"None of us can push a strategy forward without being emotionally and intellectually involved."--Ken Chenault, American Express chairman and CEO, speaking at a recent event at the company's headquarters.
Chenault was on hand to offer insights into his own career as practical tips for successful career advancement. The event marked the release of an exhaustive study conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy called "The Sponsor Effect" that attempts to uncover why a vast majority of highly qualified women lack allies to propel, inspire and protect them through upper management. Or, active sponsorship.
For industry insiders, Chenault's rise to the top is legendary.
He started at Amex in 1981 as director of strategic planning and later became president of travel related services. In 1995, he was named vice president and became president and chief operating officer two years later. Finally, in January 2001, Chenault took the chief's job and added the title of Chairman three months later.
According to Chenault, networking and active sponsorship played a major role in his rise—although he didn’t put it quite that simply. Here are four tips I took away from his career story:
1) Look for Advocates Internally and Externally
Highlighting the case for seeking out sponsors early in your career, Chenault emphasized looking outside the firm—and industry—as well as inside. Not to be mistaken for mentors, sponsors actively advocate for you in meetings, performance strategy meetings and leadership discussions.
And based on your goals and skill sets, Chenault advised, look for a sponsor inside your company's senior management ranks as well as outside. "You might think that your current employer is too big a company for advancement so you should just get the experience and get out," he noted, alluding to his own mindset early in his career, "but my sponsor made me rethink my own goals."
2) Spread your network
Chenault advises attend as many seminars and workshops as you can. The effect of networking on your ultimate career development cannot be overstated, he says.
3) Look for Sponsors among Peers
"Look at your colleagues, a sponsor doesn’t always have to be your boss," Chenault said. A colleague on the same level as you can be just as instrumental as a manager or supervisor in increasing your visibility with senior management.
4) Rethink Your Aspirations
Emphasizing that sponsorship doesn’t just help with career advancement, Chenault—one of only five African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500—noted that his sponsors saw a career he couldn’t have foreseen for himself. "They made me rethink my own aspirations," he said, going on to add that sometimes the potential you chart for yourself can be radically different than what others see in your capabilities.
Continue reading more about The Sponsor Effect at Vault's CSR blog: In Good Company.