An Introduction to the 9-Box Model

Al Schnur
by Al Schnur

Al has personally conducted more than 5,000 high-level evaluations during his career, and is particularly proud that more than 250,000 candidates have participated in assessment programs he designed. At present, Al focuses on C-level succession planning and assessment in support of CEOs, Boards and other high-level stakeholders.

Developing leaders requires being able to evaluate employees and their leadership potential in an efficient and organized fashion.

One of the most popular tools to do this is the 9-Box Model. This model tracks a combination of performance and potential to help project where an employee fits in the bigger picture of your organization.

How Does the 9-Box Model Work?

The 9-Box Model is divided into three intersecting horizontal rows and vertical columns. Each row measures levels of potential, while each column measures levels of performance.

Both attributes are graded on a scale from low to medium to high.

Using the 9-Box Model, any employee can be placed in a box that measures potential against performance. Employees can therefore range from low-potential/low-performance to high-potential/high-performance.

To determine which box an employee fits in, you’d use thorough assessments to test and track the skills, attributes and experiences that reveal both leadership potential and actual on-the-job performance. 

Defining the 9 Boxes

Each of the nine boxes functions almost as a “symbol” for a different kind of employee.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how specific boxes relate to employee assessments:

  • Low-performer/low-potential: This is your classic underachiever—an employee who has reached the limit of their potential and is under-performing relative to what their role requires.
  • Low-performer/medium-potential: An inconsistent player. With a little coaching and some challenging assignments, you may be able to help this type of employee move up a level.
  • Low-performer/high-potential: This could describe an employee who has great leadership potential, but suffers performance-wise because they are stuck in the wrong role. Sometimes a change of scenery can help. Be careful though—your diamond in the rough could turn out to be just a piece of glass if there’s some other reason performance is low.
  • Medium-performer/low-potential: This kind of employee is often effective in a specialized role. If you have a particular need for that role, this person could happily serve you for a long time.
  • Medium-performer/medium-potential: If you’re lucky, these are your core employees. Reward their work and find ways to keep them happy and motivated. Then consider helping them grow through more focused motivation and engagement from leadership.
  • Medium-performer/high-potential: A growth employee who likely shows the ability and the desire to advance. Find ways to challenge, motivate and develop this kind of person to take them to that next step.
  • High-performer/low-potential: A trusted professional. This type of employee has probably reached their career peak, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a valuable resource in helping to develop others.
  • High-performer/medium-potential: Your current star. This employee is a high-impact contributor. Rewarding, challenging and motivating them will mean big things.
  • High-performer/high-potential: A future leader. Top talent can be found in this box. They should be rewarded, developed and promoted to leadership positions.

Does the 9-Box Model Work? 

As a leadership development and talent management tool, the 9-Box Model is a simple and coherent way to organize and evaluate your organization’s talent pool.

You can see where every employee “is,” both in terms of their own development in relation to others—and the 9-Box Model makes it very easy to think about what needs to be done to move them into another box

As with any tool, however, this Model is only truly effective when you pair it with a comprehensive assessment process—especially considering you might at first not be able to neatly fit Employee A or B into a single box.   

Assessments are more individualized when it comes to uncovering data on performance and potential; they’ll help you move beyond general descriptors in the nine boxes to get a more accurate read on your employees.

Bottom line: the 9-Box Model can be a useful tool in your toolbox—just make sure you use other tools, too.

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