The BBC's Nine Box Grid

I thought I'd share this learned case study about the BBC's "talent-mapping" exercise, which until very recently was publicly available on the website of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Apart from a tantalising introduction, it seems to have dropped off their site, perhaps through some glitch, but I'm sure most HR professionals will find it instructive, if not necessarily pioneering.

Purpose and expected benefits 

The BBC has been establishing and developing its talent management and succession processes since 2010. The aim of the overall strategy is to have detailed and comprehensive information about their staff’s ability and potential, so as to have the right talent available to meet current and future business objectives. The strategy makes use of a range of tools, including talent mapping.

The BBC is committed to talent mapping because:

  • It enables the organisation to have clarity about the skills needed to meet business objectives, and a clear, consistent and comprehensive picture of the talent and skills available, so that roles and people can be matched as closely as possible. The best use is made of the talent available. 
  • This enables good-quality succession planning for known vacancies, and diminishes the risk posed by unknown vacancies occurring. Because there is a clear picture of the talent available, plans can be put in place for developing a pool of people internally and matching development plans to organisational need, or recruiting for it externally. 
  • Talent mapping results in a consistent approach which provides transparency but also facilitates movement around the organisation. 
  • People feel valued knowing that their leaders are proactively engaged in thinking about their development. They benefit from clear career direction. Development plans can be matched to organisational and individual need. 
Because processes are consistent and transparent, performance conversations with managers are of a high quality, which results in clear actions for those identified as successors and improvement plans for poor performance. In addition, those who perform well but may not have potential for promotion can still be recognised by the organisation and developed appropriately through this process.

What does it look like? Size and scope 

The scheme encompasses three categories of manager across the whole organisation: senior leaders, of which there are 300; senior managers; and future leaders. Senior leaders are defined as having a proven track record of establishing and leading successful teams and functions and are divisional board members; senior managers are in their first 1-3 years of senior management with high potential for bigger leadership roles or divisional board level roles; future leaders are rising and star performers with potential for leadership roles.

The human resources team have records showing that 3,000 people have been through the talent mapping process and have personal development plans in place. The scheme (see below for the mechanics) is designed so that information about managers is shared across the business, allowing for full use, movement and sharing of talent.

As a result of the talent mapping process, the organisation is able to:

  • Develop succession plans for leadership and key roles, and resourcing plans to ensure a talent pipeline;
  • Establish a mitigation plan for succession gaps; 
  • Establish development plans for key talent; 
  • Implement performance improvement for poor performers; 
  • Set up training plans to build skills needed for the future; 
  • Reward and recognise its staff. 

Who should be involved? Roles, stakeholders and engagement

Talent mapping was launched in HR, whose own staff undertook training and launched the process for themselves. Having gained confidence through experiencing the process and its impact, they are supporting managers across the organisation in delivering it. HR staff are now responsible for training all managers to use the process, and for monitoring its success through management boards.

HR directors train and support senior managers to assess the managers under them and to put their names into one of the nine categories in a nine-box grid. The nine-box grid is the main tool used to carry out talent mapping - see the next section for an overview of how it works. Managers are expected to take ownership of their ratings. Results of the mapping exercise are calibrated against and discussed alongside those of other senior managers in a business-unit-level meeting every six months. This enables a sharing of talent information across the business, and a higher level of objectivity.

Because the ratings are made by line managers, based on their knowledge and observation of their people at work, there is of course a risk that the process is subjective. The BBC takes the view that line managers are observing their staff in their daily work and are best placed to make such decisions, and that they should be trusted to do so. It is noticeable that BBC leaders and managers use the term “high potential” very confidently. Talent is used to mean someone who has “stretchability”.

There was some cynicism when the BBC first launched its talent management and succession process, but the fact that 3,000 people have been placed on the grids and now have personal development plans demonstrates engagement and buy-in throughout the organisation.

How does it work? Selection and assessment methods 

Talent management at the BBC uses the following tools: appraisals, 360-degree feedback, talent mapping, calibration sessions, succession planning and action planning – PDPs and PIPs (performance development and performance improvement plans).

Staff appraisals take place each year in the summer months. Talent mapping (individual performance and potential discussions) takes place between July and October, and then leadership succession plans are produced between October and December. As described above, senior managers are trained to use the nine-box grid (see below) to rate the managers reporting to them. The managers’ names are placed into any one of the nine categories. Senior managers are required to take ownership for their ratings and to be clear about the reasons behind their decisions. They are expected to discuss the decisions with their managers in face-to-face meetings.

Individual ratings are calibrated against each other by senior managers in business-unit-level meetings every six months. This is an attempt to share talent information across a whole department. The process of explaining their decisions to their peers also requires the senior managers to be more objective, and helps to ensure that the ratings continue to be an up-to-date reflection of individuals’ performance and potential in their current roles. Ratings are not static, and individuals may move around the matrix based on where they are in their current role. For example, if someone is promoted their performance and potential is likely to drop, to reflect new learning required in their new role. Definitions such as ‘performance is now, potential is the future’ make completion of the grid more straightforward.

The BBC believes that this process produces good-quality conversations with managers about performance, potential and aspirations, which in turn has created consistency and fairness because the senior managers know that their decisions on performance and potential will be calibrated across a wider group. Some managers may not have potential for promotion but can still be recognised by the business through this process. The process also facilitates more effective conversations with underperformers, where performance improvement plans are agreed and put in place.

Once the talent conversations have taken place and personal development plans have been produced, each head of department produces a list of key roles which are critical to business success, with a list of which of their managers might grow into those roles. Once again, development activities and investments are undertaken to support these potential senior managers. The aim is not to identify and develop a single successor for each role, but rather to develop a small group who might be better placed to apply for future leadership roles. These resourcing plans ensure a talent pipeline and address the ‘flight risk and business impact’ of potential successors to key roles. It is important, therefore, that a mitigation plan is drawn up as part of this process to cover succession gaps.

The nine-box grid or talent matrix  

How does it work? Development methods 

The principles driving development methods are to provide:

  • Appropriate development activity for key talent; 
  • Performance improvement for poor performers; 
  • Training plans to build skills for the future. 
Personal development plans and performance improvement plans are produced at the end of the talent mapping process.

The BBC then provides an extensive range of development options to its senior leaders, senior managers and future leaders which consists of:

  • External experience; 
  • Formal programmes; 
  • Coaching and mentoring; 
  • On-the-job development through attachments to other areas of the business. 
The BBC are also developing a leadership framework which they hope will help them to articulate leadership expectations even more transparently in future, and ensure that the grids and all succession conversations will be ever more professional, evidence-based and objective.

They are also working on how best to demonstrate a correlation between effective, well-developed leaders and business performance.  It is based on three areas:

  • Intellectual ability; 
  • Skills and knowledge; 
  • Values and motivation. 
This will allow the organisation to extend its development methods in line with the skills and expertise set out in the framework.

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