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Succession planning is an essential part of managing a healthy and sustainable business. It creates a roadmap for the company to follow as key personnel make their exits, and helps ensure that people have the right knowledge, skills, and aptitudes to be effective in their roles.

Having a succession plan in place also helps employees anticipate opportunities and envision a long-term career path. Knowing that a company has a plan in place for professional development and potential promotion can improve employee retention and morale, and build a positive work culture.

The 9 box succession planning template is widely used by managers and human resources to evaluate employees based on their performance and potential. It can be a useful tool to help organize, standardize, and document performance assessments. But it has its limitations, too.

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of using a 9 box review as a tool in your succession planning process.

What is the 9 Box Matrix?

The 9 box grid includes a vertical axis and a horizontal axis. One axis represents performance, and the other gauges potential, on a spectrum from “low” to “high,” based on how well the employee meets requirements for their position and how much potential they have to increase their contribution in the future.

Here’s an example. In it, you can see that the lower left corner represents the poorest fit possible, and the upper right corner is an ideal employee.


Low performer, high potential

(smart but problematic)

Moderate performer, high potential

(could promote easily)

High performer, high potential


Low performer, moderate potential

(development needed)

Moderate performer, moderate potential

(core employee)

High performer, moderate potential

(needs goal to strive toward)

Low performer, low potential

(poor hire)

Moderate performer, low potential

(may have peaked)

High performer, low potential


←      PERFORMANCE      →


Advantages of the 9 Box Method


1. Helps Managers Articulate & Discuss Employee Strengths and Weaknesses

Sometimes, a tool like a rubric provides the structure leaders need to have useful conversations about individual employees’ contributions to the organization. It’s not enough to simply select a box that describes an employee, after all. Managers bring forward specific examples where an employee may be lacking training, or where an employee demonstrated knowledge beyond the requirements of their current role. Thoughtful consideration and documentation of these events help make conversations about employee performance more concrete.

2. Exposes Gaps in Teams

Once missing skills and knowledge are identified in individuals, leaders can get a clearer picture of the larger capabilities gaps on teams. If specifics are needed and missing in multiple individuals, this can point to the need for broader training programs, for example. It can also indicate a need to improve access to professional development opportunities and/or promote mentorship as a cultural value within the company.

3. Help Employees Understand Performance Expectations

The 9 box template provides a clearly defined and structured document that can help an employee visualize their own balance between performance and potential at a given point in time. On an individual level, that can help spur some employees to seek out learning and development opportunities, to play an active role in moving toward a better balance between potential and performance.

4. Facilitates Gathering Multiple Perspectives

Properly filling out a 9 box grid requires data and information from performance reviews, aptitude testing, training and certification records, and other sources from managers, peer review, and human resources. That means assessing an employee is about more than a single manager or leader’s “gut feeling” about a person, and it’s less likely that important skills, aptitudes, or shortcomings would be missed by all parties involved.

5. Encourages Shared Accountability for Succession Planning

The flip side of shared information sources is shared accountability. The 9 box assessment template encourages input from multiple sources and involves department leadership as well as human resources in the processes of assessment, succession planning, and professional development.

Disadvantages of 9 Box Succession Planning


6. Subject to Manager Bias and Misunderstanding

Even though managers use information from multiple sources, it can be extremely difficult to separate individual bias from employee evaluation processes. Personality trait differences, miscommunications, and personal preferences can still affect a manager’s objectivity. No tool is perfect, and it’s always important for leaders to recognize their own biases.

7. Potential is Tough to Measure

The assessment of an employee’s expected professional growth can be complicated by many factors. An employee that’s capable but unwilling to take on new responsibilities can be perceived differently by various parties. It’s also possible that an employee’s potential may include skills that aren’t necessarily in demand or valued at an organization today—and so that employee could potentially be at risk of being undervalued. In addition, the lines between low, moderate, and high can be fine, creating the need for judgment calls by managers.

8. Risk of “Boxing In” Employees

Sorting employees into nine boxes carries with it the risk of labeling an employee as a “type” and seeing the categorization as static and permanent, rather than viewing the 9 box grid as a snapshot in time. That can put employees at risk of stagnation on the job, which can create frustration.

9. Negative Employee Reactions

Similarly, referring to the 9 box matrix in assessment conversations with employees can backfire and cause discouragement, especially when the employee is currently categorized as leaning toward lower ends of performance and/or potential. A negative emotional reaction can disrupt otherwise productive conversations. Sharing the tool with employees can also create a risk of employees comparing their ratings with one another, interfering with teamwork and infusing negativity into the culture.

No Matter the Tool, A Succession Plan is a Must

No single tool can answer every question you may have about employees’ potential and your organization’s succession planning needs. But you do still need a plan. For owners of closely held companies, the need for an exit strategy and succession plan can be quite urgent—especially when there are questions surrounding ongoing participation of family members and/or key leadership employees after an owner’s departure.

Learn more about your exit strategy options to help envision your organization’s succession planning process. Download our Ultimate Guide to Business Exit Strategies. Click the link to claim your free copy today.

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