Skill Will Matrix: great insights into how to manage your team

The Skill Will Matrix has two great strengths. First, it’s intuitive to understand, and therefore easy to use. Second, it offers great insights to help you adapt your management style to provide the best support to each of your team members.

Skill Will Matrix: the four quadrants

Before I jump into each of the four quadrants, a quick comment on skill and will, in the context of this Skill Will Matrix.

Understanding Skill and Will

It’s important to understand how to assess skill and will as you work with this model. They are not abstract concepts.

  • Skill is the skill to do the job. Take the role of receptionist for example. The skills might include how to use the telephony system, how to greet people appropriately, how to deal with difficult individuals, handle queries, etc. If a receptionist has these skills and abilities, they are highly skilled to do the job.
  • Will is the willingness, or intrinsic motivation to do the job. Take the receptionist again. They may find great satisfaction and purpose in the role and be highly motivated to do the job (while someone else in the role may not!).

When you apply the model, assess skill and will in the context of the job being done.

The typical profiles of each quadrant in the Skill Will Matrix

Let’s jump in and explore each of the four quadrants in a little more detail.

High Will / High Skill. These are your high performers, the people that are currently most critical to the overall performance of your team. Retaining them is important to you, and like each quadrant, they have specific needs.

High Will / Low Skill. These people may be new to their role, or quite early in their careers. University graduates and new joiners to the business often fall into this High Will / Low Skill quadrant. The key challenge that you face is to raise their skill level, while maintaining their enthusiasm for the job.

Low Will / High Skill. These people may have been in their role for some time, or perhaps feel that their careers have peaked. They may be ‘old hands’ within the business and have a lot of valuable insights into the business and how to get things done. Unfortunately, they can be resistant to change.

Low Will / Low Skill. If one of your team is in this quadrant, something has gone wrong. A little bit of diagnosis will be helpful, we’ll cover that in more detail in ‘Applications of the Matrix’, below.

Take a moment to place your team into the matrix

Grab a pen and paper or open a suitable file on your laptop (I’d use PowerPoint). Create the four-quadrant matrix and start placing your team members into the matrix. You don’t have to place them into the middle of each quadrant. It might look something like this:

Skill Will Matrix example

Here’s an example of how a McKinsey consultant used the model.

Insights into how to manage each quadrant

I’m resisting the temptation to simplify this by using a single word or phrase to describe each quadrant. A lot of the images I see in a Google search put ‘Delegate’ in the top right High Will / High Skill quadrant. But that’s a disservice to you. It’s more complex than that.

High Will / High Skill team members

As you manage the High Will / High Skill members of your team, meeting their needs and maintaining their performance is critical. Here are the points you need to consider:

  • Have regular career conversations with them (every 6 months, or annually) and have a clear development plan for them. Show them that you are committed to their success. 
  • Give them more of the work then want, not just ‘more work’.
  • Delegate work to them as appropriate to their development interests.
  • Volunteer them for cross-functional projects to add to their experience (with their agreement).
  • Help them raise their profile in the business and industry through introductions and opportunities for networking.
  • Consider finding them a senior Mentor, to support their development.
  • When assigning them projects, give them relatively more freedom to define their own goals (in agreement with you).
  • Don’t over manage them, consider have agreed checkpoints and more of a ‘management by exception’ approach (they come to you when they need your advice or when something falls outside of the plan).
  • Take every opportunity to coach them to develop their accountability and awareness.
  • Consider assigning them as Mentors to newer members of the team or find them other additional responsibilities within the team that meet their development interests.

Meet their needs for growth, development and recognition and they will stay with you longer. Hide from these challenges and they will leave you sooner.

High Will / Low Skill team members

As you manage the High Will / Low Skill members of your team, maintaining their motivation while build their capability is critical. Here are the points you need to consider:

  • Check to make sure that they understand ‘what good looks like’. (Sometimes basic misconceptions get in the way).
  • Define clear goals for their work (here are some SMART goal examples).
  • Give them plenty of reassurance and praise their motivation.
  • Make sure you’re giving clear instructions for individual tasks.
  • Agree regular 1-1 check-ins with them on their progress.
  • Allow them to ‘fail safely’. For example, if they’re preparing a report that you require by Friday, ask them to produce it by Wednesday. This way you can safely review and give them time for further work, without any drama.
  • Have short-term development conversations with them, with clear development milestones over 3-6 months.
  • Consider finding them a Mentor, for further support.

