Assessing Leadership Potential Using the Nine Box Model

By: Adie Bush/Getty Images

When using the performance and potential (nine-box) matrix, leaders are assessed on two dimensions: leadership performance and potential.

The Two Dimensions

Managers usually are able to rate their employees fairly accurately and with confidence when it comes to assessing performance. The discussions are 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 equals high performance; B equals medium; C equals low

Managers often struggle when it comes to assessing potential. This is also where use of the nine-box model comes under the most criticism or confusion.

Potential is often defined as:

1 equals high potential; 2 equals medium potential; 3 equals low potential

There are two reasons for why assessing potential is so hard:

1. People are not always clear and consistent as to what potential means and how to assess it

2. Unlike assessing performance (the past), assessing potential involves predicting the future. Predicting the future can never be 100 percent accurate – if it were, we could all get rich playing the stock market or gambling and there would be no such thing as an NFL draft “bust.”

The Seven Ways

While assessing potential is always somewhat subjective and uncertain, there are a few things we can do to improve the process. I’ll list them in order from simple to more complex.

It’s been my experience that more complex does not always translate to more accurate. More complex can mean more expensive and time-consuming perhaps, but not always any more effective.

1. Agree on a definition of what potential means. It is common definition, and one that I use is: “Promotable to a significantly larger leadership role.” It’s a simple definition, and most senior managers have no trouble with it.

Any variation is fine, as long as everyone is using the same definition.

2. Discuss each employee as a part of a talent review meeting. Getting multiple perspectives from the entire leadership team helps reduce “single rater bias” and improve accuracy.

3. Use a valid list of attributes that describe potential. There are many research-based models, including Korn Ferry’s (Lominger’s) learning agilityDevelopment Dimension International’s (DDI) potential model, and Ram Charon’s list.

The simplest way to use one of these lists is simply to give a list to the raters and tell them to consider the attributes when rating each employee for potential. Others many prefer a more quantitative approach, and “score” each employee against each item on the list to come up with a final rating.

For example, for a list of ten potential criteria, calculate the total number of attributes the employee has responses and use the following scoring:

0-3 equals Low; 4-7 equals Medium; 8-10 equals High

Keep in mind, there’s a danger to putting a number to a subjective assessment – it can create the illusion of certainty. While the numbers only provide a way to quantify judgment, having a common scoring system might help improve predictability and at least reduce some of the anxiety for managers.

4. Use an assessment or assessments. Some of the same organizations mentioned about will sell you assessment instruments that measure their potential criteria. There are many other assessment instruments that claim to measure potential – too many to mention. Just be sure that the assessment is valid and reliable.

5. Test the employee by observing their behavior and results in an executive development program. “Action learning” executive development programs often involve high potential employees working in teams to solve real business issues. They provide an excellent opportunity for trained observers see these employees in action.

They can be assessed on their ability to work in teams, lead, their analytical skills, their ability to influence, their receptivity to feedback, and their learning agility. While most participants in these programs understand that evaluation is a part of the deal, it’s a good practice to explicitly spell this out prior to the program.

6. InterviewsSearch consultants are masters at assessing for fit and potential, and many companies hire them to assess current employees for leadership potential. Just beware of the built-in bias that may exist against current employees, i.e., they make a living sourcing external candidates.

7. Use an assessment center. An assessment center is basically a structured gauntlet of assessments, tests, simulations, exercises, and interviews designed to measure potential. They are typically administered by organizational psychologists or some other kind of Ph.D with specialized training. While I’ve found them to be highly effective, they can also be quite expensive – as much as $10,000 or more per person.

Again, assessing for potential will always be part art and part science. Using any or all of the above techniques will remove much of the guesswork and increase your level of confidence that you are picking the right employees for critical leadership roles.