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9 Box Talent Review
Succession planning is challenging, and it can be difficult to know where to start. A nine-box talent review is a well-researched method for distinguishing future leaders from those who need a little more coaching or time before they make their next career step.

What Is a 9-Box Talent Review?

The 9-box framework was born in the midst of a growing business environment lacking efficient methods for managing employees. Originally developed by McKinsey, the framework continues to serve as the standard for methodically analyzing employee performance. It utilizes two factors to measure and compare employee performance: performance and potential. A 9-box talent review outlines employee performance on a grid system where potential falls on the y-axis and performance on the x-axis. The grid consists of nine categories (also called boxes) that display characteristics of employees. Employees are then placed on each grid accordingly. The higher an employee’s potential, the further up the grid they should fall. The stronger their performance, the further to the right they should be depicted.

How Is a 9-Box Talent Review Helpful?

The 9-box talent review system has been a go-to method for managing talent for decades. Instead of comparing employees to those who fall directly next to them in rank, this method compares employees on two different critical aspects. It is useful for many talent management decisions, including succession planning.
  • The main purpose of the 9-box talent review process is to identify future leaders and find areas where employees could use development.
  • It also helps organization leaders identify areas for investment.
  • It serves as a visual representation of talent within the organization and can help upper management organize a talent pipeline. Which employees need coaching and which need room to grow? Who could serve as mentors to others? Where in our talent pipeline is there room for improvement?
All of these questions can be answered through the 9-box review.

The Nine Boxes

Let’s dive deeper into each of the boxes.

Stars: High Performance, High Potential

Employees in this category are great future leaders. They are typically easy to identify and ready for growth. They are consistent high performers and may have many of the following attributes: problem solving, require little supervision, self-motivation, and strategic thinking. Managers should give these employees regular opportunities for growth and development as well as help them set and reach personal goals.

Future Stars: Moderate Performance, High Potential

These employees definitely have the capacity to become Stars, as they have very high potential, but have room for growth when it comes to their performance. They typically do very well in their job but could use a bigger challenge. Managers should consider finding ways to push Future Stars with attainable stretch goals to keep them motivated to improve.

Enigma or Potential Gem: Low Performance, High Potential

These employees can confuse their leaders, as they have such high potential yet only perform adequately. They typically are professionals with plenty of experience, yet they experience challenges or problems that stop them from achieving their potential. Employees in this box may have willingness to change but need to adapt their skills, or they might lack motivation. Managers should consider investing time and resources in coaching these individuals to help them overcome challenges.

High-Impact Performers: High Performance, Moderate Potential

Employees in this category tend to perform very well and are capable of making a great impact in their role. They typically struggle with strategic thinking or problem solving. Managers should consider giving high-impact performers strategic goals or training in people and resource management.

Key or Core Players: Moderate Performance, Moderate Potential

Core Players are steady, effective performers who are likely able to handle more responsibility with coaching or mentoring. Employees in this box may seem as though they are well placed in their role, be content in their job, maintain reliable performance, and meet expectations. Managers should consider growing these employees within their same job level but coaching them for more. It is important to remember that just because employees fall within this category today does not mean that they will stay in it.

Inconsistent Performers: Low Performance, Moderate Potential

These employees obviously need coaching or a development plan in order to advance further. Their performance is not only inconsistent but often poor. Managers should consider finding opportunities for employees in this category to grow within their current role or level and help them reach their growth potential. Managers should also consider if employees in this category are in the roles best suited to their skillset.

Strong Performers: High Performance, Low Potential

Employees in this category are sometimes referred to as workhorses. There is something limiting their potential, yet they continue to perform well. They may have reached their professional potential. They may be limited by their own motivation or lack the skills to advance further, yet they are still valuable to the organization. Managers should consider creating a development plan to help employees in this category either develop the skills they lack or discover what motivates them.

Effective Employees: Moderate Performance, Low Potential

Effective employees are good but not great performers. They are either unsure of their career path or lack the motivation to push themselves further. Managers should consider creating opportunities for employees in this category to discover where they can go in their career as well as what motivates them. Additionally, managers can encourage employees to focus on problem solving and develop their skills within their current role.

Underperformers: Low Performance, Low Potential

Underperformers are not doing very well within their role. Managers should consider whether or not the employees belong in that role. Employees in this category may need to be terminated. Managers should carefully consider whether employees would benefit from further investment in training, a new assignment to a different role, or if they should be terminated.

How to Utilize a 9-Box Talent Review

Now that we understand what each of the nine boxes mean, we can dive into how to utilize a 9-box talent review as a whole.

