Develop Leaders Using the 9-Box Performance Matrix

Assess Where Employees Are and Where They're Going

50 yard line
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The nine-box performance matrix assesses employees based on a combination of current performance and potential performance. Each has three ratings—high, moderate, and limited—resulting in nine potential combinations.

Knowing how to use the nine-box matrix can prove helpful with succession planning and assessing leadership potential.

Discussing specific development strategies for each employee as a part of the assessment discussion is an emerging best practice. This way, information concerning strengths and weaknesses is fresh in everyone’s minds, and it’s a natural transition to move to strategies to move each employee to the next readiness level.

While there may not be time to discuss every employee on the nine-box grid, high-potential employee development should be discussed. These are the employees who most likely will end up on succession planning lists, so it makes sense to involve the entire leadership team in brainstorming development strategies for these employees.

Once you understand what each of the nine combinations typically represents, it's possible to review ways to get the most out of each type of employee and discover where your next leaders are likely to be found.

1A: High-Performance, High-Potential

These are your go-to employees. You already know who they are based on how well they do their jobs, and you want to keep them as building blocks for your organization moving forward. They are rare, but they are easy to recognize when you have them. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Assign tasks that take them beyond their current roles. These can include start-up assignments that involve new products, processes, or territories.
  • Give them a fix-it assignment, a chance to step in and solve a problem or repair someone else’s mess.
  • Give them access to other roles in your firm and help them build cross-functional relationships with other 1A performers.
  • Find them a mentor at least one level up and access to exclusive training opportunities.
  • Provide access to meetings, committees, etc. one level up, giving them exposure to senior managers and other company leaders.
  • Make sure to provide them with a path for advancement they can see in order to encourage them to stay with the firm.

1B: High Performance, Moderate Potential

These employees are similar to your 1As, but there might be something they are lacking that prevents them from advancing as quickly or as efficiently. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Identify the areas of weakness that might be holding them back and provide training and other opportunities to improve.
  • Increase opportunities and roles in a fashion similar to 1As, but provide greater guidance and supervision. Take advancement more slowly or introduce assignments with lower stakes.
  • Find a mentor at least one level up who also overcame obstacles or who can relate to the employee's specific challenges.

1C: High Performance, Limited Potential

Many of the most valuable employees at a lot of companies fall into this category. They're experienced and good at what they do, but they likely have reached their professional ceilings. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Provide opportunities to develop in current role and to grow deeper and broader capabilities and knowledge.
  • Ask them to mentor, teach, and coach others at comparable or lower levels.
  • Encourage them to share what they know through presentations at company meetings or external conferences.
  • Communicate to them their value both as performers and as models for how others should perform their jobs.

2A: Good/Average Performance, High Potential

These are highly capable employees who might be underachieving or might be inexperienced enough to not yet understand how valuable and effective they can be to the company. They could be 1As, but they need more training or more external motivation. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Provide candid feedback about what they do well and how they need to improve.
  • Focus on helping them close competency gaps and moving them from mid-level to high-level performance.
  • Provide them with the same mentoring, coaching, and training opportunities as your 1A and 1B performers.
  • Challenge them as necessary, but use increased access and higher-profile assignments as a carrot.
  • Show them that there is a clear path to advancement and greater responsibility by addressing their weaknesses.

2B: Good/Average Performance, Moderate Potential

These often are employees who have found a comfort zone. They do a good job and have the potential to grow in the roles they have, but they might lack either the skills or the desire to advance. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Don’t push them to advance. If they're comfortable where they are, take advantage of their experience while still leaving a window open for advancement if they change their minds.
  • Praise them for their accomplishments and trust them in their roles.
  • Communicate regularly and address concerns as necessary. While these employees can be valuable if they don't pursue advancement, you don't want them to slide into poor performance out of boredom or dissatisfaction.

2C: Good/Average Performance, Limited Potential

These are solid employees at the level where they are at, but it's likely as far as they will advance either because of limited skills in the field, lack of education, or some other obstacle unlikely to be overcome. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Provide honest feedback about their opportunities for advancement if asked.
  • Provide a combination of performance management, training, and coaching to help them move from mid-level to high-level performance.
  • Offer opportunities for lateral movement to keep them engaged and possibly broaden their skills.

3A: Poor Performance, High Potential

There are multiple reasons someone might fall into this category. Young employees might perform poorly because they lack sufficient experience or were trained poorly. Experienced employees might allow dissatisfaction with their work to impact their performance. Some employees might have skills that are being misused and likely belong in a different department. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Find out the root cause of poor performance. This includes assessing the employee's willingness to be coached, to change, and to improve.
  • Develop an action plan to improve, including moving the employee into a different role if that is deemed necessary.
  • Provide access to high-performing employees so they can see what goes into reaching that level.
  • After a reasonable period of time, if performance does not improve, re-examine your assessment of the employee's potential.

3B: Poor Performance, Moderate Potential

This rating often is used for new employees with leadership potential who are too new to assess in their current roles. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Focus on onboarding, orientation, and relationship building.
  • Provide a mentor from among your high-performing employees.
  • Provide formal training.

3C: Poor Performance, Limited Potential

These are employees who need to show significant improvement in the short-term, possibly in a different role. If improvement isn't shown within a given timeframe, they should be removed from the organization. Tips for developing and retaining these employees include:

  • Use a performance management approach as opposed to a developmental approach.
  • Clarify and outline expectations, and provide a reasonable but strict deadline for meeting those expectations.
  • Provide remedial coaching and feedback.
  • After trying all of the above, after a reasonable amount of time, move the person out of the role.