Accelerate Your Career by Demonstrating 4 Key Traits

[10 min read]

Improved salary and benefits, quick promotions, development off-sites with global colleagues, opportunities to lead cross-functional project teams and international job rotations. These are just some of the many ways companies invest in their talent.

And contrary to popular belief, these special opportunities are not reserved for a breed of young graduates with exceptional competence. Neither are they reserved for individuals with superior intellect. The research from Leadership Consulting firms including Egon Zehnder suggests that employees that are earmarked as ‘High Potentials’ (‘Hi-Pos’) worthy of investment display four key traits that can be cultivated with practice: Curiosity, Engagement, Insight, and Resilience. These traits also appear in CFG’s Future Ready Index reported in the 2017 Future Ready Report.

These traits are not naturally gifted. These are cultivated with conscious effort, an openness to err and a desire to make a bigger impact. This article zooms in on these key traits and outlines what you can do to start cultivating these traits now so that you don’t just survive but thrive at the workplace.


Demonstrating curiosity is a signal for potential because such individuals seek out growth and learning beyond the confines of any one domain and expect others – including the team and organization – to embrace novelty and adapt swiftly as the marketplace transforms. Curious employees want to understand the wider context in which the business operates in order to lead on a wider scale.

Curiosity about Learning

Many organizations refer to this as ‘Learning Agility’. When asked about what she looks for in hiring fresh graduates, the Talent Acquisition Lead at a big pharmaceutical company based in Singapore spoke about this trait as, “The hunger to get out of their comfort zone, even to domains they were not hired for so as to learn through new experiences in the business.”

This learning agility is what Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, attributes to his firm’s $250 billion rise in market value since he took over in 2015. Nadella prides Microsoft for its Growth Mindset culture that permeates all parts of the organization, including hiring and rewarding. According to Chuck Edward, Microsoft’s head of global talent acquisition, “in the first round of interviews, Microsoft recruiters are looking to identify if candidates are curious.” Kathleen Hogan, Chief People Officer at Microsoft, adds that this curiosity manifests in learning and creativity so “the firm is actively recognizing and rewarding individuals and teams who learn through quick failure, and trial and error.”

Hunger to Grow through Feedback

Curious professionals not only jump into new experiences. They take the time to reflect on their experiences, how effective they were in it and what they can do to be better. A tool at their disposal in this regard is feedback. Curious professionals welcome feedback and do not view feedback as a definitive judgment of their abilities.

Imagine you are a pilot flying from Singapore to Tokyo. You key in the coordinates on your dashboard and you plot the route to your goal. Along the way you hear pings and see lights flashing from your dashboard. It is sending you different pieces of information. ‘There’s turbulence on your route’, ‘inclement weather west’, etc. You look at this information and you don’t see it as good or bad. Instead, it’s just neutral information. As the pilot, you do not have to react and change course in response to every piece of information. You decide what pieces of information to respond to and what pieces of information to ignore. Feedback is the same:

a. It’s just information.

b. It’s neither good nor bad – it’s neutral information.

c. It is for the receiver to decide what to do with the feedback.

As a passenger, you certainly do not want to be on a plane where the pilot ignores important feedback on the dashboard that he has to act on. Similarly, it’s unlikely that you will be comfortable being led by a leader averse to the feedback that can help the team achieve their goals.

Cultivating Curiosity

1. Practice putting a ‘Growth Mindset’ spin into missteps. For example, “This is what I learned from this error, and the next time I will do it differently using what I learned today”.

2. Keep a learning notebook to document lessons learned from your daily successes and failures.

3. Enrich yourself in your downtime. Find great podcasts, insightful websites, etc. that enrich and entertain at the same time.

Growing it at Work

1. Put your hand up for new projects outside your current role or skillset.

2. Embrace change and display enthusiasm to understand and contribute to the change.

3. Ask for feedback and act on it.

Engagement Using Empathy

My student wrote this as her key take away from a class where we discussed the power of empathy

This skill is an indicator for potential because it signals one’s ability to connect with the hearts and minds of others to deliver shared objectives and achieve mutual benefits. An employee may be smart and highly productive, but if he or she cannot willingly compel others to act, he or she will not be able to lead them. In those situations, the organization may look to that employee as a strong individual contributor but not as a future leader.

According to Scott Hensarling, Senior Partner at Korn Ferry Hay Group, people who display the ability to connect to the hearts and minds of others are, “Relentless in their pursuit of understanding people’s ‘come from’ and ‘go to’ – where ‘motives and drivers’ meet ‘agenda and aspiration’.” That constant flex of awareness and empathy leads to a predictive compass for navigating stakeholders and scenarios. Future leaders are obsessive in the pursuit of understanding and predicting others.

Cultivating Engagement

1. Be curious about the interest, motivations, and priorities of the people you work with. Look out for what makes them most engaged.

2. Be aware of the impact your words, energy, body language, and intentions have on others.

3. Before taking an idea to anyone consider their preferred communication style, needs, and interest.

Growing it at Work

1. Make friends across the organization, utilizing lunch hour, break times, and company socials to get to know others.

2. Lean in to collaborate across the organization by proactively contributing to others without expecting anything in return.

3. Seek opportunities to lead project teams and while focusing on the end result, be deliberate about achieving high levels of engagement and motivation in the team you are leading.


Insight is an indicator for potential because it signals one’s levels of self-awareness and ability to think strategically in the face of complex challenges. These are the individuals that can be counted on to connect the dots and create clarity for others amidst a sea of new information.

