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Assessing Talent: Is the Nine-Box Dead?

How accurately is your company determining who should be a high potential? The old nine-box matrix is increasingly coming under fire as new ways of including talented employees — and factoring in diversity — take hold.


By Barbara Frankel

For almost two decades, the nine-box matrix has been a popular tool in corporate America for succession planning and talent development. But as the focus on identifying, retaining and promoting high potentials increasingly includes diversity, the validity of the nine-box as the determining factor is being questioned.

“The nine-box is not objective enough and it doesn’t factor in race or gender. We are looking for an alternative,” said a diversity leader at a large corporation who asked not to be identified.

What is the Nine-Box?

No one is sure where the nine-box, basically an assessment tool, originated but many attribute it to former GE CEO Jack Welch. It’s a simple tool that has a horizontal X-axis with three boxes assessing current performance and a Y-axis with three boxes assessing leadership potential. The “best” high potentials have 1A (high performance/high potential), while the least attractive candidates have 3C (low performance/low potential).

1. High Performance/High Potential3. High Performance/Medium Potential6. High Performance/Low Potential
2. Medium Performance/High Potential5. Medium Performance/Medium Potential8. Medium Performance/Low Potential
4. Low Performance/High Potential7. Low Performance/Medium Potential8. Low Performance/Low Potential

The growing concern over the nine-box is that it allows too much individual interpretation, especially of potential. And these interpretations can be based on cultural familiarity and the biases of managers.

Evaluating Potential

Assessing someone’s current performance should be relatively easy if the organization has effective metrics to measure success. But “potential” is very different.

“Our definition of top talent has several aspects,” said Brian Fishel, Senior Vice President, Chief Talent Officer at KeyCorp, No. 49 on The 2015 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list. “One is that is it based on a track record of potential achieved or not achieved. The what and how … We look at what could trip them up and derail them … These are the people we believe fundamentally have the ability to take on and learn and apply more skills.”

Fishel, who will be one of the speakers at DiversityInc’s Fall Learning Event on High Potentials, emphasized that runway is critical in assessing potential. “How vertically can someone move in the corporation over a period of time? Is runway in their field of expertise or can it be expanded? We look for versatility and breadth.”

Linda Verba, Executive Vice President and Chair, Diversity Leadership Team, at TD Bank, No. 39, also agreed with a more holistic approach than the traditional nine-box.

At TD Bank, every employee completes a personal development performance plan and managers are held responsible for their employees completing the plans.

“We look at employees who raise their hands and have a willingness to assume additional responsibilities. We try to get them to gravitate to improving skills rather than want a specific job … the first job is they have to perform. Then can they deliver with exceptional scope, bandwidth and responsibility?” she said.

What is High Performance?

A Harvard Business Review article recently said high performers can deliver 400 percent more productivity than the average performer. In every organization, there are those who consistently surpass goals. But do they have the ability to move beyond their assigned tasks?

At Eli Lilly and Company, No. 24, a three-fold approach looks at historical performance, learning agility and potential factors to derail success. If the company suspects an employee has high potential, a combination of externally based and online assessments “give us more statistical insight about each individual talent,” said Chief Diversity Officer Monique Hunt McWilliams.

At KPMG, No. 18, “We have what we refer to as a high performance culture,” said Tori Farmer, Executive Director, Diversity & Corporate Responsibility . Employees are rated on a 1-5 performance scale with 1 being outstanding and exceeding expectations. Most employees are 3’s.

“A high potential is someone who has a strong propensity to advance. They make themselves mentor and sponsor ready. They look for opportunities to excel and to address skill or proficiency gaps,” she said.

Impact of Diversity

The concern over the nine-box not allowing a full picture of an employee, including cultural differences, is increasing. A poll of companies in the DiversityInc Top 50 find they average 16.5 percent of managers as “high potentials” and that most are factoring in race and gender but don’t have specific goals or benchmarks.

“It’s very loose,” said one chief diversity officer who asked to remain anonymous. “During the conversations about high potentials we will discuss it, but we aren’t making sure it is significantly addressed.”

