high, potential
Even though COVID-19 has changed businesses' plans, there are still opportunities to stand out as a high potential employee. (Photo: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock.com)

How to be a High Potential — Even in Times of Crisis

In the wake of COVID-19, Zoom meetings have replaced conference rooms, and the rare thirty seconds you may have in the elevator to impress your CEO can no longer take place. But not all opportunities to stand out are lost. In fact, the unique challenges the pandemic has presented to businesses may offer opportunities for employees to stand out as high-potential employees.

A high potential is someone who is poised to advance their career and achieve leadership positions within a company. Talent development experts often identify high-potentials as self-motivated employees willing to fill voids where help is needed — even if what’s needed is out of their immediate skillset or job description.

DiversityInc spoke with talent and diversity leaders from Novartis (DiversityInc Hall of Fame), Sanofi (No. 28 on 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity) and Walmart (No. 32) about how employees can still work to advance their careers when their jobs are anything but business as usual.

Marion Brooks Photo

Marion Brooks
Vice President
and U.S. Country Head,
Diversity & Inclusion,


Caryn Parlavecchio
Vice President and Globar HR Head of Oncology, Novartis


Christina Santos
Head of Inclusion & Diversity, Total Well-Being and North America EEO, Sanofi


Russell Shaffer
Director in the Office of Global Culture,
Diversity & Inclusion,

How to know if you’re a high potential

While some companies explicitly disclose which employees are high-potentials, others do not. Regardless, those who are high potentials often share the same few traits.

Head of Inclusion & Diversity, Total Well-Being and Sanofi North America EEO, Christina Santos describes a high potential as someone who is “aware, insatiably interested and reliably rockin’.”

“Are you the person who can be relied upon to show up, to be mentally present if you have it in you, on whether it’s a Zoom meeting, or a call with your team. Are you helpful? Are you looking for ways to provide either consistency or positivity?” Santos said.

According to DiversityInc’s Top 50 survey metrics, most Top 10 and Hall of Fame companies define high-potential employees as employees that are well assessed in strength-based evaluations and talent reviews. They say high-potential employees have the capabilities and aspirations to hold higher leadership and senior positions.

Walmart’s Director in the Office of Global Culture, Diversity and Inclusion Russell Shaffer said high potentials in both the corporate and front-line areas of the company demonstrate ability, agility and aspiration. They do their current jobs well, they can adapt to changes and work outside of their comfort zones and they have demonstrated goals to advance their careers.

Vice President and U.S. Country Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Novartis, Marion Brooks, said high potentials are those who, with the right investment and support, are poised to take on more responsibilities and rise to the senior ranks of the organization. The company must curate and support high-potential talent, while the high-potential talent must demonstrate a strong work ethic. To start, a high-potential employee does their current job effectively and reliably, while also taking opportunities to advance. Another telltale sign of being a high potential is how often you’re asked to take up challenging assignments or learn new skills.

“If you’re a high potential, you’re part of the team or the group that is getting new assignments. You’re getting special trainings, and things of that sort — high profile opportunities or stretch assignments,” Brooks said.

Problems may arise that are outside of your normal scope of work. Step up.

The pandemic and its effects on businesses have forced companies to regroup. Pharmaceutical companies like Novartis and Sanofi have had to funnel much of their efforts into developing a vaccine and treatment for the virus, while retailers like Walmart have had to cope with rising demands. Distilleries have begun making hand sanitizers, and clothing companies have started manufacturing masks. Leadership across the board is stretched thin trying to meet clients’ demands while also trying to keep their businesses afloat and workforces employed.

In short, these changes and efforts have thrust many employees out of their regular tasks — but it has also thrust them into new opportunities to demonstrate proactivity, teamwork and agility. Based on DiversityInc Top 50 survey data, even in ordinary times, most companies in the Top 10 and Hall of Fame reported they place high-potential employees in stretch assignments for which they may be uncomfortable with but have tremendous potential for growth and development.

“I think that during these times, there could be a void, and rather than wait to be asked to do certain things, if you see something that could really be beneficial for your team, for your organization, and you take it upon yourself to be proactive and bring it forward and share it, then I think that that is a great potential opportunity to demonstrate that you had some great insight, foresight and proactivity,” Caryn Parlavecchio, the vice president and global HR head of oncology development at Novartis said.

Shaffer said that for Walmart, these rising demands have given way to opportunities for innovation, which, he added, is often a byproduct of a diverse and inclusive workplace. Like many stores, Walmart has been offering contactless delivery for Sam’s Club shoppers. Associates able to switch gears and quickly step up to meet the public’s needs have demonstrated their agility.

“When you’re able to do your best work under the pressure of a crisis like this pandemic, it helps you stand out for the long term,” he said.

Parlavecchio said difficult situations often reveal strong — and weak — leaders.

“It’s the people who really seize that opportunity and maximize it, that, I think, demonstrate a capability to really manage through the tough times and lead through the tough times,” she said.

At the corporate level at Walmart, Shaffer said, those who have championed diversity and inclusivity have shown their aptitude as leaders. Diverse points of view are linked to greater innovation, connection with clients and problem-solving — skills companies need to stay afloat during a crisis.

Taking initiative is also important. Waiting for direction in a time when leaders are spread thin may mean waiting too long. Instead, identify voids and volunteer to fill them yourself. Even if you don’t complete the task perfectly, you’ll have shown initiative and learned new skills along the way.

“In times of crisis, we don’t have time to put our ego first. There’s so much to be done that if you wait for somebody to delegate it to you, it’s too late,” Santos said.

