In today’s business environment most jobs require above average ability. Organizations compete for the top 50 percent of the labor pool. As most business leaders know, it’s a lot more expensive to hire talent than to grow it internally. So the pressure is on employers to identify early those individuals who have the potential to take on senior or other critical roles in the future.
The nine-box talent matrix is the tool most commonly used by talent leaders for this purpose. Typically, it plots an individual’s performance against their future potential. Each cell has labels such as “Star,” “Rising Star,” “Solid Performer” and “Core Contributor.”
The nine-box is typically used for making decisions about what people are most valuable to the organizations future — and therefore the allocation of resources to their retention and development.
As with so many tools in the talent management arena, there has been virtually no analysis of its effectiveness or validity as a measurement tool. In a 2015 study on potential by New Talent Management Network, part of New York-based Talent Strategy Group, the average reported accuracy for identification of those with high potential was only 52 percent.
When we use a measurement tool, we assume that the factors in question are objectively measurable. That measurement is consistent and reliable. Let’s look at performance and potential from this perspective.
- Ratings of performance are highly subjective — in psychological research they have been consistently shown to be more closely related to the relationship between employee and supervisor than to actual job skills and results.
- Recent studies show that, where performance has an objective measure of job outcomes, almost all perform at a satisfactory level. There are only a very few outliers (those who perform below expectation or to an outstanding level). This places the vast majority in the center row or column of the talent grid, with the assessment of potential the only differentiator.
- Last but not least, decades of research have shown that past performance is not a reliable predictor of future performance in a different role — especially not when that role is more complex.
- Potential is a high-level concept for which there is no commonly accepted definition. Most organizations just define it as potential for advancement to a higher level or broader role. The qualities a person should have to succeed in such roles aren’t addressed.
- Some organizations do provide guidelines with behavioral definitions for assessing potential. These typically include motivation, willingness to learn, leadership, values/cultural fit and mobility. In the absence of specific definitions for each of these factors, assessors are likely to interpret them differently. The end result is that ratings of potential are subjective.
Confounding Performance and Potential
While the talent grid has performance on a different dimension than potential, the overall placement of a person in the grid is a combination. So it is not surprising — though it is disappointing— that a 2015 talent benchmark study by Organizational Psychologist Allan Church and colleagues found that 75 percent of 111 major U.S. companies surveyed use performance as their main predictor of potential.
What Role Does Context Play?
The key question is whether the concept of potential is a generic one — common to all roles, or whether different roles and operating environments have different criteria for success.
Both current roles and those in the individual’s future career path influence nine-box assessments. Not all roles have the same success factors, and performance in current job roles is affected by many different factors besides the individual’s effort and capability.
So when using the nine-box grid for assessment, we’re not comparing apples with apples. The validity of decision-making based on relative positions in the matrix is highly questionable.
So Is There an Alternative?
There is ample evidence to support the factors that do generally predict future job success.
- Thinking ability is the single best predictor because it underpins the ability to pick up and use job relevant knowledge.
- Certain personality factors also contribute — particularly the broad “Big 5” dimension of conscientiousness. This dimension encompasses the more specific factors of achievement drive, determination, personal organization and results orientation. Interest in learning and adaptability are also associated with job success.
- For senior roles, other personality factors, including tolerance for complexity and ambiguity, leadership orientation, sociability, emotional stability and resilience are associated with job success.
- Job-specific knowledge is the most important predictor of success in any role. Accordingly, related experience, relevant leadership skills, functional and technical knowledge are also extremely important.
Industrial organizational psychologists Church and Rob Silzer have proposed a three-level model for the identification of career potential:
- Foundational factors — characteristics that are stable over time that can be measured at any career stage.
- Growth factors — also mostly stable characteristics, measurable at any career stage but some such as learning and motivation may be context dependent.
- Career factors — vary by career stage and career pathways.
Stable foundational and growth factors are those that can be used for early stage identification of career potential. They are the qualities that underpin successful job performance and effective leadership.
Foundational factors can include:
- General mental ability or intellect.
- Ability to think over longer time horizons or strategic thinking.
- Ability to deal with ambiguity and complexity.
- Resilience, emotional stability.
Growth factors include qualities research has shown to be important for senior roles, like:
- Determination and tenacity.
- Openness to information, interest in learning.
- Energy, risk taking.
- Achievement drive or results orientation.
Nevertheless, the visibility of some of these factors can be dependent on a person’s current role. For example, motivation and learning are likely to be suppressed in a role with little scope, little opportunity and close supervision.
All of these qualities can be assessed with the use of independently validated psychometric instruments as well as 360 feedback.
Note: Assessment has become a multibillion industry, where the vast majority of products promoted are neither evidence-based nor independently validated. Always ask to see documentation showing how tests have been designed and validated in independent research or by independent bodies such as the Buros Center for Testing.
Career factors are those context-dependent factors that can be developed at any career stage.
- Leadership skills.
- Willingness to challenge the status quo.
- Technical, functional business knowledge and skills.
- Values/cultural fit.
Where to Go From Here
A valid talent matrix would be a multicell grid that accommodates the key foundation and growth factors to identify those with general career advancement potential. These assessments need to be updated annually to account for changes due to contextual factors.
For the resulting group of high potentials the career factors should be reviewed post identification. They’re best addressed as the particular competency requirements for leadership and specialist roles. Each competency is matched to a range of development resources. Observational and evidence-backed competency assessments will identify gaps for development planning purposes.
In any event, it’s time that organizations move on from subjectivity and take a data-driven, evidence-based approach to talent identification and management.
Leanne Markus is an organizational psychologist and CEO of Centranum Group, a talent management system provider. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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