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Succession planning: what's the current state of play with the 9-box grid?

Kiddy & Partners

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The 9-box grid is one of the best-known talent management tools around. Created in the 1970s, the tool plots an organisation’s talent pool against two axes: performance and potential. But what is the state of play with the 9-box grid - is this popular, but decades old, tool fit for purpose to manage the talent of the future? 

Our recent research suggests that most talent pipelines underdeliver. Heads of Talent and Learning shared with us that talent is assessed sporadically, typically when one-off decisions are needed, and those identified as ‘ready later’ talent rarely move to ‘ready now’. These themes also arise when you start to look at the drawbacks of the 9-box grid. A common complaint is that completion of the 9-box is an arduous, annual cycle, which takes managers months to complete, providing (most often) subjective ratings of their team’s performance and certainly of their potential. Once completed the 9-box is reviewed, a few people might make it onto a development programme or be reassigned to a critical role, but otherwise, it remains stagnant until the process is revisited a year later (and probably with little change).  As a result, once someone is labelled ‘low performance, low potential’, this perception is hard to shift and they are likely doomed to sit in that box whilst they see out their time with the organisation. 

So why has the 9-box remained so popular? It’s important to have a spread of talent across the organisation. If everyone was identified as ‘high performance, high potential’, there would be a steady churn of talent out of the organisation as it struggled to keep up with the aspirations of its people. Used in the right way, it’s a useful exercise to see where your talent sits so that investment can be targeted in the most appropriate way for maximum returns. 

What can be done to make sure that if the 9-box is your talent management tool of choice, it is providing you with maximum value?

  • Be objective: Make sure your potential and performance measures are based on robust, objective data and insights. At Kiddy, we’ve been exploring what the Future of Leadership looks like and can help organisations assess their populations to identify the right leaders for their tomorrow. We also know that whilst past performance plays a small role in future potential, its importance is often overestimated. Only 30% of high performers are also high potentials, the remaining 70% of current high performers have what it takes to succeed now but lack at least one critical component necessary for future success [1]. Predicting future potential is different to assessing current capability. Potential is made up of a number of elements, driven by growth dimensions such as the ability to learn and motivation to progress, and underpinned by certain personality enablers and cognitive ability (2). What’s also key to measuring potential is understanding how an individual interacts with your business in order to fulfil their potential.  Kiddy has the expertise – experience, know-how and tools – to be able to provide organisations with a valid and reliable view of potential. 
  • Look at the whole picture: Don’t just look at the top right of your grid. The 9-box grid is helpful because it puts everyone on the same page, but when Talent Managers have busy day jobs and key priorities to deliver against, the names that appear on the left slide of the grid can disappear into the abyss. At Kiddy we’re strong believers that everyone has the potential to grow and develop; none of us are ever the finished article, so targeting the right sort of development for the right groups is key for sustained organisation development and performance. 
  • Don’t just look at the potential to move up: The potential to get further, faster than others doesn’t necessarily mean further in terms of the top of the food chain. Organisations in the future are equally going to need people who has the capability to operate across a breadth of situations. We don’t know what the world is going to throw at us next and we need leaders who can be ‘experts in not knowing’, but who have the skill set to step into a novel environment and continue to deliver. 
  • Look at your organisational learning culture: Organisations need to acknowledge their role in helping individuals to fulfil their potential. While it’s true that potential has some foundational elements that are inherent to individuals (2), the organisational context plays a big part in how potential is realised. Do individuals get the opportunity to work in tangent parts of the business, building their general awareness, their comfort and ability to learn, which we know is important in helping individuals develop further, faster than others? At Kiddy, we advise clients on the importance of assigning appropriate stretch experiences, informal interventions such as peer coaching and complimenting this with more formal learning, to accelerate potential.
  • Keep your talent management activities dynamic: The 9-box grid should not be completed and then placed in a drawer until next year. Use the insights of your robust measurements to spark impactful conversations with your key decision makers, invest in the appropriate development for your populations and be bold in appointing your internal talent to critical roles. 

If you would like to talk to us about how we can help you assess and accelerate the right leaders for your tomorrow, please get in touch with our expert listed below.

References

  1. Martin & Schmidt (2010). How to keep your top talent, Harvard Business Review
  2. Church & Silzer (2014). Going behind the corporate curtain with a blueprint for leadership potential. People & Strategy, 36(4), 50-58.

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