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Stories From High Potentials Who Made It

The improving economy means your high-potential talent—especially from underrepresented groups—is at risk. Here are retention best practices from EY, Marriott International and Sodexo.


By Barbara Frankel

Are your high-potentials at risk? As the economy continues to improve, companies increasingly tell us their talent is being poached—especially that finite group of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women in the pipeline.

There are three surefire best practices that the top companies holding on to high potential diverse managers have:

  • Flexible work environments

  • Cross-cultural mentoring

  • Room to fail

  • Exposure to those in the corner office

We spoke to three companies who have excellent rates of retention and promotion of underrepresented groups. They have developed strong talent-development programs and pay close attention to engagement of these high-potentials. An index of these companies—Sodexo, EY and Marriott International, Nos. 2, 3 and 16, respectively, in the DiversityInc Top 50—shows they have significantly higher representation of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women than the national average and the Top 50.

Management Representation
U.S. (EEOC) 2.9% 3.7% 4.6% 24.9%
Top 507.2% 6.3% 10.4% 41.8%
Index10.2% 8.8% 10.5% 45.8%

How do they do it? Here are three stories from high potentials who climbed the ladder:

Mentoring With a Difference


Eowyn Adams was a chef working in a hotel, with a young son, when she heard about an opening at Sodexo’s healthcare facilities. “The learning curve was very steep for me but I needed a change. When you are a chef it is expected that you will work 60–70 hours a week and it wasn’t working with my personal situation,” she explained.

From the time she came to Sodexo, she found remarkable the ability to branch out and learn new areas of expertise.

“I still have colleagues in the hotel business and the food-service industry and I have been solicited. But I don’t want to leave Sodexo,” she said. “Quality of life is so important. I am getting what I need from my employment. If everything is working, why change?”

A big bonus for her has been Sodexo’s IMPACT program, which pairs high-potentials (many from underrepresented groups) with senior executives for one year.

As part of the program, she was paired with a male senior executive in Toronto (she is in Cleveland). They rarely met in person but she says the exposure to a different side of the business and a different type of leadership was invaluable.

“He’s very collaborative and has an indirect style of leadership. I am much more direct. I lay it all out. He doesn’t give you the answer but leads you to it. It helped me learn how to build a team and get people more engaged in their positions,” she said.

Adams is now an Area General Manager with 10 salaried workers and 100 hourly workers reporting to her. She says Sodexo is helping her learn how to be a corporate leader. “I’m interested in overall company strategy and strategic client relationships,” she noted.

Her involvement with IMPACT has led her to join Sodexo’s Inclusion Council, a partnership between HR and operations on corporate culture and engagement opportunities.

What Sodexo Does

“When hiring, we implement a comprehensive sourcing strategy aimed at bringing a highly talented and diverse candidate slate for each position,” said Dr. Rohini Anand, Senior Vice President and Global Chief Diversity Officer. “Our diversity scorecard provides accountability for hiring and retention of women and minorities and the scorecard is linked to incentive compensation. For reductions, our corporate HR and legal teams engage in race/gender/age adverse-impact analysis for the affected populations.”

The company’s emphasis on accountability, metrics and mentoring has helped it develop several remarkable programs that improve retention of high-potentials, especially from underrepresented groups.

Specific initiatives that improve retention:

  • • Emerging Leaders program with particular focus on women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians in P&L roles. The program is a leadership pipeline for high-potentials. Through the succession-planning process, high-potentials are connected with a mentor that's right for them and they also get exposure to senior leaders.
  • • Executive Talent Reviews. From President and CEO George Chavel to mid-level division managers, there is a diversity discussion in all talent reviews, Sandy says. “Retention risk is part of the discussion and part of the action planning with regard to the pipeline,” she says. Each business segment has an annual process to identify and outline development plans for high-potentials.

    • IMPACT mentoring, now in its 11th year, will have 170 partnerships this year and, according to Jodi, there is a specific mentoring pipeline initiative to support the growth, engagement and retention of high-potentials.


Support After Failure


Ray Bennett came to Marriott in 2001 from Pepsi Bottling Group because of an opportunity for a bigger job. He was immediately struck by the culture differences. “Pepsi was a great organization if you were talented; they would promote you. But if you were to fail, they didn’t allow you to fail often. Marriott is a company that takes really good care of its people. They look for the opportunity to promote but at the same time, if people are not doing well, they support them so people can do better,” he said.