Added another: “We can’t be this rigid in determining who has potential. We need a better way to look at this.”


How to Become A High Potential

Participants from EY, JCPenney and Monsanto give career advice on how to become a high potential, from the importance of family support to cultivating relationships to excelling in your role and not being inundated by expectations.


  • Diana Solash, Director, Global and Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness, EY
  • L B Jeter, CPA, Senior Manager, People Advisory Services, EY
  • Becca Baker, Leadership & Organizational Development Director, JCPenney
  • Melissa Harper, VP, Global Talent and Inclusion & Diversity, Monsanto

00:02:57 – L B Jeter on how he became a high potential and how his family instilled a strong work ethic in him

00:07:06 – Becca Baker on taking the initiative and going above and beyond

00:09:18 – Diana Solash on understanding where the growth opportunities are

00:12:28 – Melissa Harper how she became a high potential and key qualities people saw in her

00:16:33 – L B Jeter on the importance of building trust

00:20:10 – Becca Baker on cultivating those relationships

00:24:03 – Melissa Harper on how to respond when a senior leader asks, "what do you do at the company?"

00:27:20 – Diana Solash on the importance of asking for and leveraging feedback

00:31:06 – L B Jeter on how family support helps him strive as a high potential

00:33:54 – Becca Baker how to continue to excel in your role and not be inundated by expectations

00:37:11 – Diana Solash on how to overcome roadblocks and get back on track

00:41:44 – Melissa Harper on attributes high potentials need to embrace and lead with

00:46:50 – Q&A

To view/download a PDF of the webinar click here.

Different Stages of Talent Development

Johnson & Johnson's Chief Diversity Officer Wanda Hope gives an overview of J&J's talent development programs, including unconscious bias training, development through ERGs, relationship capital and sponsorship for high potentials.



• 00:51 – Preview of New Mentoring Research From DiversityInc

• 05:58 – Wanda Hope's J&J Journey

• 07:12 – J&J's Credo, Diversity & Inclusion at J&J

• 13:03 – Talent Development and How J&J Engages Its Employees

• 16:27 – Relationship Capital: Networking, Mentoring, Sponsorship

• 28:47 – Unconscious Bias

• 31:31 – Employee Resource Groups

• 35:53 – Q&A: How Do People Get Into the Signature Leadership Program?

• 37:05 – Q&A: Do You Track Managers As They Go Through The Different Stages of Mentoring?

• 38:38 – Q&A: Is There Unconscious Bias Training in All of Your Mentoring Programs?

• 40:40 – Q&A: Can You Talk About Your Accelerated Leadership Development Programs for Women of Color and Men of Color?

• 47: 57 – Q&A: Does Your Succession Planning Process Include A Component of Your Sponsorship Program?

Mentoring — Keeping New Managers Engaged

Accenture, Hilton and GM execs discuss successful ways to make mentoring programs successful.

Through the Top 50 data, we’ve seen a number of companies that increase in Top 50 rank place more emphasis on mentoring programs to ensure key talent is developed equitably and retained.

This panel discussion from the 2017 DiversityInc Top 50 Learning Sessions features three of those companies. Accenture, General Motors and Hilton, Inc. have brought innovation to their mentoring programs to ensure they achieve desired results. All three companies give insight into how their innovating mentoring.


• Damian Rivera, Managing Director, Resources Utilities Practice, Accenture

• Ken Barrett, Global Chief Diversity Officer, General Motors

• Laura Fuentes, SVP, Talent, Rewards, Diversity & Inclusion, Hilton Inc.

• Moderator: Carolynn Johnson, COO, DiversityInc

Developing Future Leaders Through Your Executive Diversity Council

This panel discussion from the 2017 DiversityInc Top 50 Learning Sessions will give you insights into how to develop future leaders through your executive diversity council.