As they make progress with their Skill levels you can gradually relax your level of control and transition your management style. Do this correctly and you’ve got a new High / High team member!

Low Will / High Skill team members

As you manage the Low Will / High Skill members of your team, finding ways to reignite their engagement while setting clear expectations is critical. Here are the points you need to consider:

  • Discuss with them what they want from their current role / career.
  • Collaborate to identify opportunities for them to add value that taps into their skills and experience (for example, onboarding new team members, or acting as a Mentor).
  • If they’re happy in their current role, make it clear that’s fine (not everyone wants to be a CEO). Also, make it clear that even in their current role, they will be expected to learn, grow and enhance their performance. This is just the nature of work. None of us can just keep doing the same thing, year after year, as customer expectations change, as technology changes, as competitor activity changes. We all have to continually develop and make progress, even to just stay in the current role.
  • Balance firm messages with a clear and caring tone.
  • Set clear, FAST goals.

In many respects this quadrant is the hardest to manage. If they are Low Will, finding ways to build that engagement and motivation is going to be very challenging for you.

Ultimately you may have to judge whether you want to retain them or manage them out of the business.

Low Will / Low Skill team members

I hope you don’t have any Low Will / Low Skill members of your team, if you have, something has gone seriously wrong!

Finding ways to reignite their will while setting clear expectations and developing their skill is critical (The Gallup 12 Questions provides a framework for reflection on how to nurture their engagement).

Here are the points you need to consider:

  • First, aim to diagnose the cause. This might include understanding how they moved into their current role, speaking to the people involved in the appointment (perhaps Talent Acquisition or the original hiring manager), understanding any role changes that may have taken place. Aim to understand how this Low / Low situation came about.
  • Talk with your team member. Focus on understanding their perception of the situation, and their motivations and ambitions (not just specific to the role, but more broadly). Ask plenty of open questions to encourage them to share their thoughts.
  • Be open and honest with them. Make it clear that the current situation can’t continue indefinitely, offer your support to help them make progress.
  • Set up an action plan with them, with clear goals, milestones, and reviews.
  • Agree a development plan too. Most of this will be ‘development on the job’ with guidance and support from yourself as the manager, however there may be a role for formal training too (be careful of the level of investment you make).

In these cases, I’m often asked “what if they feel they’re in the wrong role, and they want to move jobs?”. My response is always the same: “If they’re under performing in their current role, do you really want to move them to another role in your organization?”.

My advice, if they want to move to another role in your organization, is to require them to show improved performance in their current role for at least 9-12 months. If they can do that, they have demonstrated commitment and deserve the opportunity. This might sound harsh, but believe me, it saves a lot of problems!

Applications of the Skill Will Matrix

As I hope you can see, the Skill Will Matrix is a great tool for managing performance in any team, at any time. It enables you to flex your style to better manage the individuals in your team.

There are also some specific applications where the Skill Will Matrix is particularly useful:

  • As a new manager. If you’ve made a transition and you’re new to a team it’s a great tool for assessing them.
  • When roles change. If the roles in your team change, be particularly observant of the Skill Will dynamics and adjust your management accordingly.
  • When outside shocks impact the team. Covid is the obvious example, review how it has affected the Skill Will levels of your team as you lead them through change.

If you have done the work that I mentioned earlier to place your team members in the matrix, keep the document handy and refer to it over time. Plot the changes that you see in your team, it will give you a perspective on how your team members are progressing over time.

As you do so, aim to help all your team members move up towards High / High!

One final point for reflection

This is a question that I’ve asked many times in the training that I run:

As you’re managing your team, in which quadrant should you spend most of your time? Should you spend most time with your High / High team members? Or your Low / Low team members? (Or either of the other two quadrants?!)

It’s a question that invariably generates a lot of debate because there are no easy answers.

However, one thing I will say, it can be tempting to spend less time with High / High team members as they are more independent, and you can trust them to deliver. But remember, that they are also critical to the performance of your team, you can’t afford to lose them!