January 5th, 2011 | 6:00 am

Confessions of a Former Sponsor – 7 Ways to Get Sponsored to the Top

filed under Ask A Career Coach

IMG_3383EnhancedColorContributed by CEO Coach Henna Inam

The data is confounding and women are still missing out.

According to Catalyst research, companies with the highest representation of women on their top management teams had 34% higher Total Return to Shareholders than those with the lowest.  Yet, across all Fortune 500 companies, in the  2010 Census of women leaders shows women in top ranks are not making progress. Women CEO’s in the Fortune 500 has actually declined from 15% to 12%.

Lack of sponsorship appears to be a key factor driving insufficient advancement of women based on a Catalyst study. Men and women have equal number of mentors. However women miss out on sponsors (people who have the power to promote and often use that power and influence to advance careers and opportunities for others). So, the obvious question is: “How do I Get a Sponsor?”

As someone who spent the last 20 years in Corporate America, including the last few in the C-Suite (I was Chief Marketing Officer of a $2Billion company and, as President, ran over a $500MM P&L), I have had my share of being sponsored and of sponsoring others.  There were many times in my career that my sponsors took risks on me and promoted me, even before I thought I was ready for the job. The following are my insights on how to get sponsored to the top.

  1. Take Charge. I believe that while there is much that corporations can do and are doing to improve sponsorship of women, the accountability for being sponsored lies 100% in the camp of the woman leader. As a Sponsor in my organizations, I was much more likely to the support men and women taking the initiative.
  2. Pick the Right Environment. Be smart about seeking workplaces and teams where leaders recognize the importance of promoting smart people, regardless of their gender. Look through the companies that have multiple women on their Boards and on Executive teams. Utilize research from Catalyst and other organizations and tap into your network.
  3. Make Results Happen. In my career, most of my sponsors found me. To be sponsored, you have to have results.  This is a necessary but not a sufficient. The best way in my opinion to get results is to understand your strengths and use them shamelessly to demonstrate your value. What are you known for doing really well? Sponsors are often current or former bosses who have benefit from the impact you make, so make your impact.
  4. Get Noticed. Sponsors often have lots of people in their organization with results, but the number of people they will take risks for and sponsor are limited. Why would they choose you? How do you stand out? Make sure your articulate your leadership brand and then promote it.

    In many organizations your exposure to Senior Management is fleeting. Make that count! Often times your presentation and communication skills are a somewhat inflated proxy for your talents and abilities. Communicating powerfully (both listening and expressing yourself) are skills that can be learned so invest in learning them.

  5. Take Calculated Risks. A great way to get noticed is your willingness to take risks. Take the high profile assignment even if it is a turnaround situation.  Take international assignments. At one point in my career I chose to take an assignment running a $100MM business in Mexico over an assignment running a $1Billion business in the US.

    That is because I felt the latter, a turnaround situation, although a higher risk, also offered a greater potential to make an impact and be noticed. I also knew that my international background and language skills would be a competitive advantage in the role. International stints give you more exposure and generally are great learning experiences. Ask yourself, what are the high profile roles that I feel I can bring my strengths and skill sets to?

  6. Connect and Engage Research. says that people tend to sponsor others who remind them of their younger selves. Since a lot of people in Senior Positions are white males, that’s who gets sponsored. However, gender and ethnicity aren’t the only traits that Sponsors can identify with. Most of my sponsors were white male and I am an Asian female.

    There are other traits that people can see in you that can remind them of themselves. Perhaps it’s your tenacity. Perhaps it’s even the fact that you’re a bit rough around the edges. The bottom line is that they like you because they see themselves in you.

    In order for them to like you, they need to get to know you. Many women take themselves out of the running because they choose to not show up and engage with potential sponsors. Don’t be intimidated. “Be curious to get to know them as people and find common ground” is excellent advice given by Penny McIntyre, Group President at Newell Rubbermaid.

  7. Find Meaning & Have Fun. McKinsey research shows that for women in particular, doing work they believe is meaningful, is a huge driver of engagement and job satisfaction. Many women opt out physically (by leaving) or emotionally (by disengaging from the track to the top) if they don’t connect what they do with what is meaningful for them. So find this connection and re-engage passionately. If you’re relaxed and enjoying the work that you do, the passion and energy you project are palpable. It makes you 100% more confident.

I wish you great luck and would welcome your comments and strategies about what is working or not working for you.

Henna Inam is a CEO Coach focused helping women become transformational leaders. A Wharton MBA, and former C-Suite executive with Novartis and P&G, her passion is to engage, empower, and energize women leaders to transform themselves and their businesses. Sign up for her blog at www.transformleaders.tv.


  1. Sonia Jaspal


    Very well said. I had a CEO who supported me completely though I was taking risks, being opinionated and sometimes being a bull in a China shop. I sometimes thought he was going to skin me alive. But he never took offence and was generally amused by it. Most probably he himself was like that in his younger days, I reflected his personality traits in some ways.


  2. Lynn Harris

    Excellent tips Henna – I am passing them on through my book web site page.

  3. Sara Kmiecik

    Very interesting post – it is hard for women to find female mentors if there are very few above them in an organization.