9-Box Talent Review: What It Is, How To Use It, & More

Succession planning and internal talent mobility (or promotions) are hallmarks of a strong company culture. However, not all companies have the tools to effectively identify talent or scout leaders from within their organization. One such invaluable tool is the 9-box talent review, a strategic framework that helps managers find new leaders and talent by assessing their people based on contributions to, and potential within the organization.

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What is the 9-box talent review?

The 9-box talent review is a visual representation and assessment method that categorizes employees based on their performance and potential. It is a grid divided into nine boxes, with one axis representing current performance and the other representing future potential. This intuitive system provides a nuanced understanding and view of an organization’s talent, enabling informed decision-making regarding development, succession, and leadership strategies.

Concept & origins

McKinsey developed the 9-box talent grid for General Electric in the 1970s, drawing inspiration from the Boston Consulting Group matrix. The concept emerged as a response to the need for a holistic evaluation system that considers both the present and future capabilities of employees. 50 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 strong starting point for understanding the depth of talent within an organization.

9-box talent review grid

Benefits of the 9-box talent assessment — how is it helpful?

There are a number of advantages that this assessment format provides, including:

  • Strategic Workforce Planning – by plotting employees on the grid based on performance and potential, organizations gain more strategic insights into the composition of their workforce. This aids in identifying high-potential individuals, potential leaders, and areas that require focused development for the future.
  • Succession Planning – the 9-box grid facilitates succession planning by highlighting employees ready for leadership roles. This proactive approach ensures a smooth transition during times of organizational change or key personnel transitions.
  • Focused Talent Development – tailoring development plans becomes more targeted as the 9-box grid pinpoints specific areas for improvement. Employees can receive personalized coaching and training to enhance their performance and potential.

Defining the boxes

To summarize the three categories of potential, the top row is for employees with a suspected high ceiling and competency. Not all placed on the upper row are necessarily naturally talented in their current 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 who might be a risk to the company culture or have already reached their full potential.

To explain the grid system in greater depth, some of the individual boxes that employees are commonly assigned to include:

  • Star Players (Top-Right Box) – people in this box exhibit both high current performance and exceptional potential. They are ideal candidates for leadership roles and critical projects. Provide them with advanced training, mentorship, and opportunities for career advancement.
  • Key Contributors (Middle-Right Box) – this area comprises employees who consistently deliver strong performance but may not yet exhibit high potential for leadership. They are valuable contributors to the organization and may benefit from targeted development programs.
  • Solid Performers (Top-Middle Box) – while these employees demonstrate high future potential, they may not be as comfortable or efficient at their current role when compared with others. Acknowledge their contributions and consider specialized roles that align with their strengths.
  • Core Players (Middle-Middle Box) – in the middle of the 9-box grid are individuals who can still improve, but may not be at the top of the list for a new role in upper management. These employees often work efficiently but fail to innovate or go the extra mile. Identify areas for improvement and design development plans to enhance their skills and capabilities.
  • Emerging Talent (Bottom-Right Box) – individuals in this box are performing highly in their current role but may not have the same signs of potential for future leadership, which SMEs often fall into (and is why this group often struggles to manage other people). Offer mentorship, training, and growth opportunities to nurture their potential.
  • Inconsistent Players (Bottom-Middle Box) – employees here may be struggling with their current roles, indicating a need for additional support and development. Work closely with them to address performance gaps and provide targeted coaching to see if there is higher potential than initially assessed.

How to complete the 9-box grid

Filling out this assessment tool involves a thoughtful evaluation of employees based on predefined criteria for performance and potential. HR professionals, managers, and leadership teams should collaborate to place individuals accurately within the grid. This process includes a comprehensive evaluation of skills, competencies, behaviors, and tendencies — all of which can indicate not only current performance, but future potential as well.

1. Define criteria for performance and potential

Before diving into the assessment, establish clear criteria for evaluating both performance and potential. Performance criteria may include factors like job knowledge, productivity, and teamwork, or quantitative data you may have on hand such as order fulfillment, client ratings, and sales numbers. Criteria to evaluate potential may encompass leadership qualities, adaptability, and strategic thinking.

2. Identify evaluation periods

Specify the time frame for evaluating performance. This could be based on quarterly, bi-annual, or annual reviews, ensuring consistency in the assessment process.

3. Gather input from multiple sources

To ensure a comprehensive view, gather feedback from various sources, including managers, peers, and self-assessments. This 360-degree approach helps eliminate biases and provides a holistic understanding of an employee’s contributions.

4. Plotting employees on the grid

  • Performance Assessment (X-axis) – evaluate each employee’s current performance based on the predefined criteria. Plot their position on the X-axis, ranging from low to high performance.
  • Potential Assessment (Y-axis) – assess each employee’s potential and plot their position on the Y-axis, ranging from low to high potential.

5. Finalize placement and categories

Based on discussions and calibration with HR, leadership, managers, etc., finalize the placement of employees within the grid. Establish categories such as Star Players, Key Contributors, Emerging Talent, and those requiring additional development (which we defined above).

Should employees know where they are on the 9-box assessment?

The answer to this 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 Player” or “Core Player” and managing their expectations and timing for future roles. 

If you have an employee who’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 to use the 9-box for a talent review

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 “Star Players” 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 talent grid is also used for the following:

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

The three main steps in implementing the 9-box grid on an individual level are: 

1. Assess employee performance

We discussed how to accomplish this step earlier, so assign 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 look at their career paths.

2. Find developmental opportunities

Next, the manager and employee agree on developmental needs to facilitate a change in the employee’s career trajectory (if needed). 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.

3. Create goals & plans to achieve them

With this knowledge, actionable developmental plans with concrete tasks are created. Action items might involve specific training, exposure to different areas, stretch projects, mentoring, or executive coaching. This step 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-ins between the employee and the manager must occur to measure progress and ensure alignment.

Disadvantages of the 9-box talent grid

The 9-box review system 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. Some common criticisms of this format include:

  • Oversimplification: The grid simplifies complex employee attributes, potentially overlooking nuances.
  • Subjectivity: Prone to biases and subjective judgments, especially without proper calibration (hence the importance of multiple sources).
  • Neglects External Factors: External influences on performance may not be adequately considered.
  • Short-Term Focus: May prioritize current performance over long-term potential.
  • Lack of Continuous Feedback: Periodic reviews may hinder continuous dialogue and coaching.

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.

Is the 9-box talent grid still relevant?

With that said, this question of relevance still pops up frequently. Despite the evolution of talent management practices, the 9-box talent grid remains relevant and effective. Its simplicity, versatility, and ability to provide a quick snapshot of an organization’s talent landscape make it a timeless tool. When integrated with contemporary performance management systems and complemented by ongoing feedback, the 9-box talent review continues to be a cornerstone for informed talent decision-making.

Identify & Develop Your Talent

Now you know how to identify your “Core Players” and “Emerging Talent,” but how do you take them to the next level? The 9-box review 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 working with (or removing) the employees in the “Needs Improvement” box. Unfortunately, many companies fall short in developmental planning for those individuals with higher potential, deemed to be “Star Players” or “Solid Performers.”

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 talent 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!

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