EY, Wyndham Worldwide and TD Bank are exceptional at utilizing their executive diversity councils to effectively manage diversity and inclusion. The councils set and implement D&I strategy and hold the organizations accountable for results, but they also serve as conduits for development of future leaders.

This panel discussion from the 2017 DiversityInc Top 50 Learning Sessions will give you insights into how to develop future leaders through your executive diversity council.


  • Karyn Twaronite, Partner, Global and Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer, EY
  • Patricia Lee, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Chief Diversity Officer, Wyndham Worldwide
  • Allen Love, EVP, BSA Officer/Deputy Global AML Officer U.S., TD Bank
  • Moderator: Luke Visconti, Founder and CEO, DiversityInc

How EY Reaches and Develops its First-Year Professionals

DiversityInc goes behind the scenes at EY Unplugged, the firm’s program aimed at the on boarding of ethnically diverse new hires.


When Ken Bouyer and Diana Solash started at EY in 1990 and 1994, respectively, there were no programs focused solely on diversity and inclusion. In particular, there were no initiatives to support the onboarding process of ethnically diverse groups. Fast-forward to December 2016 and Bouyer (Americas Director of Inclusiveness Recruiting) and Solash (Director, Global and Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness) are on stage kicking off EY Unplugged, a program designed to help ethnically diverse associates connect with peers and senior leader role models, mentors and potential sponsors in the first year with the organization.

So, how did EY get here?

Piloted in 2011, EY Unplugged was created to strengthen the onboarding experience of ethnic minority new hires and to give them a view into how to build a career at EY, something that many indicated they were missing. The program helps ethnic minority new hires understand the unwritten rules of career building and specifically what it takes to be successful at EY. It also brought together the organization's ethnically diverse staff and executives with the goal of initiating mentoring relationships and providing real-time advice. EY received so much positive feedback about the pilot that it made it an annually recurring program. The program has essentially become an integral part of the onboarding experience for the Black and Latino new hires.

“When you think about recruiting talent, especially Black and Latino professionals, and then having them start in various offices around the country, one of the biggest opportunities I think we have is to ensure we have on-boarded all of our people properly," said Leslie Patterson, southeast talent leader and growth markets leader for Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee.

Patterson continued, “When you look at being a diverse professional in an office where there are not a lot of other people who look like you, who have had similar experiences, you try to fill in some of those gaps virtually. But being able to bring everyone together and have that ready network for you within the first few months of starting a new job really sets you up for success. Everyone is hearing a consistent message."

A critical component of EY Unplugged is surrounding the young professionals with role models of all races/ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences. Solash flashed back to when she started at the firm. “Back then, I struggled with how to go about building meaningful relationships with my internal clients, most of whom were older white men. I come from an Asian background, where there's tremendous respect for authority and hierarchy. I wondered how to get my voice heard without offending those who were more senior than me. That was not an easy conversation as there were few role models."

EY Unplugged ensures that current and future young professionals won't have to go through what Solash went through. The program covers all bases of personal and career development, and Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc, and I saw this firsthand when we attended EY Unplugged in December. There were over 500 young Black and Latino professionals at the two-day event, more than six times the number at the program's inception. The event gave the attendees an opportunity to network with each other and hear from senior leaders and partners about the importance of mentorship and sponsorship. Senior leaders and partners from all service lines and regions also addressed understanding the unwritten rules and navigating a career at EY.

Bouyer told the young professionals that this was their “chance to build community and connect with each other." In fact, that was the resounding theme coming from the speakers and panelists throughout the evening.

Ariel Johnson-Peredo, a senior in Advisory services and an EY Unplugged alumni, addressed attendees on the importance of mentorship and earning sponsorship. She coached them on how to earn sponsorship through trust, accountability and their actions. At the center of Johnson-Peredo's message was the importance of building lasting relationships. She urged the young professionals to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable."

Karyn Twaronite, partner, EY Global and Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer, introduced and moderated a panel of partners, including some who returned to the firm some years after leaving for other opportunities. The one common thread for each of the panelists was the network and lasting relationships they had built inside of the firm. Those links enabled most of the partners to return to EY when the right opportunity presented itself at the right time.

