Sanofi’s Cristina Santos: ‘High Performers Know the Job, High Potentials Know the Business’

Cristina Santos, Head of Inclusion & Diversity and EEO at Sanofi (No. 31) addressed how to get noticed, how to get promoted, what are lateral moves, what to do when you don’t get the promotion and  understanding the differences between a high performer and a high potential at one of Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s Top 50 panels.

Santos previously worked as Director of Diversity & Culture at Novo Nordisk and at Novartis (Hall of Fame) as the Global Oncology Commercial Excellence Lead.

At her job, Santos establishes, evolves, and executes enterprise-wide I&D strategy – driving results through strong communication skills and a strategic mindset. Santos works with a range of internal partners to support diverse talent and drive performance. She oversees the Employee Resource Groups and tries to improve Sanofi through efforts focused on commerce, culture, community, and careers.

Cristina Santos’ TED-style Talk:

Thank you! So good morning, everybody. It’s already been a very robust morning, hasn’t it? I hope I can keep the level high. So speaking of levels, we’re gonna talk about air. We’re gonna talk about the rarified air that gets occupied the higher up you go in an organization. Remember that the higher you go, the less air there is. And in the context of becoming a high potential, what does that air mean?

For me, it’s being aware, insatiably interested, and reliably rocking. So stay with me. What do I mean by aware? We’ve already heard from Nancy, from Wanda, from others, a lot about high potentials. If you think about the organization that you’re sitting in today, do you know how they define high potential? Are you aware of what their definition is? I can tell you that at Sanofi, we define it as having aspiration, agility, and self-awareness. We already heard that some organizations will look at things like upward mobility, the Harvard Business Review will tell you it’s drive, it’s social skills, it’s ability. The point is: No matter who you ask, you might hear a slightly different definition. So if your aim is to be a high potential, you should probably know what that definition is within your organization. Once you have that awareness, you have to turn the mirror onto yourself and say: Okay. Where am I vis-a-vis that definition? So if we’re thinking about — in the context of my organization — if it’s self-awareness and agility and aspiration, I can probably manage two of those things on my own.

I can communicate with the organization. I can put myself on the radar by telling people what I want to do, as my aspiration. I can be self-aware because I can constantly seek feedback from a number of different people, no matter where they are, no matter what level, what function. Agility might be tough. If I’m in a car all day, because I’m a customer-facing rep and I’m out in a state five states away from my headquarters, or if I work in supply chain or in a retail store and I don’t have that constant, everyday connectivity and that’s the only job I’ve ever had — how do I express my agility and put myself on the radar?

So that’s why by having that definition and awareness where you are, you can start to work on a creative solution. I can talk about how we can use ERGs to our advantage and get a little selfish, I like to say, in my organization, on how that ERG can help give you access to skills, to help you express that agility. But you need to know the definition. That awareness is the first key. Now, what you might find in the process is maybe you’re not high potential. Maybe you’re a high performer. There is a difference. Every organization has high performers, and we need them. They keep us whole! And it’s highly valued. But it is different. If you’re a high performer, you are exceptional at your craft. You want to go up.

These are your executive sales reps, who have been there for a while. When somebody new comes on the team, they’re the ones that’s gonna train you and take you along and tell you how to kill it. They don’t really necessarily have a desire to go to the right or left of their center. They’re high performing, and that’s really what they’re contented to do, and that’s awesome. But it is different. High performers know their job. High potentials know the business. High performers are reactive. High potentials are proactive. And there’s a lot of research that you can do and you can look at, to help you really tease out what the difference is. The point is: You may be one or the other. And that’s perfectly fine. But if you don’t first ask the definition, then you’re not gonna know, and you might be driving towards something that’s completely incongruent from where you are or what you even want. You might also learn: You’re not a high performer and you’re not a high potential, and that’s a different talk that we can have on a different day.

