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Unpacking myths underpinning the 9-Box Talent Grid

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The 9-Box grid is without a doubt the most commonly used talent and succession planning framework. According to this 2-dimensional grid approach, talent is placed into one of 9 boxes based on the amount of potential and performance they demonstrate. This is all well and good, although there are several underlying myths associated with this approach that need to be unpacked, questioned and addressed. Here are some of the more common ones we experience:

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Potential can be objectively assessed

Potential is extremely difficult to assess and is a largely subjective exercise, even with the best psychometrics and latest assessment methods. Even Peter Drucker, the ‘father’ of modern management, stated unequivocally that we should not try to measure potential, only demonstrable performance.

Proposed Solution:
Rather than assessing potential in a subjective and general way, look at measuring indicators or markers of potential such as agility/flexibility, self-improvement and resilience/grit. It is also advisable to test out ‘potential’ by giving star performers varying ‘stretch’ assignments before designating them as “key talent”. Putting hi-potential (HIPO) candidates through assessment or development centres can be another cost-effective and lower risk way to test the effectiveness of their leadership strengths and qualities when faced with challenging and changeable situations.

Performance and potential are consistent across time and business areas

We’ve already illuminated the problems associated with measuring potential. In addition, performance is rarely consistent across time and situation, especially when people are transferred to different geographic locations or functional areas. For example, a high performing R&D Leader or Finance Leader might not be able to maintain these performance levels if they are promoted into a CEO role. One of the best examples of this was when Gordon Brown was promoted from Chancellor into the Prime Minister role and become one of the most unpopular and arguable ineffectual PMs ever. Similarly, transferring an executive to a different geography often results in a slump in performance if they don’t have a high level of agility and cultural sensitivity. Time can also have a major impact on performance, especially if the HIPO experiences changes in their personal or family life that impact their work performance or flexibility.

Proposed Solution:
Talent and succession plans need to be reviewed by senior management or a talent steering group on a regular basis to ensure they are still relevant and take account of changing organisational and personal factors. As indicated previously, it is also crucial for those identified as having promise as future leaders to be rotated into other geographies or business areas as part of their development and assessment. By giving HIPOs a range of stretch assignments and regularly reviewing their performance across different situations, it will be clear which people demonstrate strengths and skills for key roles and those who need more development or less challenging responsibilities.

Once the grid has been populated with talent, job done!

We encounter many clients who produce a lovely 9-Box Grid, usually with the input of senior line management, as a box-ticking exercise, then move on to other priorities and forget about it. In our experience, the hard work comes in deciding how to develop and stretch key talent as well as moving more people into the “star” or top talent box. This typically means the company needs to put in place a thorough talent development plan involving training, coaching, high-level sponsorship and mentoring by senior executives and meaningful stretch assignments that play to the strengths of their people.

Proposed Solution:
It is crucial to ensure senior level ownership and co-ordination of the talent agenda. Companies like GE, Novartis Pharmaceuticals and Google make this a key imperative of the top executive, which ensures it never gets abdicated to HR. We would recommend setting up a small talent steering group comprising no more than 6-8 people including the Head of HR or Learning and Development and several top executives to ensure talent management get the attention, energy and investment is deserves given the likely payoff to the organisation if it is effectively managed. One of the tasks of this group should be to work with the senior leaders of the business to identify strategically important stretch assignments across the business to test the mettle of those identified as key talents or HIPOs. The steering group can also ensure top executives don’t block their HIPOs from moving to other parts of the business which often happens when talent is managed by HR or there is a diffusion of responsibility across the whole top management team.

HIPOs are energised by the opportunities they are assigned to

Before the Grid is population, there is rarely a discovery conversation with HIPOs about their strengths, roles they would find particularly energising, their personal/family constraints (e.g., unwillingness to travel in the medium term due to their partner’s job or children’s schooling) and their aspirations. People are simply assigned to different boxes, then when an opportunity arises, the organisation is surprised when it is declined by the HIPO. Even worse, the HIPO accepts the role through fear or being overlooked for future promotions or sending out the ‘wrong signals’ to the executive, and ends up becoming demotivated and increasingly unproductive in their new role.

Proposed Solution:
In order to avoid errors resulting from this type of mis-matching of HIPOs to key roles, we strongly recommend assessing people not simply against abilities and competencies required for key roles, but also exploring their motivations, strengths (i.e., natural energisers or passions), aspirations and values. Valid profiling tools such Strengthscope® ( can be used to minimise subjectivity and bias associated with making this type of decision, as well as improving the quality of dialogue with your HIPOs. This will prevent costly mistakes and accelerate HIPO motivation and retention.

Putting people in boxes leads to more objective and fair decision-making

One of the problems with assigning people using a 9-Box Grid is that it labels people not only from an HR perspective, but also in the eyes of the whole senior management team. This causes decision biases and a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy effect which can be extremely detrimental to both the organisations and people assigned to the grid, especially those deemed to have low potential even when they are strong performers. There has been a lot of research in schools and the workplace showing how powerful this effect can be, both for good and poor performers. People regarded as key talent are treated positively and are expected to do well, which more often than not, translates into stronger performance and even more favourable treatment and sponsorship by top management. Those who are regarded as having little potential are not developed and challenged as much and senior management treats them as ‘average employees’; the “Gollum Effect” (or negative self-fulfilling prophecy) kicks in and guess what, their performance and motivation declines.

Proposed Solution:
There are several measures that can be taken to ensure greater levels of objectivity in the assessment and management of talent including:

  • Robust assessment of talent using assessment or development centres.
  • Introducing talent review and calibration meetings of senior managers from across the business to improve the quality of the dialogue and decisions. These should ideally be facilitated by HR or an objective third party to challenge assessment decisions and the assumptions behind these.
  • Ensuring any measure of potential is clearly defined and objectivity measured to minimise subjectivity. As indicated before, we’ve found attributes such as agility, speed of learning and resilience a lot easier to measure and more predictive of potential than any attempt to try to measure potential directly.
  • Ensuring a transparent, fair and objective performance management system to ensure assessments of performance are as unbiased as possible. Inviting feedback from colleagues and other stakeholders, in addition to the line manager, in what is termed “360-degree feedback” can also improve the objectivity of the process if the design and application of the 360-feedback process is undertaken with the assistance of experts in this area.
  • Tracking minority group representation in the HIPO pool and taking steps to encourage inclusion and avoid unconscious discrimination based on factors unrelated to job performance.

Talent management and succession will become increasingly important as organisations try to remain competitive in a hyper-competitive and fast-moving world. The 9-Box Grid has been widely adapted to assist in the process of aiding decision-making and talent development mainly because of its simplicity and adoption by many of the leading brands. However, like any HR tool, it needs to be applied with caution and objectivity in order to deliver the best results. It is also an ageing tool and we are exploring alternatives for clients that are better suited to the demands and challenges we face in the 21st century. As is the case with any technology, we need to keep innovating to ensure we aren’t left with obsolete HR technologies that are poorly matched to the demands we face.

James Brooks

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