On the Grid

The 9-box grid maps talent and identifies future leaders.

By Kathryn Tyler Aug 1, 2011
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It may look like a simple tic-tac-toe board, but marks on a 9-box grid plot much more—an organization’s future leaders.

"The 9-box is a tool to help managers differentiate talent so they can better leverage talent," says Kim Ruyle, vice president of research and development for Korn/Ferry Leadership and Talent Consulting in Minneapolis. "Some people are better utilized in a specialist position. General managers are different than deep experts. Different types of talent need to be developed, compensated and deployed differently."

Whirlpool Corp. started using the 9-box grid in 2001. "We wanted a way to aggregate relative comparisons between talent," explains Tim Reynolds, vice president of talent and organizational effectiveness for the home appliance manufacturer headquartered in Benton Harbor, Mich.

In the interests of continuity and stability, business leaders must cultivate talent. The first step in developing high-potential employees is identifying them. This is where the 9-box grid can help.

The 9-box grid is a simple, inexpensive "catalyst for a robust dialogue about an organization’s talent," says Dan McCarthy, director of executive development programs at the Whittemore School of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. And because the 9-box grid is a collaborative tool, it involves multiple perspectives that provide more accurate assessments than single opinions, he says.

"It facilitates shared ownership of an organization’s talent. And, it’s a good high-level diagnostic tool for individual and organizational development," McCarthy says. "Organizations have found creative uses for the tool, including administering compensation and identifying performance problems, development needs and talent gaps for recruiting. I’ve used it for succession planning, senior leadership development, and talent assessment and development."

A Talent Snapshot

The 9-box grid, typically a three-by-three matrix, is a versatile tool used by groups of senior executives to compare employees within one department and across divisions with multiple managers. Sometimes it is a two-by-two, four-by-four or three-by-two grid. The boxes may or may not be numbered or named.

The X and Y axes can represent different qualities, but one always measures job performance. The second axis is often labeled "potential," "values" or some variation, Ruyle says. He defines "potential" as "learning agility" or "the ability to learn lessons from experience and apply those to a different experience." General managers have high learning agility, he notes.

Some organizations might use the second axis to differentiate between individual contributors and strong leaders. At Whirlpool, for instance, the second axis measures "promotability." Each row on the matrix corresponds with the company’s career ladder.

Potential is often an elusive concept, as managers generally want their direct reports to succeed. However, not all employees are leaders or destined to be promoted. "Almost all high-potentials are high-performers, but only about 40 percent of high-performers are high-potentials," Ruyle says. Whereas managers want every employee to be a top performer, "you don’t want everybody in the top right" corner of the grid—in the high-performance, high-potential box.

The 9-box grid is designed to differentiate between employees; if everyone lands in the top right corner, the exercise becomes useless. Ruyle points out that organizations may strive for different mixtures of what he calls "high-pro" employees (high-performing professionals) and "high-po" employees (individuals with high leadership potential). For example, "in industrial research, you need a lot of "high pros"—scientists and engineers—and fewer general managers."

Some boxes of the grid are self-explanatory. For instance, if employees are in the bottom left box—low performance, low potential—they need to be escorted out. But what about a low-performer with high potential? "It’s unusual to have low performance and high potential. That would be if the person were new on the job and hasn’t had time to demonstrate performance. Or, if there’s something constraining them in the environment that keeps them from performing," Ruyle explains.

While organizations of any size can use the 9-box grid, it is most useful in medium-sized and large companies where sheer numbers make it harder for executives to discover the stars. Barb Arth, a senior analyst at Bersin and Associates, a talent consultancy in Oakland, Calif., summarizes: The 9-box "provides leaders with a visual depiction of the bench strength. … It’s a snapshot of talent."

Navigating the Grid

First, clearly define each box: What does a star, an agile top performer or an inconsistent performer look like? Next, explain the matrix and give examples to managers of desirable behaviors. "Define the criteria with the senior leaders," says Michelle Biro, director of talent management for Whirlpool, which uses the 9-box grid to evaluate all 18,000 salaried employees.

Next, have managers plot their direct reports on the grid and meet with other managers to compare, discuss and defend decisions. "Among managers, there is sometimes a high level of anxiety, especially if they are not used to having candid conversations about each other’s employees. This anxiety is heightened if the management team has a low level of trust. To address this, I have a pre-meeting to introduce the process, establish ground rules, agree on definitions," McCarthy says. He recommends having someone from HR facilitate the first few meetings.

