Assessing Leadership Potential Using the Nine-Box Model

Serious strategising
Yuri_Arcurs / Getty Images

There are many different methods for assessing employees for leadership positions. You can assign them small leadership tasks to see how they perform. You may have access to some tests designed for leadership assessment.

One quick way to determine whether you have employees ready for leadership or some that might need a few tweaks is the nine-box method. When using this matrix, leaders are assessed on two dimensions: leadership performance and potential.


Managers usually can rate their employees fairly accurately and with confidence when it comes to assessing performance. The discussions should be unemotional and non-controversial. They often bring copies of employee performance appraisals (last three years) or business scorecards to talent review meetings, and rate the employee on a simple three-point scale:

  • A high performance
  • B medium performance
  • C low performance


It is often a struggle to assess potential. This is usually because leadership potential is not usually quantifiable, and is lacking a definition in an organization. Also, describing someone's potential is an attempt to predict future actions.

Leadership potential could be defined as the ability to adapt to different circumstances and challenges while maintaining proficiency and follower performance.

This measurement is an attempt to quantify the abilities of an employee based on past performances and what leadership knows about them.

Entries for potential in the nine-box are:

  • 1 High potential 
  • 2 Medium potential
  • 3 Low potential

Instructions for the Nine-Box

In the nine-box, there are 3 columns and 3 rows. As you look at the model, you see rows are labeled from top to bottom as potential. Sometimes these are numbered from top to bottom as 1-3. The columns are labeled as performance and sometimes labeled from right to left as A-C.

Box 1C rates an employee as low potential, and low performance. As you move to the right or up on the chart, the performance or potential goes up with each box. If you move up one box from 1C, you are placing an employee in 2C, average potential with low performance. In the center box, an employee would be average potential and average performance.

Your top performers with top potential are in the top right box, and the 3 boxes surrounding it are those employees that need a few tweaks to be placed in the top talent box.

Assessment Methods

While assessing potential and performance are usually subjective and uncertain, there are a number of things you can do to improve the process.

Define Potential and Performance

The most important part of defining someone's leadership abilities is to ensure that decision-makers and assessors have the same definition of leadership performance and potential.

Potential has a different meaning to many different people. For leadership looking for successive leaders, it usually means the ability to handle increasing responsibility while completing more complex tasks.

It can be difficult to classify an employee as a performer unless you have a definition. You cannot rate an employee against another unless you know what to look for. Employees should also know how they are being assessed so that they have an opportunity to improve if necessary.

Lists of Attributes

A list of desirable attributes can help leadership assess it's employees for succession. Some of the more popular attributes are communication, positivity, knowledge, and trustworthiness. Develop a list of the attributes you find most appealing, and begin to rate your employees on the amount of ability they have in each.

For example, if you had a list of ten potential criteria, total the number of attributes the employee has from the list, then rate each attribute using the following scoring method:

  • Low Ability
  • Medium Ability
  • High Ability

Notice the scoring methods are similar to the nine-box grid. Put each attribute as rated in the corresponding box for performance and potential. You'll have a visual of each attribute for each employee you are assessing.

Once you have completed individual assessments, you can then categorize each of your employees into the corresponding box in a group nine-box to view them at one time. For example, if Jane and John were both top performers with top potential, they would be placed in the top right box. Your middle performers with average potential would be placed in the center box, and so on.

Discuss Each Employee in a Talent Review

Once you have classified your employees into their respective categories, you can sit down and determine the most qualified. If possible, use perspectives from your leadership team to reduce “single rater bias” and improve accuracy.

This is an important part of the process. If a top performer and their manager have been disagreeing quite often lately, the manager may be inclined to rate the employee lower than they would have before the disagreements began. A group session can temper recent feelings and make things more impartial.