Executive Handbook

How to assess your team

matrix employee potential

The 9-box gives managers a tool to assess employees for their potential to advance. (FCW graphic)

Technology executives at federal agencies must oversee and develop a wide range of employees: longtime civil servants, political appointees, their own hires and (far more often) those they have inherited. The performance and potential matrix, commonly referred to as the 9-box, is a simple yet effective tool used to assess, manage and develop talent in organizations. It assesses individuals on two dimensions: their past performance and their future potential.

The 9-box helps a leadership team differentiate talent so that managers can better capitalize on and deploy it. Some people are better suited to a specialist position, while others might have potential to move into a larger role.

Although the 9-box is a versatile tool with many variations, it typically looks like a tic-tac-toe board, with the x-axis (horizontal line) of three boxes representing performance and the y-axis of three boxes (vertical line) representing potential. In other words, the top right square means high performance/high potential, while the bottom left square means low performance/low potential.

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To use the matrix, managers assign each of their employees to the appropriate box on the grid, and all that information is consolidated onto one master grid. Then, in a talent review meeting, a team facilitator (someone with experience in using the 9-box) guides managers in a discussion of each employee’s performance and potential.

The beauty of the tool lies in its simplicity and ease of use. With a little explanation and initial facilitation, managers usually catch on quickly. The matrix helps overcome many of the common pitfalls when it comes to talent assessment, including overemphasis on current performance, overreliance on a single opinion, and a lack of assessment criteria or inconsistent criteria.

It is also a catalyst for robust dialogue. Filling out the grid is not the end goal; it’s all about the discussion. Most managers are not very skilled when it comes to assessing talent and are hesitant to discuss another manager’s employees or listen to feedback about their own. This tool helps provide a structured way to have those conversations in a professional, productive manner.

Even if you lack clear, consistent definitions of performance and potential going into a talent review, if you use this tool, you will have those definitions by the time you are done. In fact, for many managers, it will be the first time they have heard their bosses voice their expectations, and they will often discreetly begin jotting down notes and assessing themselves.

The accuracy of assessing performance and potential improves with multiple data points. Managers often have blind spots with their employees and are unaware of how they are perceived by others. These discussions can help shine a light on superstars and poor performers alike.

Finally, using the 9-box as part of a talent review uncovers strengths and weaknesses for the agency as well as the individual. The grid serves as an assessment of actions needed to strengthen the organization and provides a visual depiction of an agency’s bench strength — a valuable snapshot of talent and the opportunities or challenges that come with it.

About the Author

Dan McCarthy is director of executive development programs at the University of New Hampshire. He’s the author of the award-winning leadership development blog “Great Leadership” and “The Great Leadership Development and Succession Planning Kit” e-book. He can be reached at daniel.mccarthy@unh.edu.

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