“I was hoping to get your advice on where to put my direct reports into this form…”
This was a recent request from an executive leader seeking counsel to complete their 9-Box during their annual performance evaluations. Many of our clients currently use the 9-Box as their primary performance management tool to identify top-performing talent. In our experience, it’s the only tool many organizations use.
While we’ve worked with countless organizations that use this tool to identify talent, like this client, identification is where the work has ended. The questions we raise are: How can organizations pay close attention to how employees are being assigned to categories AND what happens AFTER they insert names in each category of the 9-box? How can organizations and leaders ensure equitable talent identification, and ensure their employees are ready to tackle the challenges associated with career growth and more demanding roles?
What is the 9-Box?
The nine box is a tool that can be used to identify future talent within organizations. On one axis is performance and on the other is potential. Typically, each axis is divided into high, medium and low, creating nine categories, or boxes, to which employees can be assigned. Once assigned, employees identified as having strong previous performance and high potential are often tapped to participate in high potential leadership programs, assigned stretch roles or are identified as successor candidates in succession planning activities.
There are two primary challenges that organizations who use this tool must address. The first is the inherent biases that can factor into any decision that segments groups of employees into clear categories. Research shows that it’s human nature to gravitate toward individuals who are most like us, feeling most comfortable with individuals who share similar backgrounds, educational experiences and work histories. This plays out in decisions around performance and potential in organizations around the world. The aggregated impact being that all too often, individuals representing much-needed diversity are often left out of the coveted 9-box categories.
The second challenge is that succession planning often stops at the completion of the 9-Box. While we do not believe that the tool itself is inherently problematic, we do believe that it does not prepare individuals to take on bigger and often more challenging roles. Employees grow through targeted development, individual coaching and access to increased challenges. Ending succession planning at the 9-box does not adequately prepare individuals or organizations for future success.
Another Way Forward
The 9-Box should be considered as part of a much larger whole when discussing succession planning. Companies should work to identify their goals in succession planning and create a structured approach that clearly aligns tools, strategies and processes with the overall talent needs of the organization. Some additional options to consider may include:
- Clearly define criteria used to evaluate performance and determine potential
- Leverage talent review with HR leaders to guard against bias
- Create development plans and career pathways for all employees to acquire skills and experiences essential to success
- Partner with HR and employees to evaluate current performance against their desired future roles, and identify the necessary skills, capabilities, and experiences that will enable their success
Spending time reviewing your current practices should help to identify targeted actions that will better prepare your highest performing employees for roles that ultimately create greater value for your organization.