If you were asked to assess your team’s current strength, you might struggle to give a quick or clear answer. You would name a few top players, and you could identify an underperformer or two who need to be managed up or out. But when pressed to rate where your team strength stands when looking at, for instance, your entire group of Seniors, deciding whether to hire a talented Manager who’s become available, or planning for growth or transition, you might be unsure.
Having a considered snapshot of team strength will help you make decisions about hires, necessary terminations, and prioritizing where to make talent investments. After all, you have limited time to invest in your team members, so knowing where and when to make those investments is critical to retaining your people and helping them grow and develop. Your learning and development budget is limited, too, so information is critical to choosing who should participate in conferences, leadership programs and other learning experiences.
You can use a 9-Box to segment your talent, study your team’s overall strength, and assess where to make investments and changes, too. The 9-Box provides an overview and “map” of your team, either as a whole or in subsets, and can tell you a story about where things stand with your talent pool.
The 9-Box is a 3x3 grid comprised of nine boxes. The x-axis represents potential, and the y-axis shows performance. Here’s a very simple snapshot of the 9-Box concept:
When implementing the 9-Box, the first step is to agree upon the definitions of performance and potential.
Performance measures how well someone is doing in their current role.
- High performance: hitting metrics, exceeding the requirements of the position, and/or working at a level over and above others in their peer group
- Medium performance: those in the “center” between High and Low performance; meeting expectations but not exceeding them
- Low performance: not completing work in a timely manner, not delivering finished work product, not meeting expectations, missing other metrics, and/or not performing as well as peers
Potential measures the leadership team’s feeling about a person’s potential performance, answering the question, “what could this person possibly achieve in the future?”
- High potential: highly promotable; is seen as a higher-impact, longer-term player, and/or exhibits something special that could distinguish them in the future
- Medium potential: currently, promotion is not imminent; doesn’t feel like promotion will be frequent
- Low potential: isn’t expected to move ahead of their current level; not growing their impact to the firm
To implement the 9-Box in your firm, practice, or department:
- Choose your talent group(s) to study. Most firms will break the team into chunks like departments, practice areas, levels, or levels within a department or practice area (e.g., Audit Managers). Smaller firms might assess the whole team at once
- Identify a working group who will drive the 9-Box process forward (and if you’re studying subsets, consider creating multiple working groups). Be sure the working group includes people who work with the talent being analyzed or have access to evaluations and feedback
- Share a 9-Box Tool with working group participants ahead of the first 9-Box meeting. Here’s a snapshot of the tool we use:
- Create one agreed-upon 9-Box framework to apply across the firm. At your first working group meeting, discuss the concepts of performance and potential (described above in this blog). In addition, review box details to ensure the group agrees with the box names and definitions. If you have multiple working groups and subsets, consolidate this meeting and host a kick-off of all working groups at once
- Collaborate with (individual) working group(s) to place team members into boxes. Expect to have conversation, disagreements, and back and forth before you get to final placement
- Once you’ve placed all the names in your grid, study the “big picture” and discuss what it tells you. Things to note or explore:
- Do you have enough “best and brightest” in the green boxes in the upper right-hand section of the grid? If not, you might prioritize strategic hires to shore up this group and invest in the people in the middle to bring them up and along, too
- For your “best and brightest,” discuss who is responsible for “tethering” each of them into the firm (usually designated as a coach, mentor, or supervisor). Ensure that you have assigned your best people developers into tethering roles – so high performance, high potential coaches are working with high performance, high potential team members. Assigned coaches can start a conversation by saying, “Do you have 30 minutes to chat? I’m calling/stopping by to see how things are going with you. I want to be sure you know how much you mean to this firm and our success…”
- Do you have too many “struggling players” in the “orange” boxes in the bottom left-hand corner of the grid? If so, you could implement 90-day performance improvement plans and simultaneously make some hires in case the “struggling players” don’t improve
- Study the definitions of each box for other clues on actions to take for the included team members. For instance, the “Inconsistent Performer” definition includes a bolded statement that says, “move out of role or manage out of the business.” For instance, if your Inconsistent Performer is a Tax Senior who is obviously bright but struggling to keep up with technical development, there might be other aspects of the business in which to involve them (department operations, scheduling, people management, client management, business development) that would propel them to be more motivated and ultimately, a stronger contributor
- Commit to updating your 9-Boxes on an annual basis at a minimum
Please note that the 9-Box analysis is intended as a management tool only, so 9-box placement should remain confidential. Be sure your working group understands and honors this principle. It’s smart to identify and reward your top performers. Going a step further, firms should ensure the 80/20 rule applies so that high performers receive more coaching, talent investments, and time from key firm leaders. However, it could be upsetting and demotivating for those identified as low potential to learn where they’ve been placed.
You’ll learn from your 9-Box analysis, but you should also take action. Here are a few likely places to start. Pay closer attention to your best and brightest. Avoid an over-emphasis or lack of action on your “struggling players.” And ultimately, operate your business and make decisions from a more accurate and actionable view of your firm’s talent pool strength.