The one with people in boxes

[Author’s note: this post is quite long – get snacks]

Some time ago I was introduced to a non-exec director of the business I worked for. He had been a senior player with one of the global consumer brand businesses and the purpose of the meeting was to discuss their approach to talent to see if there was anything we (the business I worked for) could learn from it and utilise to drive performance of our own organisation.

During the conversation he introduced me to the concept of the 9-box talent model. It’s a model that plots performance against potential and maps the plots on those axes into 9 boxes. I am struggling to find who originally developed it but it’s based on work completed by GE & McKinsey. Where you were placed in the model would dictate how your career path was framed, what opportunities were open to you and how much investment and support you got. It looks something like this…

I am a fan of models. Not the literal interpretation of them but the way in that they help me see things differently, model information and to get clarity on a situation. I left the meet quite excited about what could be achieved with the 9-box model. This excitement lasted about 48 hours until I understood the quagmire that I would have to wade through to get data to populate the model. I will explain…


Most businesses have performance management systems. Of those systems, most have some form of rating. Given the rating is often tied to reward it is subject to scrutiny and verification, well at least they were in our business. So this should be simple? Wrong!

If the score someone achieves is likely to colour their career for some time to come you have to challenge the number being put in the box. Which means asking what is being measured? I’d stake a decent wager the objectives on which the rating being based is so called ‘hard measures’ and those will be in the form of metrics of some sort. I don’t want to go into the challenges of developing metrics but my views align with a friend of mine Neil Morrison and he shares his views in this post.

But seriously, of the two (performance and potential) performance is the easier to measure so let’s just say we plot our performance measures against the 3 boxes along the bottom and move on to potential


One of the dictionary definitions of potential is “a latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed” but in people terms how do you measure potential?

The simple answer is you ask ‘them what make the decisions’ and that is often, I believe, what happens. The subjective realities form a view of individual potential somewhat akin to an internal stock market.

If you want a more objective measure you are in to some form of measurement and having asked several well trusted colleagues and peers over recent years the methods that come up time and time again are these 2:

1. Learning Agility

Learning Agility is defined as “ability to adapt to one’s experiences, make sense of them and make the most of them”. It is based on the work of Sternberg at al (1995) and they found it to be a better predictor of organisational success than cognitive ability. The development of a tool to measure Learning Agility was pioneered by Michael Lombardo & Robert Eichiner who went on to form Lominger (now part of Korn Ferry Whitehead Mann).

If you read Lominger’s publications on Learning Agility it talks of four types: mental, people, change and results and I am probably oversimplifying here but basically I think  their assertion is that learning agility correlates with potential. So measure learning agility and Bob’s your Uncle…


YSC (Young, Samuel, Chambers) are a consulting business who, in their own words “help…define, identify and develop your leadership capability”. They are global organisation and work with some very impressive companies.

They have developed a tool they call JDI (Judgement, Drive, Influence) based on Peter Saville’s WAVE.

They define judgement as problem finding, analytical rigour, framing issues, problem resolution. They define drive as ambition, self assurance and initiative. They define influence as self awareness, environmental radar and the range of influence.

So fill in the questionnaire, wait 5 minutes and a view on your potential will appear.

Again, that seems simple, doesn’t it?

Well I have two problems with both these measures. Firstly, I have never managed to convince a board that the exercise is required let alone the investment. In simple terms I’ve never done it and whilst they both appear elegant solutions I can’t really say.

The second problem is on more of an emotional level. If you look back on your career (waits 10 minutes whilst you reflect on your career) and think about the people that have REALLY influenced your progession, what they awoke in you is probably very difficult to measure. You know when people say to a child “you can be anything you want to be”, neither of these two solutions appears to account for the ability human beings seem to have for latent greatness. That’s what really bothers me, the idea that we will pass people over based on a set of scores when what we could be doing as managers and leaders is helping them understand and realise they have greatness within them that can’t be scored.

So why bother?

So why have I written this (extremely long) post? Well this stuff has been bouncing around in my head of late and a few conversations I’ve had recently have brought it front of mind but also to share where I’ve got to in my explorations to see if anyone else has great stuff to share.