Step 1: Gather and Utilize Objective Data

This step may be the most critical step in the process. Without objective data collected regularly, decisions based on a 9-box talent review are likely to be unintentionally biased. It is important to determine how performance can be objectively measured in your organization. The two measures used in a 9-box review—performance and potential—are not easy to objectively quantify. However, starting with objective data increases the reliability of such a talent review. Performance can be objectively quantified by projects completed on time, sales revenue brought in, number of similarly sized tasks completed within a time period, or goals (again of similar size) achieved. This is typically determined through regular performance reviews. The important phrase here is “similarly sized.” It is critical to ensure that data collected on employee performance for the purpose of reviewing and comparing in talent reviews is comparable. One employee who accomplishes many small goals compared to another who completes a few large goals would appear to have stronger performance when that may not be the case. Potential can be objectively quantified by identifiable character traits and skills including
  • Leadership ability
  • Strategic thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Motivation
  • Ambition
  • Goal setting
  • Emotional intelligence
These skills are typically determined and measured through personality assessments and learning management systems as employees learn new skills. Regular contact with employees to evaluate and provide feedback is essential to gathering accurate and objective data for talent management reviews. Gather both performance and potential data for measurement regularly. If an employee’s performance and potential are solely based on a yearly review, it would be challenging to accurately predict where they would fall in a 9-box review. One employee may have accomplished all of their goals in a year, but if they procrastinated most of their work until their review was coming up, one yearly review would not show this.

Step 2: Determine Metrics for Comparison

Now that we have objective data for comparing employee performance and potential, we must determine what differentiates a low performer from a high performer or one with low versus high potential. The more clearly detailed each category is described, the easier it is to determine which category employees fall within. For example, a weak metric for High Impact Performers (high performance, moderate potential) would be:
  • “Someone who exceeds expectations, yet struggles with strategic decision making.” This description for comparison leaves room for a lot of interpretation.
A stronger description metric for this same category could look like:
  • “Employees who regularly exceed expectations by hitting their target goals more than 95% of the time and exceeds stretch goals more than 70% of the time, yet according to their assessments and learning objectives, score at or below average with more than 2 of the following attributes: leadership ability, strategic thinking, motivation, ambition, emotional intelligence, problem solving, or goal setting.”
This description leaves less room for interpretation and creates a clear line between High Impact Performers and other boxes around it. The most accurate reviews include between six and 30 different measurements on each scale (performance and potential). For example, a review could have 12 measures of performance and six of potential.
  • The 12 measurements of performance could include “Achieves goals at least __% of the time” (fill in the blank with measurable percentages that categorize employees between under performance, effective performance, and high performance, with four percentages in each category).
  • The six measurements of potential could include “Maintains above-average scores on one of the six aspects our organization measures potential on” (and 2/6, 3/6, 4/6, 5/6, 6/6 moving upwards on the potential axis).
When employees are placed into more accurate reviews such as the example here, it is much easier to remain unbiased. You are not placing employees into a category, you are measuring them on their performance and potential and discovering their category.

Step 3: Objectively Discern Where Employees Fall on the Grid

This step is simple in nature yet requires close attention. The person scoring employees and placing them on the grid should strive to be as objective as possible. When placing employees on a 9-box talent review, it may be beneficial to identify employees with an identification number to avoid personal bias or personal opinions about individual employees.

Step 4: Read and Utilize the 9-Box Talent Review

Now that your 9-box talent review is complete, you can utilize it to make decisions in succession planning and growth opportunities for employees. One can easily see that employees in the top right corner of a box may be ready to move into the next box to the right or above it, and therefore may be ready for further coaching or mentoring.

Potential Downfalls of the 9-Box Talent Review

There are many justifiable criticisms of the 9-box talent review process. It is an older and often considered outdated process. Despite its effectiveness, it is vulnerable to subjectivity. Bias can occur in the data-collection section of the process or even in the creation of the x and y axes. Managers are not perfect. Therefore, performance scores are not perfect. Carefully consider whether your metrics truly assess performance and potential in a way that measures employees equally. Creating a 9-box talent review is a science that requires some expertise. We highly recommend you read further on the topic or ask for assistance from someone who has completed this type of review before to ensure maximum efficiency and minimal bias. The Academy to Innovate HR has an in-depth resource for building a 9-box talent review that may help.
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Raelynn Randall, MHR, MBA

Raelynn Randall, MHR, MBA

Rae has acquired HR experience in team leadership, research, training, recruiting, project management, and mentoring upcoming HR professionals. She is fascinated by workplace culture and the many implications it has on the world of business, especially HR. When possible, she seeks out opportunities to expand her knowledge and give back to her community.
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