“This event was unique in having a panel of very successful EY partners and partner-track people, most of whom had left the organization and returned at least once in their career. EY was sending its precious new hires the message that they knew it was realistic to expect many of them to change jobs, or temporarily leave the workforce, in their career...and it was okay!" said Visconti. “I've never seen such forthright messaging at a corporate event. It truly is an “unplugged" experience for all who attend."


Sponsorship is also central to the program. The organization sustains the strong momentum built during the program by ensuring that attendees are mentored and sponsored afterwards. In the Southeast region, for example, Patterson and other leaders set up networking circles. The professionals are divided into small groups with a partner or senior leader as the sponsor. Patterson, who is the talent leader in the Southeast, explains, “We meet quarterly here in Atlanta for lunch and we continue the conversation. It is a formal opportunity for all of us to get together as a group, reinforce messages that they heard at EY Unplugged and ask questions. They may have questions about what to do in particular situations at client engagements. That's an opportunity to have at least three formal touch points with me in a year. They can have as many informal touch points with me as they would like to, to hopefully help reinforce the messages and make sure they are comfortable."

Johnson-Peredo identifies the sponsorship opportunities as one of her key takeaways from the program. She elaborates, “The importance of sponsorship resonated with me the most. Mentors are important in that they provide advice throughout your career. But sponsorship is critical. You've got to have people behind the scenes that are helping you pull strings and achieve things. That's sponsorship and it's something you earn. You can only do that by being a great worker and having great work ethic."

Johnson-Peredo continued, “After I addressed the first-years, a number of them asked me, 'So how do I get a seat like that one at the table?' I told them they had to prove themselves. I sat in their seat three years ago and said, 'I'm going to take the necessary steps to have a seat at the table. This is something I want to be a part of and I want to make that impact.'"

Follow-Up and Successes

Given the huge participation increase over the past five years at EY Unplugged, there is no doubt the program has been very successful. Patterson notes, “Having been at the first EY Unplugged and now seeing that group who are managers now, it has been amazing to see how their careers have propelled because of the foundation being laid here." The firm is incredibly diligent in making sure it tracks the young professionals' careers.

In each of its business units, there is an Inclusiveness & Flexibility Leader who helps set the D&I strategy for each of the business units. The leaders utilize resource groups and the talent teams to ensure they track the progress of the group that comes through EY Unplugged each year.

Solash concludes, “Once this [diverse] talent is here at EY, how do we make sure we're developing our people equitably? EY Unplugged is one of the ways we're doing this — and the good news is, we've seen results through increased retention and attainment of licensure."

Bouyer attests, “I have participated in EY Unplugged since its inception and have personally watched it grow from 75 participants to nearly 500 in just five short years. It has played an integral role in increasing the level of engagement among our ethnically diverse junior professionals and is a clear testament to the commitment to and investment in diversity and inclusiveness by EY leaders across our organization."

VIDEO: Advice for High-Potential Women

Karen Buck, head of commercial, retail & payment operations, TD Bank, gives advice for high-potential women — advice she says is the same she would give to anybody: "Own and manage your career."


Karen Buck, head of commercial, retail & payment operations, TD Bank (No. 38 on the DiversityInc 2017 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list), gives advice for high-potential women — advice she says is the same she would give to anybody: "Own and manage your career."

‘Uber’-like Approach to High Potential Hunt

Metrics and real time feedback bolsters high-potential hunt.


The process of identifying high potentials should be transparent and data-driven, and it also should be in real time. And given the big data explosion, it's easier today to find the gems throughout an organization.

That was the message from Tuesday's DiversityInc Top 50 learning session titled Characteristics of High Potentials.

Simply sitting around in a training is “dead on arrival" in today's workforce, said Matthew Schuyler, chief human resources officer for Hilton (No. 30 on the 2017 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity), a panelist at the session.

