The Four-Box Grid for Talent-Tracking in Small Teams or Organizations
By James Houran Managing Director, AETHOS Consulting Group | November 03, 2019
Co-authored by David Mansbach, Managing Director, AETHOS Consulting Group, Inc.
The Nine-Box Grid is a popular and widely used tool for categorizing and tracking talent. Specifically, the idea is to assign team members to a box based on two dimensions – their current performance and future potential. As seen in Figure 1, the horizontal axis typically has three levels of performance and the vertical axis includes three levels of potential. An evaluation committee subsequently makes a judgement about the placement of each team member. Furthermore, organizations often attribute different labels to each box, beyond the obvious "high potential/high performance."
Figure 1: Traditional Nine-Box Grid for Talent-Tracking
However, the Nine-Box Grid is arguably most appropriate and effective for large organizations - that is, teams or companies with enough individuals to map against each of the nine levels of talent inherent to the tool. This means that it is challenging or infeasible for supervisors and HR practitioners working at mid-tier and smaller organizations to receive the full benefits from the classic version. Even with talent pools of sufficient size, however, problems can still arise from ambiguities or inconsistencies using nine categories.
In particular, it is well known from leading-edge studies in the field of psychometrics, tests, and measurements that Likert-type response options are most reliable when raters are presented with four categories, as opposed to the traditional five, seven, or 10 choices. In these latter scenarios, consistency breaks down quickly in how raters define and use the respective rating categories. The outcome tends to be unreliable and uninterpretable data with no practical value. Likewise, the Nine-Box Grid is vulnerable to this same pitfall of potential discrepancies or inconsistencies in how HR practitioners or managers define and apply each of the nine levels of performance.
A Simple Modification… but with Impact
Despite its apparent drawbacks, the underlying premise of the Nine-Box Grid is unquestionably simple, logical, and useful. Recently, we were introduced to a modified version of this tool that was customized for smaller teams or organizations. Actually, this revision is noteworthy and applicable to companies of all sizes. For starters, the streamlined format is easier for raters to learn and use. Also, this modified version addresses the problems that accompany an overabundance of response categories. It's called the Four-Box Grid.
Credit for this version goes to Matt Carpenter, CEO of TOMS King, who owns and operates more than 130 BURGER KING® restaurants across Illinois, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. BURGER KING® is the second-largest fast-food hamburger chain in the world, and TOMS King has grown to become one of its Top 10 largest franchisees.
As a seasoned executive, Carpenter knows the meaning of the old adage, "Necessity is the mother of invention." His many frustrating experiences trying to use the Nine-Box Grid with small teams lead him to create this modification, which he argues has the right balance or distribution of performance levels to implement effectively with smaller groups or organizations. Plus, unlike ambiguities associated with the highly nuanced "middle" categories in the classic Nine-Box Grid, his Four-Box Grid essentially forces raters to make more consistent and clearer-cut determinations.
Figure 2: Revised Four-Box Grid for Talent-Tracking
A Further Adjustment… but Customizable as Needed
The Four-Box Grid offers the added advantage of easy tailoring to the success metrics of a specific team, department, market, or organization. And, if anchored to specific metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), it can facilitate discussions and decisions related to development and succession planning. For example, we recommend as a general template that categorizations in the Four-Box version be based on the five KPIs shown in Figure 3. Manager/executive-level roles ideally would include a sixth KPI pertinent to servant leadership.
On this last point, we acknowledge that servant leadership has been a cliche topic on speaker circuits and bookstands for many years now. However, readers should not underestimate this approach. Here we refer a management philosophy whereby a supervisor's main priority is to take time and tangible steps to actively support the individual and collective success of team members, as well as peers or other stakeholders in an organization. This differs from the traditional management style of wielding power and authority with the primary purpose of ensuring the financial success of the company or organization.
Figure 3: Basic KPIs to Guide Ratings on the Four-Box Grid
Most organizations have an increasingly limited amount of training resources and understanding where and when those are best applied can be elusive. The Four-Box Grid can help to identify efficiently and systematically those team members in need of further training and those ready to be stretched in the scale or scope of their responsibilities. As such, it is critical to view the exercise as a positive tool to take a snapshot of an organization's employee base, as well as a process that needs to be taken seriously and conducted regularly. To be clear, it is not an exercise intended to apply labels to employees that are static or fixed.
Lastly, keep in mind that the Four-Box Grid is not meant to be conducted by a lone rater or singular supervisor. Rather, a group of informed stakeholders should take adequate time to discuss thoughtfully the merits of each team member separately before deciding as a collective which box best approximates an individual's performance. Supervisors often feel that they are best qualified to evaluate their direct reports, but it is often a productive exercise to understand how the quality of both teamwork and tactical output of team members are perceived elsewhere in the organization. In this way, the principle of servant leadership is also articulated and reinforced with all team members and stakeholders participating in the review and feedback process.
And there are undisputed benefits for the individuals who are the subject of the Four-Box Grid exercise. Specifically, often new interests, skills, or knowledge areas are revealed that come as a pleasant surprise to an employee's direct supervisor. Other times, insightful development feedback can emerge. This method draws on another classic business tool known as the "360-degree feedback" review, and together they offer a structured outcome to a conversation that aims to gauge fairly the performance, progress, and potential of team members.
This article was co-authored by David Mansbach. Mr. Mansbach, CCP, is Managing Director of the New York office of AETHOS Consulting Group. With more than two decades of involvement, practice and knowledge in the hospitality industry, his specific areas of expertise include executive recruitment, compensation consulting, corporate governance counseling and succession planning. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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