The new 9-box: Modernizing the talent review template

Published on Feb 14, 2024

The new 9-box: Modernizing the talent review template

The 9-box is broken. Knowing someone is a "low potential high performer" doesn't tell you much about what to do with them. And since the 9-box was designed specifically for performance reviews, it doesn't help with promotion or succession planning. We’re all for keeping things simple, but it’s time to modernize this approach to better align with desired business outcomes, use more objective criteria, and be more actionable. 

That's why SignalFire's talent team developed three new versions of the 9-box framework designed to guide your follow-up actions by telling you who is a "brilliant jerk" you should retain but not promote, a "role mismatch" who could be much more effective in a different function, or a "critical all-star" you need to recruit alternatives to in case they leave.

First, we’ll break down the problems with the traditional 9-box approach and walk through our modernized versions that are designed for decision-making. Then below, we’ll lay out our step-by-step tactical guide to running a better talent review using our improved 9-box rubrics.

New 9-Box talent review templates for performance, promotion, and succession

The old 9-box’s issues stem from how the same two axes—potential and performance—are applied to a variety of different scenarios: promotions, succession planning, decisions of who to impact at layoff, bonuses, and more. That one-size-fits-none approach can lead to faulty outcomes. Second, 50% of the entire approach can be swayed by manager biases. The rating of a person, and subsequent actions taken, can be totally overhauled by one manager’s preferences or perception.

Yet, despite the love-hate relationship HR leaders the world over have with this approach, we continue to use it because it’s known and it’s simple. SignalFire’s updated approach uses three purpose-built 9-boxes to retain that simplicity while offering precision in different scenarios so leaders can build great companies.

1) Performance

For performance reviews, we look at performance and value alignment to determine who is an exemplary role model, whose skills might be better for a different role, or who is disrupting your team despite high-quality output. Just because someone gets a lot done doesn't make them a holistic top performer, especially if they create a challenging work environment for others or drive away potential new hires.

2) Promotions

For promotion readiness, we compare individuals' readiness for more responsibility with the needs of the business. We always recommend that promotions consider both. This 9-box variation reveals who you should promote right now, who you should delight and retain (but not move up now due to budget constraints), and who isn't management material and instead should have people hired above them. Using compensation and titling to retain top performers preemptively can save you enormous amounts instead of  having to rehire.

3) Succession

For succession planning, we analyze retention risk and criticality to understand who would leave the biggest hole if they left and how to replace them. It reveals who you should build an immediate succession plan for, who isn't critical enough to need replacing, and who's likely to stick around. This ensures you don't lose momentum if a key hire departs.

With this array of 9-box options, you can analyze more objective and well-triangulated criteria for the decision at hand. By reducing bias while focusing on the outcome, you can confidently review, promote, and build succession plans for your talent to meet your evolving needs.

For more information about how to use these 3 frameworks to run a full talent review, check out our free guide below. 

Step 1: Align on the who, when, and goals of your talent review

Who’s involved and what’s their role: 

  • People/Operations/Talent: Build, evolve, and administer the talent review process to equip managers with the input tools, resources, and guidance they need. That includes using this guide to customize the talent review experience for your company and facilitate talent review discussions with the executive leadership team.
  • Frontline managers: Submit the necessary inputs collected in the calibration template.
  • Executive leaders: Participate in the talent review discussion to set expectations for and coach frontline managers on actions as a result of the talent review insights.

When to run a talent review: Typically, as a strategic leadership discussion that runs in parallel to performance and rewards cycles. We recommend once or twice per year depending on the cadence of your promotion and performance-based compensation/equity increases.

What are your goals?

A. Distribution of performance rewards (compensation, equity, bonus)

B. Promotion decisions and organizational growth planning

C. Succession planning for high-value, critical roles for the business

D. All of the above

Step 2: Collect inputs from management

Inputs required for performance rewards

  • Current performance rating 
  • Current behavioral/values alignment rating

Inputs required for promotion decisions and organizational growth planning

  • Individual readiness for the next level/role
  • Business need for the next level/role

Inputs required for succession planning for high-value, critical roles for the business

  • Retention risk of the individual currently in role
  • Value/role criticality 

In some cases you may already have this data captured in your performance management system. In other cases, you may be asking your managers for this information for the first time. Check out the below resources to make data input collection seamless and easy for all involved if you plan to collect outside of your performance system/process.

