.

The opportunities assigned to HIPOs are suited to them

Senior leaders will rarely initiate a discovery conversation with HIPOs before completing their nine-box grid. As a result they can be ill informed as to the employee’s strengths, preferred roles, personal/family constraints (e.g. unwillingness to travel in the medium term due to their partner’s job or children’s schooling) and aspirations. Organisations can often be surprised when a HIPO declines an opportunity after simply being assigned to a box on the grid, without being approached to discuss what potential roles they would be enthusiastic about. Alternatively, HIPOs can accept roles through fear that refusing will have a negative effect on future opportunities or of sending out ‘wrong-signals’. As a result previously high performing employees can become increasingly unproductive and lose motivation in a role they would not have chosen to do otherwise.

Proposed solution:

It is advisable to explore an employee’s motivations, strengths, aspirations and values, alongside the assessment of their abilities and competencies, in order to avoid matching HIPOs to unsuitable roles. It is important to consider the employee’s passions and whether they will be energised by a particular role. Being aware of an individual’s wants, as well as their capabilities, will help to ensure roles are not offered to the wrong candidate and will, in turn, improve the efficiency and productivity of the company as a whole. Minimising the subjectivity of making these decisions with the use of a valid profiling tool such as Strengthscope® will improve dialogue between leaders and HIPOs, preventing costly mistakes and improving HIPO motivation and retention. A profiling tool will help individuals discover underlying strengths that could be developed into key skills and investigate their most energising qualities. This will help to identify not only which roles best suit their talents, but also which positions they will enthuse over and therefore be motivated to succeed in.

The use of a grid leads to more objective and fair decision-making

A key obstacle when using the nine-box grid method to assign roles is that employees are judged not only from an HR perspective but also through the eyes of the senior management team. The effect of this can be a biased approach to the assignment of people in the grid, which can cause an environment of self-fulfilling prophecy. This can have a hugely adverse effect on both the organisation and their employees, particularly for those deemed to have little potential, even if they have been performing well. A large amount of research has been carried out in both schools and workplaces to explore the ramifications of this effect on both high and low-level performers. Those regarded as star performers are treated favourably and are expected to be successful, which usually results in stronger performance, further positive treatment and even sponsorship by top management. On the contrary, those regarded as having little potential are treated in a less positive way. Considered average employees, these members of the team are not challenged to the same extent as their more successful peers, resulting in the ‘Golem effect’ (or negative self-fulfilling prophecy) and a decline in motivation and performance.

Proposed solution:

Several measures can be taken to remove bias from talent management and to ensure greater levels of objectivity in the assessment process. These include:

  • Using assessment or development centres to assess talent in a robust and impartial manner. These centres will provide a clear outline of an individual’s key skills without the possible bias that comes from assessment within the workplace
  • The introduction of review and collaboration meetings of senior managers across the organisation in order to improve the quality of dialogue between colleagues and to ensure decisions are made in the least subjective manner possible. Ideally these meetings would also involve HR or an objective third party to challenge assessment decisions and ensure they are made without bias
  • Establishing a clear definition of how potential should be measured objectively in order to minimise the use of bias and subjectivity in decision-making. As mentioned before, the assessment of measurable traits such as agility, speed of learning and resilience will provide a more accurate insight into potential than attempting to assess potential as a whole, which is a considerably more subjective approach
  • The creation of a straightforward performance management system, which is fair and objective, to ensure performance assessment is completed with as little bias as possible. This can be assisted by the use of 360-degree feedback whereby colleagues and other stakeholders are invited to provide their comments on how the system is being handled. If the design and application of the 360-degree feedback process is undertaken with the assistance of experts, the organisation can gain useful insights into how well the new system is working and receive useful suggestions from within the team. As a result, the objectivity of the management system can be greatly improved
  • Taking steps to encourage an inclusive environment by ensuring employees are not judged based on factors unrelated to performance such as gender, race or age. The tracking of minority factions within the HIPO group will help to avoid unconscious discrimination and ensure all groups are fairly represented.

Having been chosen by many leading businesses as a simple and efficient tool in the talent management process, the nine-box grid has been traditionally seen as the best way to assess employees’ potential. While it is the most commonly used tool, it is important to be aware of the ways in which bias and subjectivity can still have a negative effect when using the method, and take measures to prevent this from happening. We are constantly looking to explore alternatives to long-standing HR tools, like the nine-box grid, which provide fewer opportunities for subjective decision-making. In the 21st century environment, it is becoming increasingly important for companies to use an accurate and efficient talent management system in order to remain one step ahead in an ever-evolving and increasingly competitive business world. It is incredibly important that organisations get their succession decisions right first time, to avoid being left behind by rival brands and businesses. As a result, traditional methods of assessing potential may soon be replaced by more up-to-date and objective systems, better suited to keep up with the pace at which the world is evolving.

About the author

James Brook is the managing director of Strengths Partnership Ltd. To find out more visit


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