But if you want to occupy that air, and if you want to get higher, you need to at least first be aware. So we’ll go to the second one, and that is: Insatiably interested. If you’re a high potential, you need to have that curiosity and that interest for the big picture. If you’re flying at an altitude that high, and you look down, you see everything. You see the connectivity of all the different pieces. Right? High performers are looking at what they have to get done. But a high potential needs to appreciate the mass of what’s available, and what’s happening outside of their immediate visual — their line of vision. So how do we do that?

This is a big room, and we’re filled with a lot of different companies. We all have different roles. A lot of different industries. But I want to ask you a question. By show of hands, how many of you on the regular get something in your inbox, whether it’s a newsletter or it’s this week at fill in the blank company, and it could be maybe weekly, monthly, every other week, every quarter, that tells you what’s going on around your company. We call it This Week at Sanofi. Raise your hand. Do you have that? We are all super busy. And I’m not gonna make you raise your hand on this one, but how many of you take the time — protect the time, prioritize reading that email or newsletter? Every article? Some hands went up. Some very proud hands went up. I do it!

That is how you become insatiably interested. Those articles tell you what’s important from all different parts of the company. It doesn’t matter your function. And guess what? We all have access to it. You could be that person working in the supply chain, or you could be the chief of staff to the CEO. We all have access to those articles. So I very frequently look for examples in my home life to bring into my work life. And one such example presented itself last week. So my oldest son went on his first field trip to Washington, D.C. He’s in 8th grade. He was very excited and slightly nervous. So imagine my delight when I got an email — one of those app messengers. They blow up your phone to tell you where they are. Now they’re moving. Now they’re getting on the bus. Which is a little much.

But this one came at 8:00 at night and let us know that Antonio and six of his closest friends had been trapped in an elevator for 40 minutes. I’m not convinced it wasn’t an awesome social experiment on the part of the principal of the school just to see what happens when you put 17 8th graders in an elevator. But I digress. So the reason this was relevant is it made me think. What’s the first thing you do when you go to a career development workshop? You’re gonna sit down and somebody says: Hey before you do anything else, you need to craft your… Elevator pitch! Right? We all know what this is. It’s your 60 to 90 seconds that you’re gonna get because you get in the elevator, and Miss CEO is gonna walk on, and you’re gonna ride that elevator with her to the top, and this is your shot. You’ve got to tell her what you’re all about. What you want her to know about you. I’m not belittling the importance of an elevator pitch. It’s critical that you have the ability to articulate who you are succinctly.

But what happens after the pitch when you’re trapped in an elevator for 40 minutes? Seriously. 38 minutes is a lifetime with the seniormost leader in an organization. What happens when you’ve gotten the niceties out of the way, you’ve killed your pitch, she knows who you are and what you want to do, and then you’re stuck? And then you look at each other and she says… Okay. So I think we’re gonna be here for a while. And she asks: Hey! So what did you think of our newest vaccine approval last week? I could answer… I work in HR. I don’t really have a lot of… You know, familiarity with what happens with all of our products. We have tens and tens of products across Sanofi, in many different business units. Tell me more. What do you think? And that’s an okay answer. But as an insatiably interested high potential, the better answer is: I think it’s amazing. But I’m very interested to see what the restrictive label the FDA gave us is gonna do for the impact it’ll have here. But I’m curious to know your thoughts on how you believe what’s happened outside the US will impact the uptake in our market.

And you know what? Yesterday I was on my way to work and NPR did an amazing interview on this, and I would like to send you that link when we finally get out of the elevator. That is the answer you want to give. Now, nothing’s changed. I’m still in HR. That has nothing to do with my functional role. But as an insatiably interested high potential, that makes a difference. I want to know how that’s gonna impact what happens with the company. And guess what? The CEO wants to know it too, right? So we all have access to that information. We need to think beyond the elevator pitch. What else is happening that impacts all of us? Can we gain an appreciation for the bigger picture if we really want to fly at that elevation? So if we have the awareness, we’re insatiably interested, how do we move to being reliably rocking? Because I already told you that high performers are the ones that kill it year after year. So it sounds a little confusing. So yes and no. Being a high potential and reliably rocking in every role means that you’re gonna show up and your presence is going to have an impact on those around you. You’re gonna have that curiosity for what’s the connectivity to how what I do today impacts the rest of the company. And how can I further and drive us closer to whatever our collective goals are? If my eye is on the corner office, I know that I have to pick up a lot of different skills and experiences, as we’ve already heard this morning. So I’m not going to kill it in every role. But I should damn well be reliably rocking, and everyone should be happy that my presence has added something.