Resources

Manager data input collection sheet

Note: this sheet is set up to convert your rating language to values for ease of data import to your 9-box tool. We recommend making a copy, updating it to reflect your company’s specific terminology and using a VLOOKUP formula to link drop-down ratings to the values columns. Pro-tip: then hide values columns and the VLOOKUP tab to make the spreadsheet user-friendly for managers.

Performance calibration 101 for managers (to build a common understanding of the rating systems used in the manager data input collection sheet)

Step 3: Customize your talent review template(s)

There are three types of views to consider: performance rewards distribution, promotion decisions and organizational growth planning, and succession planning for high value, critical roles for the business. Refer to your selections in Step 1 to understand which frameworks to use for your talent review.

Consider if you have a 9-box tool in one of your existing performance systems such as Lattice that you may be able to customize, or an existing Google sheet format you can customize. Otherwise, you will be creating your 9-box in Google Sheets for the first time (pro-tip: don’t recreate the wheel—you can download a free worksheet pre-populated with formulas here that you can customize for the view needed. If you are a SignalFire Portfolio Company, reach out to the Talent team for a link to a pre-customized template).

Customized views

Performance 

  • 3-point performance rating scale (you can combine manager-facing ratings if you use a 4- or 5-point performance scale internally—e.g., “Meeting” and “Often Exceeding” may be bucketed together, or “Often Exceeding” and “Setting a New Bar” may be bucketed together based on the rating culture of your organization).
  • X axis = Performance (“Results and impact for the business”)
  • Y axis = Behavior/values alignment (“How they go about getting results”)
  • 9-box categories based on the above combinations:

Promotion readiness

  • 3-point timing rating scale (Values: Unsure, Next 6–12 months, Now)
  • X axis = Individual readiness timing( “The person is ready for the next level”)
  • Y axis = Business need timing (“The business needs the next level of skills/experience/impact”)
  • 9-box categories based on the above combinations:

Succession planning

  • 3-point rating scale (Values: Low, Medium, High)
  • X axis = Role value/criticality (“Value the role has on the businesses ability to generate or enable revenue and the risk to that value due to being a single point of failure”)
  • Y axis = Retention risk (“the likelihood the person in role will leave the business in the next 6–12 months”)
  • 9-box categories based on the above combinations:

How to customize the above views

If using the free worksheet linked above, you will notice four separate visible tab and one hidden tab (used for data calculations, this tab does not require any updates).

Sheet settings

  1. Customize the data specific to your company so that you can filter the insights as needed—for example by department, division, level, tenure or gender. There is a + signal on the far left to expand the sheet should you need space for more options.
  2. Review the evaluation levels to ensure the terminology aligns with your rating scales. All scales should easily map to the 3 point levels, with the exception of performance. Please see the below recommendations based on your performance rating scale used internally:
    1. 3-point scale (1 = Not meeting, 2 = Meeting, 3 = Exceeding)
    2. 4-point scale (As pictured above in the performance visual)
    3. 5-point scale (1 = Not meeting / struggling to meet, 2 = Meeting / often exceeding, 3 = Setting a new bar)
  3. Update the 9-box categories to mirror the view you are creating: performance, promotion readiness, or succession planning.

Employee data

  1. Using the generic manager data input sheet, copy and paste the data (values only) into the employee data sheet. Note: you will notice that the department, division, and job levels feed from the sheet settings. Modify your generic manager data input collection sheet to include drop-downs for these same selections to limit manual entries or errors.
  2. Do not change the 9-box categorization (column I) as this feeds from the sheet settings.

If using your performance management system to prepare your 9-box views, audit which inputs are currently collected during your performance review cycle and which inputs could be added next time to create a fully automated and seamless 9-box report for each of the views.