Here's a video of the session:

The workplace, he continued, is shifting towards an “Uber-like rating system," where employees receive instant reviews on their performances — something millennials in particular want.

Here are two key takeaways from the session:

  • Embrace metrics and real-time feedback.

At Hilton, Schuyler said, “We measure people based on our values, and we give feedback in real time."

Matthew Schuyler, Hilton, and Michael Fenlon, PwC, at DiversityInc's Top 50 Learning Session

Schuyler emphasized why quick responses are so important to the millennial generation. With older generations, employees would work for several months — or even a year — before receiving any feedback on their potential or performance. But that method is long gone now, he added.

The new generation of workers is used to having answers at their fingertips due to constant accessibility to technology; this drives a desire for feedback in real time.

Hilton provides its high potentials with different opportunities that will accelerate their professional successes. He also said that high potentials are asked to rank their leaders and how effectively they are at providing opportunities.

It's important to “rigorously define high potential," added panelist Michael Fenlon, global and U.S. talent leader, PricewaterhouseCoopers (No. 4).

An employee's potential, he continued, may be overlooked due to unconscious bias, which many companies are beginning to address. “Blind spots [unconscious bias] are very pervasive," he said.

  • Use data to find potential in everyone.

The use of predictive analytics to determine who will be the most successful is imperative in today's market place, both panelists stressed. With the ability to tap into so much data today, employers are able to find hidden gems among their employee ranks in ways they never could before.

That's why it's so important to approach the search for high potential with the attitude that anyone has the potential to be high potential.

“We start with our intern potential all the way to full time colleagues," Fenlon said about PwC.

And at Hilton, there are various skills each worker must possess, Schuyler added, and “every role has different requirements."

The company ensures that its employees all possess what the company considers high potential by recruiting employees who live up to HILTON values: Hospitality, Integrity, Leadership, Teamwork, Ownership, and Now (operating with a sense of urgency and discipline).

By recruiting employees that the company already knows share its values, Hilton knows its workers will thrive. “Everyone has potential; whether it is higher than someone else is contingent based on your environment," Schuyler noted.

All Access: EY Unplugged

In 2011, EY Unplugged was created to help the firm's ethnic minority new hires understand the unwritten rules of career building. The program has become an integral part of the on boarding experience for Black and Latino associates. DiversityInc explores the history of EY Unplugged and gets perspectives on the experience of going through the program.

By Alana Winns and Christian Carew

In 2016, DiversityInc was invited to EY Unplugged in Atlanta, GA. We covered how the firm reaches and develops its first-year professionals. In 2017, we were granted all access to EY Unplugged in Baltimore, MD. The two-day summit hosted a vast amount of nearly 500 ethnically diverse staff from around the US to network with other new hires, partners and senior leaders at the firm. According to EY, attendance has increased 110 percent over the last five years and has contributed to the improvement in retention and attainment of licensure for their minority talent.

In an effort to showcase the spirit of the program, we spoke with Ken Bouyer (Americas Director of Inclusiveness Recruiting) and Diana Solash (Director, Global and Americas Diversity & Inclusiveness) to get insight on the history of the program. We also interviewed four attendees to hear their perspective on the EY Unplugged experience.

The History of Unplugged

The Unplugged Experience


Career Advice on Handling Unconscious Bias

Executives from TD Bank and Monsanto collaborate to help us understand what unconscious bias is, how and why it exists, and how to address it from both an individual and organizational standpoint. The webinar concludes with almost 20 minutes of Q&A.


How Executive Diversity Councils Yield Talent Results

Sodexo's Rolddy Leyva, VP, Global Diversity & Inclusion, talks about how his company's Diversity Leadership Council sets strategic priorities & performance expectations for D&I at the U.S. regional level and drives accountability for progress.


The Differences Between Mentoring and Sponsorship

Randy Cobb, Director, Diversity & Inclusion, Southern Company and Matthew Hanzlik, Program Manager, Diversity & Inclusion, Nielsen talk about the differences between mentoring and sponsoring and give insights into how their companies leverage each.