Last, HR leaders must consolidate all employees on one grid. "Once all of the individual names have been placed on the grid, have HR review the results and facilitate team dialogue," McCarthy says. "For example, if I see the results skewed heavily toward high performance, I may ask why that is. Then, I might challenge the team to take a harder look at differentiation."

Managers who use the grid need to decide which employees to assess. Companies rarely measure every employee, Ruyle says, because "It takes a fair amount of work to have meaningful conversations about these people—15 minutes per candidate on average." He says his former employer, Siemens, used the tool for employees four levels down from the CEO—about 225 people.

The Chrysler Group LLC began using the 9-box grid shortly after partnering with Fiat in 2009. "We rolled it out for the top two levels of the organization—the direct reports to the CEO and their direct reports," explains Nancy Rae, senior vice president of HR in Auburn Hills, Mich. "In 2010, we rolled it out for all salaried employees." The Chrysler Group has 14,470 salaried employees in the United States, Mexico and Canada. Rae says it was especially rewarding for Chrysler managers to "assess their people and calibrate them between the leaders. We are in the early stages of creating meaningful, accountable development plans."

When using a 9-box grid,some companies use paper and others use whiteboards, but most eventually move the information to computer software or a human resource information system. "At Siemens, I used a flip chart with the matrix and wrote the names on Post-it Notes. That made it easy to talk about it and move people around," Ruyle says. Eventually, he would put the final results in an Excel spreadsheet and then make decisions about job assignments.

Potential Pitfalls

While the 9-box grid is a solid, simple tool, experts say there are drawbacks.

Misunderstanding high-potentials. There are misconceptions about the term "high-potential." People use the term to talk about all top talent, as opposed to talent with the potential to become leaders, Ruyle says. Also, he warns that it can be difficult for managers to assess "promotability." "Most managers are subconsciously thinking, ‘Do they remind me of me?’ "

Once the stars and top performers have been identified, HR leaders must direct resources toward them.

Using the tool for individual assessment. "It’s not designed for individual assessment. Without comparison, it enables neither valid assessment nor career decisions about an individual," Arth says. "It doesn’t reflect the individual’s career plans. It doesn’t indicate the breadth and depth of someone’s expertise."

Expecting too much. "It’s only one tool for evaluating," Reynolds says. "Make sure there are other mechanisms with more data," such as 360-degree reviews, engagement scores and performance ratings.

Using quotas for each box. HR professionals can have an ideal percentage of employees in mind for each box, but they should not try to alter reality to fit that ideal. "The tool should reflect your reality," Ruyle says.

Failing to include change management. Change management is key, Arth says. "When I worked for a technology company in Chicago, we used a 9-box grid. They introduced it one day and the next day said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ Nobody got it." Stakeholders need to buy into the approach and understand what the benefits are for employees and the organization, she says.

Overcomplicating the process."The beauty is in its simplicity, McCarthy says. "I’ve had managers—typically engineers and scientists—want to make hair-splitting ‘enhancements’ to the tool and process. They hardly ever make it better and usually slow things down with confusion."

Failing to differentiate between employees. Thisis the biggest potential pitfall. Once senior executives have identified the stars and top performers, HR leaders must direct resources toward them—higher salaries, plum work assignments, mentorships with executives, exceptional training opportunities and coveted job rotations—to retain them and develop their talent.

"Equal treatment is not fair treatment. If I’m a top contributor, it’s not fair to me to be treated the same as a lesser contributor. I am giving more," Ruyle says. "If you’re not going to treat employees differently, there’s no point in using the 9-box grid. You can’t develop good leaders if you aren’t willing to treat them differently."

A First Step

"It’s great to introduce a new assessment tool in your organization, but what are you going to do after assessing people? What actions will you take at an organizational level? Job level? Individual level?" Biro asks.

Use the grid "as a springboard for individual development discussions; otherwise, it’s just another HR-driven exercise," McCarthy says.

With the help of the grid, identify key job roles and employees who need specific talent development in order to better leverage their skills within the organization. Then create an employee development plan and a succession plan. For the 9-box grid to be useful, the journey needs to continue. As Arth says, "Without the development component, it’s just names on a napkin."

The author, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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