Step 4: Analyze the insights 

We recommend analyzing results using two visualizations: the 9-box dashboard as well as a list of employees by category.

🔒Dashboard view

(If using the free linked worksheet, this is a locked sheet that feeds from employee data and sheet settings.)

In the dashboard view, you will see the 9-box representation of the two dimensions specific to the customized view you create. It will visualize how many employees fall into which box and what percentage of your total population that represents (often referred to as talent density).

  1. In this view, you can filter by employee ID, department, division, job level or tenure.
  2. The dashboard also provides a starting point for key discussions and decisions at the talent review (e.g., 20% of our team are top performers—what budget or equity pool can we allocate?).

🔒List by category

(If using the free linked worksheet, this is a locked sheet that feeds from employee data and sheet settings.)

Once the manager inputs are synthesized into the 9-box dashboard, a separate list will appear on this tab outlining which employees fit into which category. This list can be pre-shared on a departmental level with executive leadership or at a company level ahead of the talent review for any context follow-ups/planning required before the talent review.

If creating both the performance and succession views, you may want to compare the list by category to see where top performers (cultural icon, top performer and bar raiser) also show up in plan now and plan ASAP. These employees are of high talent value and the motivators behind their potential attrition should be explored in more depth.

Step 5: Run a talent review 

Talent reviews can mean many things to many people. The key to review success is in the preparation and expectation setting for those attending. Refer back to Step 1—what are your goals for the talent review? From there, consider any additional preparation your leadership team may need to do in advance of the meeting day. 

For example:

  • Deciding on performance rewards requires some form of budget / ESOP guidance from finance and initial consideration for managers to distribute their allocated budget
  • Deciding on promotions may require additional context on team headcount plans and capabilities to meet company goals set for the next 12 months.

Set a reasonable deadline for data inputs (with buffer time between due dates and the talent review meeting). You want to avoid copy and pasting the data to generate the insights dashboard in the talent review meeting. Give yourself 2–3 buffer days to chase outstanding inputs and have time to intentionally customize and review the dashboard.

Share the agenda of the meeting in advance that explicitly states what you will and will not be covering in the meeting. It becomes easy to go on tangents or have one executive try to cover every employee, which isn’t possible with scale, so preparing by time-boxing in advance can help guide the discussion.

The following is a sample agenda for a full day of holistic talent review (time-boxing may change based on the number of executives in attendance—ideally no more than 6-8):

9 a.m.: Welcome and set intentions for the day

  • Calibrate our highest performers (bar raisers, cultural icons, and top performers) and determine additional reward distribution beyond our performance increase percentages
  • Identify high-risk underperformance issues and timeline to address
  • Share headcount growth (have current and 12-month org chart ready to share) and capability builds across each team (new or gaps in existing)
    • Decide on promotions to consider
    • Create visibility in “hire above” situations
  • Share high-risk succession identification and plan to address

9:15 a.m.: Working agreement

  • Lead from the company view, not just functional view
  • Safe space for feedback and curiosity
  • Functional leaders have final call for their areas
  • Final decisions will be documented and approved following today’s session and circulated next week for communication / next steps outlined
  • What we discuss here stays here—not explicitly shared with direct reports

9:30–11:30 a.m.: Department overviews

  • Each functional leader will spend 10 minutes sharing high-level headcount growth and capability builds planned 

11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.: Lunch

12:30–2 p.m.: High performance calibration and rewards distribution decisions, high-risk underperformance timing

2–4 p.m.: Promotion feedback and decisions, hire-above timing and approach

4–6 p.m.: High-risk succession planning

Armed with a clear understanding of your talent’s performance and potential, you should now be able to look beyond the who and how and instead focus on the what and why of their work.

This post was co-authored by Nic Hopkins, People and Organizational Development Advisor.

*Portfolio company founders listed above have not received any compensation for this feedback and did not invest in a SignalFire fund. Please refer to our disclosures page for additional disclosures.

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