When Harvard University studied the office dynamics of “high potential” employees, one thing was apparent: being labeled as "high potential" matters — and it matters a lot.
98% of their survey respondents reported that they intentionally identified “high potentials” within the organization, especially when resources were limited. These companies placed disproportionate attention on developing the people they viewed as future leaders. In turn, a whopping 93% of their survey respondents reported that “high potentials” get promoted faster than their peers.
There’s no question that getting labeled as high potential is an important accelerator to promotions, raises and other professional development opportunities. The question, rather, is how do you position yourself for a spot on that (often undisclosed) list?
The answer is deeper than just having talent, though talent is a required starting point. Going beyond raw talent, it’s about creating consistent value and impact for your organization. Here are six tips to help you do that:
1. Be a center of value.
Being identified as high potential starts from here no matter what industry you work in: when you bring good ideas, do good work and follow through on your commitments, you are viewed as a center of value for the organization and, in turn, a high-potential employee.
2. Make an impact outside your day-to-day duties.
I was recently discussing this topic with John Brandt, Manager of Policy Communications & Corporate Responsibility for the Public Affairs Council. He put it perfectly: “It’s like I tell my eight-year-old, just be a helper. It’s that simple.” To Brandt’s point, the simplest answers are often the best ones and this is no exception — one of the best ways to make a noticeable impact is to proactively help where help is needed. Especially when it’s outside of your day-to-day duties.
3. Focus on promotable — versus non-promotable — tasks.
Living Brandt’s “be a helper” ethos doesn’t mean saying yes to everything. This is especially true for women who, studies show, are quicker than their male counterparts to volunteer their help with non-promotable tasks. Being a team player is always important, but consistently doing the non-promotable “office housework” of taking notes, setting up the AV or ordering lunch will not get you promoted. While we all sometimes need to roll up our sleeves to get things done, focus on where you can make an impact on something more tangible like a project, report or deliverable. When you lead with your intellectual contributions instead of leading with the “office housework” of catering or reformatting presentations, you will be viewed as a more high-potential member of the team.
4. Build relationships up, down and around your reporting structure.
Getting to know your colleagues isn’t just the right thing to do; It also typically pays some kind of dividend (often, in my own experience, in the most unexpected ways). Having a good working relationship with your boss is important, but it’s not enough to signal that you are high potential. The most high-potential employees build additional relationships up, down and around their reporting chain. Per tip number two, this relationship building is easy to do authentically and organically when you are collaborating on new projects and ideas outside of your typical day-to-day work. Building relationships with others on the team signals that your investment goes beyond your individual projects and extends to advancing the organization holistically. That’s a sure fire way to demonstrate that you’re worth investing back into.
5. Work hard, but don’t work 24/7.
It’s important to demonstrate both a consistent work product and a strong work ethic, so this sometimes feels counterintuitive for my clients: being first-in-and-last-out doesn’t always send management a signal that you are a high-potential employee who they need to invest in. Sure, it demonstrates that you’re a workhorse who will reliably take on the heavy lifting for the team. What I’ve observed in my coaching practice, however, is that sometimes these employees get taken advantage of; Grunt work and last-minute fire drills too often get kicked over to them. Worse, they get passed over for opportunities that go to other people on the team — other people who, rightfully or wrongfully, management perceives as requiring additional investment to retain or further develop. Per tip number one, be a champion for your organization and its goals. When you show balance in valuing both your contributions and your boundaries, others will follow suit.
6. Take ownership of your own professional development.
I was recently discussing this topic over lunch with my mentor, Jenny Bilfield, CEO of Washington Performing Arts. How does she spot potential?
“There are those who take the initiative and those who wait around,” she says, when it comes to discussing their career path. One of the best ways to show that you are worth investing in is by proactively discussing your professional development goals. As Bilfield recalls of some of her highest-potential hires: “I was always willing to come in early or stay late to make time for a coffee with an employee or intern. All they had to do was ask.”
Getting labeled as high potential is important. It’s also really easy when you’re doing good work, being a good steward to your colleagues and organization, and being proactive about your goals and relationships.
Randi Braun, Founder of Something Major, is a coach and consultant living in Washington, DC.