The 9-Box Matrix: Experts Discuss the Pros and Cons

The 9-Box Matrix, developed by McKinsey in the 1970s, became an integral part of GE’s highly influential Session C performance management method. Since then, it has become extensively adopted by HR organizations around the globe. The matrix plots an organization’s talent on two dimensions: performance and potential. Today, many ask, is it still relevant?  What are the pros and cons?

Organizations use the matrix as a tool to assess talent. In addition, the tool is used to keep an eye on bench strength. Lastly, organizations use it to prioritize which employees get what types of additional education and training/leadership coaching. If you speak with most HR professionals, however, you’ll get varied opinions about how to best use the tool. We asked four coaches at IMPACT Group who all have extensive experience as HR leaders to share their insights on using the 9-Box Matrix. Here’s what we learned from these experts.

Pro: 9-Box Gets the Conversation Started

If you want to spark conversations around succession plans and future leaders, the 9-Box Matrix can help you get your leadership thinking, planning, and talking. You can quickly gain insight into leadership’s perceptions and preferences around certain employees. And with many leaders in the room, you can get more than one opinion.

Pro: 9-Box Provides Easy-to-Understand Visualization

The 9-Box Matrix is a simple chart that can help you identify direct reports or teams and where they fit in terms of performance and potential. After plotting these employees within the grid, you can get a feel for who may be able to fill future leadership positions, what training may be needed to bridge gaps, and even what employees may need extra help in reaching performance goals. But overall, it can help you designate and divide resources.

Pro: 9-Box Framework Creates Common Language

“The big advantage for us was creating that common language,” says IMPACT Group Senior Career/Transition Coach Ken Meyers. Meyers, who had an extensive career in HR including overseeing staffing, executive recruiting, and leadership training departments, says one of the most important aspects to success is that the organization has a real solid, ingrained performance management and career development process. “If there are established definitions behind each category, ideally with leadership behavioral examples, both the decision-makers and the rated employees are clear on what’s expected from one category (or box) to the next.”

As with everything else in life, the 9-box tool can hinder, rather than help, if used incorrectly. Here are some of the pitfalls:

Cons: 9-Box Content is Rooted in Subjectivity:

“Unfortunately, sometimes it comes down to “sales,” says IMPACT Group Leadership & Career Transition Coach Tracy Murphy Paukstys, who is certified in Energy Leadership, The Leadership Circle Profile, and EQ-I 2.0. “Some people are naturally better at influencing and persuading other people of their point. During this time, sometimes people will shut down and stop advocating for their people because they feel deflated.”

According to Diversity Inc, “…as the focus on identifying, retaining and promoting high potentials increasingly includes diversity, the validity of the 9-box as the determining factor is being questioned.”

How to Avoid: “There can be a lot of gray that needs to be carefully managed, says IMPACT Group Career/Transition Coach, Kim Herrera. Herrera, a certified professional career coach and certified practitioner in multiple assessment tools, adds, “Ask probing questions to find out what’s really going on.”

Also, gather more than one person’s feedback on those employees you’re assessing. And make sure to factor in diversity, gender equality, and inclusion.

Cons: 9-Box Objective Measurement Data May Be Scarce

The 9-Box Matrix framework can only be a true directional planning tool if good data is available. And it’s difficult to compare people when standard assessment data measuring performance and competencies isn’t available for all individuals who are being compared.

Many HR professionals using the tool find themselves wondering, “How do you truly (and objectively) measure potential? Resiliency? Motivation? Even performance? In some jobs, the competencies or quality of work can be tough to measure unless you have in-depth knowledge as to what that job entails.

How to Avoid: You’ll need to continually ask yourself, “What are the competencies needed that we measure up against? Has the business changed? What are the needs we’re going to have in the future?” As for competency, keep in mind this depends on the role. For example, for positions in sales and operations, you can go back to KPIs or numbers. But with other positions, measuring will be more neutral or methods-based.

Cons: 9-Box Can Be Misused

Talent management experts say that the 9-Box Matrix is often misused. As an example, while the 9-Box Matrix can help you designate which employees should get leadership training or be promoted, this is “not the right tool to use when you need to determine if someone should be managed out of the organization,” cautions Paukstys. “There are better ways and much more involved ways than sitting and looking at the 9-box.”

Cons: People Getting “Boxed In” by Static Labels

The label, whether it’s a positive or negative one, can stick with people for years. And, it is often based on first impressions or feelings about the individual, not any kind of performance data. So an employee who seemed nervous could be tagged “low potential” because he lacks presence. An employee that seemed abrupt could be pigeonholed as someone who is difficult to work with. Also, it could be tempting to shortcut the process by carrying over labels from past conversations and 9-Box Matrix assessments.

How to Avoid: While life isn’t fair, you do want your assessment process to be as accurate as possible. Again, ask probing questions and use data from performance reviews and other types of talent assessments.

The Process Can be Stressful

Since there can be a great deal of emotion and subjectivity as to who is put into what box, these meetings can be quite nerve-wracking. People can get swept up in emotion when it comes to championing their picks of people. There can be conflicts.

How to Avoid: “This goes back to ensuring there’s a common language and benchmark. It is important have a thorough understanding of any leadership opportunities and what competencies are needed. Back up opinions with data,” says Herrera. It’s also sometimes helpful to bring in a third-party HR consultant.

How IMPACT Group Helps You Take Action to Develop Your Future Leaders

No matter the tool used for succession planning, it’s a best practice to identify and develop tomorrow’s leaders, today. IMPACT Group’s expert leadership development coaches can help your team address the specific challenges and situations they face right now to create clear, actionable priorities and next steps. IMPACT Group’s people development coaching will help support, clarify, and focus on leadership and succession planning goals. Take a look at the work we did for Veolia in this case study.

And one final piece of advice to keep in mind… “These types of tools and even the software tools HR uses aren’t a substitute for an honest discussion about people,” says IMPACT Group Senior Career and Transition Coach Katherine Burik, a job search expert, author, and registered corporate coach with the Worldwide Association of Business Coaches. “These are people’s futures. Don’t substitute a machine or tool for that.” IMPACT Group can help you develop your emerging leaders by providing 1:Me Leadership Coaching or providing a comprehensive program for your high potentials. Learn more about our people development programs here.