That’s my responsibility. And that’s the difference between being a high potential or not. Look, I was a pretty good sales rep for four years. I was a damn good people leader. And I really enjoyed that. I was really good at training, but I was a better marketer. And I was never necessarily the best person in the room on any of those given teams, but my presence mattered, and it differentiated me, and it helped others perform their role better. We know that when a top performer when a high potential is on a team, their presence can boost the performance of those around them by at least 15%. Now, it doesn’t mean that you’re gonna get every job that you go for. Right? It doesn’t mean that just because you’ve been blessed a high potential, people are gonna swing open their doors and you’re gonna get a sponsor and every role laid out for you with a red carpet. You’re still gonna have to work for it. You need to have the brand of being reliably rocking. And you need to have the ability to say: Okay. Not this role. Next role. And there needs to be a multitude of things that you’re willing to do to really shape how you can contribute at that highest level. If you’re reliably rocking, everybody wants you on their team. And you also have an obligation to the organization to have open communication about what your desires are, how you want to contribute, and the things that you’re willing to do. And when things need to shift.

So if we think about the air metaphor here, what is the first thing that a pilot does when things start changing in the atmosphere? The air shifts. There’s turbulence. Pilots automatically shift to a different altitude. They signal to everybody in the cabin — hey, we’re gonna go from cruising at 32,000 down to 25,000 feet. I want to let you know, when things are better, we’ll come back up. We’re going to make a change. So when I unexpectedly became expectant of my fourth daughter, who is a blessing, and I’m glad she’s here, and I can’t imagine my life without her, but I was in very high stakes, high visibility role for my former organization. I loved what I was doing. But I didn’t know if I could sustain that level of commitment and performance and I could maintain that reliably rocking presence, because now I had a newborn to take care of, that I frankly wasn’t expecting to have.

So true story: I was in the cafeteria, shortly after coming back from my maternity leave, and my former boss said to me: Hey, congrats on the baby. We miss you. And if you ever want to come back out in the field, you just say the word. Boom! Within a week, I went into my head of HR and I said: Look. This is too important a role for the organization for me to half-ass it, quite frankly. And I have a newborn at home that I need to be with, and I need a little bit more flexibility than this role can afford me today. But I know that I can go back and be on that team, and it’s a job that I really enjoy, and I’m really good at it. So I’m gonna do that for a little while. And as soon as I did, the first thing my then-new boss and I sat down and did was we mapped out: How do I make sure I stay on the radar? How do we make sure that I am engaged and I get that insatiable interest satisfied? Because this was just me shifting my altitude. Because it’s what I needed. I have that reliable communication that is an expectation of the organization. And that’s what I did.

When I was ready to come back up into my next role, I did that. I was able to. And it worked out for everybody. But if you’re reliably rocking, people are gonna want you on their team. Whether it’s for a short while or for longer stints. And then you can have that notion of expectations while you’re there. So, everybody has the opportunity to at least explore whether this makes sense for you. Right? Not every company is full of all high potentials. We already heard that. But if that’s what your aim is, if that’s what you’re looking towards, then I think this is a pretty good plan of how to start the journey. Gain that awareness. Become insatiably interested. We all have access to that knowledge.

And remember: What comes after the pitch when you’re stuck in the elevator? And then how do you maintain a reliably rocking brand that, no matter what you’re doing, you’re always gonna deliver, and you’re gonna make everybody else around you better for it? I hope that’s been helpful.