What is a 9-Box Talent Review, & How Can You Use It?

Jim Tam Talent Management, HR Strategy

Succession planning and internal promotions are hallmarks of a strong company culture. However, not all companies are able to identify talent or scout leaders from within their organization. The 9-box talent assessment tool helps managers find new leaders and talent by evaluating their people based on their contribution to, and potential with the organization. McKinsey developed the 9-box system for General Electric in the 1970s; fifty years later, it’s still one of the most popular tools for companies to assess their talent pool for succession planning purposes. While it’s a subjective, point-in-time exercise, it’s still a good starting point in understanding the depth of talent within an organization.

Image courtesy of BambooHR

How Do You Fill Out a 9-Box Talent Grid?

Within the grid are three columns and three rows, each corresponding to varying levels of performance and aptitude. The vertical columns organize employees by productivity, and the horizontal rows arrange individuals by their potential for growth. In the sections below, we explore each box of the 9-box talent grid and helpful tips for filling one out for your organization.

What does each of the boxes mean?

In short, the top boxes are for employees with a suspected high ceiling for competency. Not all placed on the upper row are necessarily naturally talented in their role, but can learn and are equipped with a healthy mindset. The middle row is for employees who might not qualify for higher-level leadership but can still learn to communicate or manage tasks more effectively. The bottom row is for employees that might be a risk to the company culture or have already reached their full potential. To explain the grid system in greater depth, we can focus on aptitude and potential for growth:

  • High Potential – on the top of the grid system are the efficient thinkers and players ready for the next level. The box to the upper right holds the “Superstars,” or those with high output and strength in critical thinking. In the upper middle are employees performing well but may need stretch assignments to grow. Sitting in the upper left box are competent professionals that may need coaching or mentoring to improve productivity.
  • Medium Potential – in the middle of the 9-box grid are individuals that can still improve but may not be prime candidates for a new role in upper management. Those at the center of the grid represent “Core Players,” or employees who work efficiently but fail to innovate or go the extra mile. To the right of the “Core Players” are people with outstanding performance that could manage a team and improve their critical thinking. Finally, on the left are people who can lead within their current role but need career coaching to increase their workload capacity.
  • Low Potential – the bottom row is for employees already reaching their career potential. The employees in this category with the highest working efficiency should be in the box on the right. The middle holds employees with decent performance value but need coaching to improve in their current role. The last box in the left corner is for workers that might be more suited for a lower-level role or could exit the company.

How Do You Assign Employees to the Boxes?

As previously mentioned, this exercise is subjective and relative within an organization. We suggest using your “Star Players” as a guideline for benchmark comparisons if you do not know where to begin. Then try to organize employees by performance first, as this metric is less ambiguous than potential. Some questions to ask while filling out the 9-box talent review are:

  • How does my company define performance?
  • Are some employees less consistent than others?
  • Should employees fill out a self-assessment as well?

Take into account feedback from HR, attendance, and any quantitative data you may have on hand – such as order fulfillment, client ratings, and sales numbers. After grouping employees by productivity and identifying the “Stars,” organize the people in the chart by potential. Try envisioning each employee in a higher role; if they don’t seem fit for upper-level leadership, move them lower on the grid. The lowest row should be assigned to employees not eligible for middle management.

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 standard 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. 

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 that their contribution is greatly valued. Hopefully, this leads to a conversation about the employee’s performance (supported by data) and career aspirations.

How Do You Use a 9-Box Talent Assessment?

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.” Frankly, it is in the organization’s best interest to have a balanced distribution of people across all boxes. For example, if an organization has too many “Stars” and not enough “Core Players,” it may suggest the company does not have enough employees that form a stable foundation. Besides evaluating the workforce as a whole, the 9-box system is also used for the following:

  • Succession planning
  • Identifying top talent
  • Finding coaching candidates
  • Reducing a workforce (RIF)
  • Facilitating conversations on development

Overall, the 9-box grid should give insights into how to develop your talent pool. To develop the talent pool as a whole, we can focus on the individuals first. The three main steps in implementing the 9-box grid on an individual level are: 

Step 1

Assign all of your employees to the grid, using data and any information from HR to dictate candidate placement. Start with performance (typically an easier metric) and then organize the grid by potential and overall aptitude. After employees have been assigned, it’s time to realize their career paths. 

Step 2

In step two, the manager and employee agree on developmental needs 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, or executive presence. Skill gaps should also be identified through formal assessments or informal peer feedback. Once the developmental elements have been identified, the manager and employee develop a joint plan to bridge the gaps.

Step 3

Finally, actionable developmental plans with specific tasks get created. Action items might involve specific training, exposure to different areas, stretch projects, mentoring, and executive coaching. Step three is a journey requiring commitment from the employee, manager, and support from HR to hold everyone accountable. 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.

Downsides and Criticisms of the 9-Box Assessment

The 9-box was created in the 1970s, and today’s workforce is very different. For instance, the landscape for talent retention and acquisition has only gotten more competitive since “the war for talent.” Additionally, 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 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, and the execution of those plans that ensure you have a rising workforce aligned with company objectives.

Identify and Develop Your Talent

Now you know how to identify your “Core Players” and “Rising Stars,” but how do you take them to the next level? The 9-box provides a snapshot of the talent within a workforce – however, placing your employees on the grid is just step one of the talent development process. Most companies do a decent job removing the employees in the “Low Performance, Low Potential” box. Unfortunately, many companies fall short in developmental planning for those individuals deemed to be “Star” and “High-Potential.” 
Talent and leadership development can tap into the potential your organization already has to offer. The next innovator or daring leader might be on your 9-box grid right now, waiting for their chance to shine. Keystone Partners harnesses decades of experience to deliver professional career development services that help employees and organizations grow to their full potential. Discover the benefits of leadership development and career management services today!

Unlocking Potential.
Accelerating Success.

Explore Our Services

With the integration of ICC, Keystone Partners is excited to announce a new product offering designed for your front-line leader. With a holistic approach to development, the AcceleratorTM leadership program takes online learning to a new level and prepares your geographically dispersed managers for the road ahead.

NEW product alert!