The reality of all of this is that 9-box is a step forward from succession and development planning based on performance alone and an organisation doing this well would likely be way ahead of the curve in finding greatness within their businesses but the ‘divine discontent’ module in my head still wants to find latent greatness…


Sternberg, R.J., Wagner, R.K., Williams, W.M. & Horvath, J.A. (1995) Testing Common Sense. American Psychologist, 50(11), 912-927



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4 responses to “The one with people in boxes

  1. Neil Usher

    I am not sure this model is intended to be data-driven – it may be useful as a spatial tool to help people understand how potential and performance relate – what might yet be, against what has been – future against past/present – but the minute someone shoves me into one of those boxes based on “data”, I am veeeeeery afraid. I think its a great basis for a productive discussion however. Although for many, leaving it at that is too uncomfortable. I will use with my team in a couple of weeks and let you know.

  2. Good post Rob – I also like a good model!

    I believe the 9-box grid is very practical way of reflecting on members of your team. In my experience the main challenge organisations have is in seeing this not as a promotion/exit tool but as a recognition of the current & future potential contribution. And this is where the model comes into it’s own…

    For me it’s not about dogma & data. It’s about how your management perceive their teams. It’s about the conversation this perspective elicits. It’s about recognising that a “Trusted Professional” could be a fantastic Coach or Mentor. That “Under Performers” need support and corrective actions. That may be by investing in your “Core Employees” you could create more “High Impact Performers”, “Growth Employees” & “Future Leaders”. It’s not about being in the top-right corner. It’s about developing your whole organisation. Perhaps this is about “Latent Greatness” Rob? Perhaps it speaks more about belief?

    Unfortunately, many organisations take a top-down, data driven approach which seems only to have the effect of making this a “clandestine” black & white process with an overwhelming focus on HiPo’s or Exits, completely missing out the colour in between. Not surprisingly, in such situations managers struggle to gain insight or develop their team as they start to “game” the results….

    As an aside, the nomenclature used in the 9-box needs careful attention to ensure it is both descriptive & accepted in the organisation. Not all of the terms used in this rendition resonate well with me! “Core Employee” isn’t exactly inspirational…

  3. @Neil as I said on Twitter, interesting to see the reaction of someone from the business rather than someone from within talent and whilst I have used it with individual managers (and found it prompts some very interesting discussion) the context discussed with our NED was the organisational overview/talent plan context

    @Dave As ever you make some interesting points and yes the black ops approach does seem to surround this particular model. I think it’s interesting in several of the models how the “middle” gets overlooked in favour of the problem children and the superstars.

    If you consider the vitality curve (Rank & Yank) the focus is always on the A Players and the C Players overlooking the majority in the B players category who actually make the business work or as Walt Disney put it “Life enhancers, lawn mowers & well poisoners” I always thought poison in the well was bad but before we worry about what comes next there need to be a good cadre of people who focus on delivering what we need now

  4. David Lyons

    I have about ten years experience of using the 9 box model (sans the names) to support the talent management process in a large global organization. I have been on both ends of this – from a leader analyzing a team and as a leadership development specialist supporting talent management. Presumably I have been shoved into a few boxes too! I have found most of the challenges with this model revolve around managers placing too much emphasis on the performance in the current role (approximately 50% of high potential leaders may not necessary excel in a “lower” role) and mistaking potential for performance. The main challenge was that potential was defined very loosely and thus open to different interpretations. Results were mixed and it was not uncommon to find significant movement within the grid over a one or two year period, particularly if an employee’s manager changed.

    During the last few years YSC’s Drive, Judgment and Decision Making model has been introduced to help with the potential dimension. These three characteristics have been further defined to help managers identify relevant behaviors. While in many ways this approach is still subjective, the YSC model has helped to create greater clarity and a common language of what exactly is meant by potential specific to the organization in question.

    I appreciate your concern that the performance/potential model may fail to recognize the true potential in every organizational member. I manage this dilemma by recognizing on the one hand there is a critical need to develop global leaders and part of this development process involves placing such emerging executives in feeder roles that afford the necessary global experience. Since such roles are limited, a pragmatic process is needed to ensure finite development roles are assigned to candidates likely to be successful. On the other hand, this process forces managers to have conversations with their employees about how the organization views his or her potential. Such conversations (which may have never occurred without the model) can serve to light the internal fire and transform career trajectories.

    You have an outstanding blog – Not sure how I ended up here but glad I did!

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