Seeing the Big Picture and Connecting the Dots

Roger Martin’s research, articulated in his seminal article ‘How Leaders Think’, found that the world’s best leaders, from Jack Welch (General Electric) to Izzy Sharp (Four Seasons Hotels) share a common trait – Integrative Thinking. At its core, young professionals who display strong insight are integrative thinkers who see the big picture and look for connections that others may not be looking for. They resist the urge to operate with blinkers on and focus solely on the task before them. Instead, they engage in new information and ambiguous situations as part of a big web of salient information, attempting to make connections that generate new insights. They ask questions to draw connections, such as, “How does this problem that my customer is sharing, connect to the interest and motivations of my product managers?” When watching the news of technology disrupting a different industry they ask themselves, “What impact will this have on my business and how can we get ahead of it?” They invest the time to reflect and make multiple insightful connections. They don’t spend all their time ‘doing’. They block out time to think.

To be able to connect the dots and see the big picture, one must go in search of it using one’s soft skills such as curiosity and empathy. Curiosity, to have the organizational awareness of what is going on in the rest of the business; and empathy, to understand what’s important to customers, bosses, and other stakeholders. According to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, empathy is the foundation for meaningful insight and innovation.

He says, “Although many regard empathy as a soft skill, not especially relevant to the hard work of business, it is a wellspring for innovation since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.”

Cultivating Insight

1. Hone your organizational awareness: Be inquisitive about new developments and upcoming challenges across the business.

2. Use empathy to understand the needs of all your stakeholders.

3. Block out ‘thinking time’ on your calendar.

Growing it at Work

1. When problem-solving, take a step back, consider the big picture; and create integrative, ‘both – and’ solutions rather than ‘either-or’ solutions.

2. Create clarity for others in ambiguous situations. Articulate a common understanding of the status quo, and the next steps. Where the next steps are unclear, state the actions to be taken to attain clarity.


These skills are a signal of one’s fortitude to fight for difficult goals, bounce back from setbacks, and be an energizing and motivating force for the organization.

Have a Purpose

In ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, Victor Frankl expressed how those who survived their ordeal in the Nazi Concentration Camps had like him, held on to a clear goal or purpose.

Talent managers are on the lookout for talent fueled by a clear purpose, not just for their individual productivity gains but also for the potential impact such talent can have on the organization. Dan Cable in his article ‘Make Work Engaging Again’, recaps the value of purpose in a business context – specifically at a university fundraising center. When scholarship students came in to thank the fundraisers for the money, fundraisers became more persistent and made more calls on their shifts. And, because they were more personally connected to the ‘why’ of their work, each call was more effective — they raised an average of $9,704.58 versus $2,459.44 for fundraisers who did not talk to a scholarship student.

A common misconception, however, is that you need to be in a business or charity with a pro-social motive in order to have a purpose. That’s a myth. Purpose comes not from your task but what you choose to connect your work to.

3 Brick Layers

A passer-by walks by bricklayer #1 and asks,

“Hello sir, what are you up to today?”

Bricklayer # 1, looking a little annoyed, responded, “Well can’t you see, I’m laying bricks. Hmph!”

The next day, the passerby sees bricklayer # 2 at work and says,

“Good morning sir, what are you up to today?”

The bricklayer, looking a little bemused, responded, “Well, can’t you see? I’m building a wall.”

The next day, the passer-by sees yet another person working, and asks the same question,

“Good morning sir, what are you up to today?”

Bricklayer # 3 responds, ‘Yes sir, it is a good morning indeed. I’m building hope. When we are done, this is going to be a church!’

The message to me from this timeless story is simple: Your purpose is determined by you. Not by your task.

Cultivating Resilience

1. Create meaning: connect the work you do to something you care about.

2. Be clear on your short and long-term goals – they give you energy.

3. Ensure you have sufficient time outside of work to do the things that help you recharge.

Growing it at Work

1. Never complain, criticize, or whine.

2. Be enthusiastic about the opportunities presented to you.

3. When given a challenging assignment, connect it to the benefit that completing the assignment will have on you and on others.

Concluding Thoughts

If there is only one takeaway from this article, let it be this: your potential is neither predefined nor finite. Growing it requires persistence, deliberate self-reflection, and honesty. Embrace the journey and take ownership of your growth. Good luck!

[This article was first published in the Future Ready Report 2018 produced by the Centre for Future-ready Graduates, National University of Singapore.]


  1. McCracken, H. (2017, September). Satya Nadella Rewrites Microsoft’s Code, Fast Company, Retrieved from
  2. Dishman, L. (2018, March) I’m Microsoft’s Head of Talent: Here’s How to Get Hired, Fast Company, Retrieved from
  3. Dweck, C. and Hogan, K.(2018, October) How Microsoft Uses Growth Mindset to Develop Leaders, Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from
  4. The author recommends the following podcast for enrichment and entertainment value: Business Wars (by Wanderly), HBR Ideacast, The Economist: The Week Ahead
  5. Martin, R. (June, 2017). How Successful Leaders Think, Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from
  6. (February 2018). Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella: How Empathy Sparks Innovation, Knowledge @ Wharton, Retrieved from:
  7. Trout, L. (March 2016). The Fire Within: The Two Types of Entrepreneurial Determination, Egon Zehnder Digital Snacks, Retrieved from:
  8. Cable, D. (March 2018). Why People Lose Motivation – and What Managers Can Do to Help, Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from:

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