You’ve Just Completed the 9-Box Talent Grid? Now What?

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By Jim Tam
October 12, 2021
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Many organizations use the 9-Box talent assessment grid to evaluate where their employees land on the performance and potential “curve.” In case you’re unfamiliar with the 9-Box talent assessment tool, it’s an exercise where managers evaluate their people based on contribution to and potential with the organization. It’s a subjective, point-in-time exercise but it’s a good starting point to understand the depth of talent within the organization.

The 9 box
Image courtesy of BambooHR

The “9-Box” was developed by McKinsey for General Electric in the 1970s. 50 years later, it’s still one of the most popular tools for companies to assess their current talent pool for succession planning purposes. (For a more thorough definition of the 9-Box, see the formal explanation from SHRM here.) The 9-Box provides a snapshot of the talent a company has within its workforce, however, putting your employees in a box is just Step One of the talent development process. Most companies do a decent job at removing the employees in the “Low Performance, Low Potential” box. Unfortunately, however, many companies fall short in developmental planning for those individuals deemed to be “Star” and “High-Potential.” At many companies, individuals who have been tagged as “Stars” or “High-Potentials” they are often praised, promoted, and may receive an increase in compensation but are never told they have been identified as future leaders. And at others, many of these “Stars” simply continue “doing what they’ve been doing” without knowing the company’s long-term plans for their careers. In today’s war for talent, is that acceptable?

In recent conversations with HR leaders across a variety of industries, virtually all of them acknowledge they need to do a better job in developing their future leaders. Unfortunately, over the last 18 months, they just haven’t had the time to drive all the strategic people development initiatives they desire within their organizations. During this period marked by both the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened awareness of social justice concerns, HR has focused on enabling the workforce to work remotely (overnight!), creating vaccine policies, promoting DEIB communications, recruiting and hiring talent, and tackling a slew of other people issues. It’s no wonder that proactively creating developmental plans for high-potentials has taken a backseat to other pressing priorities. However, when you ask CEOs what they need most to help them meet their business goals, virtually every one of them will say, they need “talent.”

Is the 9-Box grid like Fight Club where you can’t talk about it?

How can organizations that have completed Step One – assigning all employees to a quadrant – maximize their use of the 9-Box? This is the part where most organizations get hung up and HR leaders differ in opinions on what to do next. The question ultimately comes down to: “Should employees know where they are on the 9-Box grid?”

The answer largely depends on the HR maturity of the organization. For many forward-thinking organizations, where succession planning for critical roles is a regular process, transparent conversations with employees occur regularly. These are delicate conversations to maintain a balance between letting the employee know they are a “Star” or “High-Potential” and managing their expectations and timing for future roles. There remains the question about what to disclose to those employees in the other quadrants. Should they know their position on the 9-Box grid? Most HR professionals are of the opinion that the answer should be “yes.” (Wouldn’t you want to know?) However, the execution of these conversations is where things can go drastically wrong even with the best intentions. Many organizations are concerned about uncomfortable conversations if the manager and the employee do not agree, while others tend to shy away from these conversations because they are afraid the employees will leave if they think their placement on grid isn’t flattering. The important thing to remember is that the 9-Box grid is a tool and not a label. If you have an employee that’s a “Core Player,” the manager does not need to say to the employee, “You’re a Core Player on the 9-Box grid.” The manager would simply convey to that employee that they are an essential player to the team and their contribution is greatly valued. Hopefully, this leads to a conversation about the employee’s performance – supported by data – and their career aspirations.

HR professionals do agree on one thing: candid, constructive conversations with employees is a great way to foster trust and is in the best interest of both the employee and the company. These confidential one-on-one conversations provide an opportunity for the manager and employee to have a constructive dialogue about career progression. Depending on the employee and where they are in their career journey, some of them will be perfectly content with their role within the company. Frankly, a balanced distribution of people in all boxes is in the best interest of the organization. For example, if an organization has too many “Stars” and not enough “Core Players” it may suggest the company does not have enough employees to work effectively! If, during the course of these conversations, the employee expresses a will to perform better or rise higher in the talent pool, the manager and the employee must now commit to improve or change accordingly.

In Step Two, the manager and employee agree on developmental needs to improve in order to facilitate a change in the employee’s career trajectory. Some developmental opportunities might include acquiring hard skills such as technological knowledge or certifications, or soft skills such as critical thinking, communication, executive presence, or any other behaviors that can help the employee grow. Skill gaps can be identified through formal assessments or through informal peer feedback. The important thing is to identify those areas most critical for employee focus to drive the biggest impact to both themselves and the organization. Once the developmental elements have been identified, the manager and employee develop a joint plan to bridge the gaps.

In Step Three, actionable developmental plans with specific tasks are created. Action items might involve specific training, exposure to different areas, stretch projects, mentoring, and executive coaching. Step Three is a journey and requires commitment from the employee and the manager, as well as support from HR to hold everyone accountable. What makes this even more challenging for the manager is supporting a wide range of development plans and timelines for each employee. In addition, continuous monitoring and check-in between the employee and the manager must occur to measure progress and ensure alignment.

Final word

In this blog, I talk a lot about the 9-Box grid as a tool to be used to evaluate your talent pool within your organization, but it is not the only tool available to assess your team. The 9-Box was created in the 1970s and today’s workforce is very different. With advances in Human Capital Management (HCM) technology and employee access to information, perhaps a different tool may be more appropriate. Regardless of which tool you use to assess the talent on your team, keep in mind it is only a starting point. It’s what you do with the information, the developmental plans you put in place to develop your people, and execution of the plans, that will ensure you have a rising workforce that is aligned with company objectives.

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