If you have downtime, work on developing your brand, plan and skills.

At many companies, some employees’ work has decreased, but that does not mean career development has to halt. If the slowing down of many areas of business has granted you downtime during the workday, you can take the time to build your brand and career development plan, or even work on upskilling.

“While your day-to-day tasks have lessened, you can take this as a chance to grow your skillsets so that when we return to some degree of normalcy, you’ll be all that much better prepared to take that on,” Shaffer said.

Brooks’s advice to those looking to become or remain high-potentials includes creating an action-oriented developmental plan — a plan which spells out short- and long-term goals, strengths and areas for improvement. The plan should focus on actions you can take to advance your career, such as networking with leaders and getting involved in various projects. If you can get a line in with a leader to ask for feedback on your plan, you are demonstrating your drive to focus on your growth and development within your company.

Additionally, Brooks advises that to build your personal brand, begin by talking to five people in your organization at different levels and getting them to describe you in a few adjectives. Those adjectives and themes that are common among the feedback are your brand. Although you can’t walk into their office or find them in the cafeteria and ask for a few minutes to chat, see if they can spare time for a phone call.

Similarly, Brooks says high potentials have a strong network on mentors, and the ability to turn mentors into sponsors who advocate for them. This task can be difficult given current circumstances, but asking for 15 minutes on somebody’s calendar to learn more about their work and career is not an imposition. And if it is, the worst somebody could say is no.

“All people can say is no, and that’s another key thing when it comes to mentors and engaging mentors. People are so afraid of the word ‘no’ that they don’t ask and get their ‘yes,’” Brooks said.

Advancing your career is important, but think selflessly.

Out of the Top 10/HOF companies that responded to the question regarding “How do you measure success [of high-potential employees] on the DiversityInc 2020 Top 50 survey, many companies said they measure the success of high-potential employees by evaluating individual performance goals and tracking employee progress in development programs. In addition, many compare their number of promotion rates to the general population’s. Furthermore, some Top 10/HOF companies also measure success by tracking employee movement between business sectors within the company and their successful completion of high potential development programs.

Asking leaders for their expertise is valuable in getting to these points, but if this crisis has taught us anything, it’s that compassion and patience are central. If you are respectfully and appropriately opportunistic during this time, you may get the chance to demonstrate your skills and aspirations. However, if you prioritize your own career development over your organization’s mission, you’ll risk appearing myopic. Most importantly, a high potential[PS1]  is motivated by the greater good of their organization and its employees. High-potentials are self-directed and others-motivated, Shaffer said.

“A high-potential individual isn’t just working for themselves, for their own career success. They’re seeking opportunities to grow others and to bring others along,” he said.

Even something as simple as checking in on colleagues and offering compassion and support can show your potential as a leader.

Center your opportunities to stand out upon how you can be most helpful to your leaders and colleagues.

“Every day is a new opportunity to show up and be helpful, whether it’s to a boss, to a colleague … People have the opportunity right now to really stand on their own and tap into parts of themselves that they’ve perhaps never accessed before because they haven’t had to,” Santos said.

Additionally, Santos said that when asking for career advice and networking opportunities from higher-ups, it is important to be purposeful and specific. A vague and directionless phone call could be a waste of both of your times. Instead, demonstrate your insatiable interest. Be well-informed about what’s going on in the company and what the leader may be involved in. Be strategic and thoughtful in asking about it — Perhaps you have some skills you could lend.

“Comment me with something that you think could help me because you’ve done your homework and you know what I’m working on, but not something that’s just going to create more work for me,” Santos said.

Pandemic or no pandemic, a high-potential employee minds others’ times and workloads and is strategic and constructive in their asks.

However, if your circumstances prevent you from performing at your very best, don’t feel like you failed.

With schools and childcare centers closed, the possibility of loved ones becoming ill and stresses over finances and job security, going above and beyond in your career right now may not be a possibility. The pandemic’s disproportionate effects have shown that stress-free downtime is a privilege. Good leaders understand the reality, Santos said.

Many companies are encouraging self-care, self-compassion and transparency with leaders. Novartis has been offering virtual stress breaks, daily mindfulness sessions and weekly yoga and Pilates for its employees.

If you have days where personal responsibilities or issues take hold, it does not mean that you’ve blown your chances of impressing leaders, Santos said.

“I don’t want anyone to have stakes that are so high, that maybe if they’re not killing it, or they haven’t shown up with appreciation for the bigger picture and they’ve been really myopic that they’ve blown it,” Santos said. “Start over tomorrow. Give yourself a little bit of a break.”

If your circumstances render you unable to excel, be transparent. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, Parlavecchio said. Transparency allows your organization to help you. Leaders should recognize those who are showing potential, but not judge too harshly those who are not.

“I would encourage us also not to too quickly judge somebody who perhaps we always thought was very high potential with great leadership capabilities if they haven’t necessarily emerged as one of the top leaders, because we’d like to take into consideration whatever circumstances are,” Parlavecchio said.

The term “unprecedented” has become clichéd now, but there truly is no playbook for dealing with this crisis. Leaders and up-and-coming leaders are learning how to operate with compassion and humanity, while still meeting clients’ needs and bottom lines. The challenges of the past few months have provided valuable lessons to businesses.

“As this crisis has hit, there has been a sense of humanity that has come forward that I think has been pretty amazing. And I hope that we glean all of the learnings that this terrible tragedy has afforded us,” Parlavecchio said.

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