Bennett is now Chief Lodging Services Officer, The Americas, where he oversees more than 3,200 hotels in North, Central and South America. He is a member of the Global Operations Services Leadership team.

Yet just a few years ago, he left Marriott to go to a major retailer, after being solicited numerous times by other organizations. Two weeks into the job, he realized he had made a major mistake. “You hear a lot in the job interviews but the reality was different. My values aligned much more with Marriott’s,” he said.

Marriott took him back and he’s been on the fast track ever since. He has participated in several executive-development programs, including the Emerging Leaders program that benefits women, Blacks, Latinos and Asians.

“Talking to females and diverse individuals who have left, I would say that 80 percent say they wish they were still at Marriott,” he explained.

As an example, he notes that other companies often wait until the last minute to inform staff of layoffs. When Marriott decided to sell its food-distribution business, former CEO Bill Marriott had all of the senior leaders, including Ray, talk to the associates personally a year in advance.

What Marriott Does

Retention of all employees is a high priority, but the company works to ensure that its hotels reflect its customer base, which means diversity. Marriott’s retention efforts focus on individuals, but David notes that the company’s engagement rates are equal for men and women globally and for all race/ethnicities and for gender in the United States.

A recent focus on Millennials has increased their engagement between 10 and 15 percent but, he says, Marriott is careful to keep its Boomers engaged as well. “We would not want the Boomers to feel that they no longer matter as we focus on Millennials,” said Dr. David Rodriguez, Marriott International’s Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer.

Specific initiatives that improve retention:

  • • Encouraging fresh ideas and younger and older workers learning together.

    • Cross-generational mentoring.

    • Repositioning of employee resource groups as talent network groups.

    • Moving more high-potentials between roles, including generalist roles in hotels, so they get a variety of experiences.

    • Emerging Leaders program focused on high-potential Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women, includes sponsorship by senior leaders.


Culture of Flexibility


Lisa Banker came to EY 13 years ago, after she was recruited from an MBA program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “Several prospective employers came on campus and gave us presentations. EY’s corporate finance practice described the different functions and I was interested,” she recalled.

What sealed the deal for her was that when she interviewed with a senior partner, a partner and managers, “I noticed a level of camaraderie with this team that was different than the other companies. That is why I selected them.”

Today, she is a Senior Manager. She’s also married (her husband, Amit Banker, also works at EY and is a Partner in the Tax practice) and has two children.

Lisa’s had offers to leave EY but what has kept her at the firm are two things – a culture of great flexibility and focused talent development.

“I am happy at EY and will continue to stay here. As my career progresses and my life changes, the firm has been very flexible. I’ve had different roles, different functions.”

When her first child was born 10 years ago, she wondered if she should look elsewhere. “So I sat down with one of the woman partners and talked about how she balanced her life. I realized the firm had a lot of programs—and mentors—to help women be successful,” she said. She went on a reduced schedule for five years (30 hours a week, two days at home) and then felt good about coming back full time.

Banker also benefited from one of EY’s signature talent-development programs, Global NextGen. The two-year leadership program develops high-performing senior managers who are the next generation of partners. More than 90 percent of participants stay with EY.

What EY Does

“My job is to worry about retaining our people. If I had one single worry, it would be to do everything we can every single day to make EY the place for people to enjoy a rich career,” said Kelly Grier, EY Americas Vice Chair – Talent.

Kelly cites EY’s highly inclusive culture as key to retaining high-potentials. “The culture here is a distinguishing factor that is so attractive to the talent,” she said. “That gives us a leg up.”

Specific initiatives that improve retention:

  • • The Global NextGen two-year program to identify future partners. The goal is to let them connect more with senior leaders, become more market-focused and develop a global mindset.

    • Global New Horizons, which sends high performers to emerging markets to share knowledge within key account teams or industries.

    • EYVantage Advisors, which sends talented high-potentials to emerging markets to leverage workplace skills to grow business with local entrepreneurs.

    • EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors Program, a collaboration with the Earthwatch Institute (which does climate change research) that sends high performers below the manager/assistant director level on a week-long expedition in Brazil or Mexico.

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.