No Godfather? Then, That’s One Very HUGE Reason You Aren’t Getting Promoted in HR…

by Alan Collins

Most HR folks want to climb the ladder of success in their organizations.

HR newbies want to get promoted to HR managers.

HR managers want to rise to become HR directors.

HR directors aspire to reach the VP level.

And so it goes up the HR food chain.

Unfortunately, at some point in your career, you can expect to get passed over for that next HR promotion.

It happens all the time.

It could mean your career has dead-ended in that organization.

Or it could mean that someone more qualified was appointed and that you’ll get your shot next time.

OR…it could mean that even if you’re the most qualified candidate on paper, you lack the ONE important “attribute” needed to push you over the top…the ONE attribute so POWERFUL, that it trumps everything else you might bring to the party

Before I tell what this ONE attribute is, let me tell what it is NOT.

It is NOT…your HR competence.

It is NOT…being a top performer.

It is NOT…having a great network.

It is NOT…being a great HR leader.

It is NOT…knowing your business cold and having financial acumen.

The critical attribute…that ONE reason you may not be getting promoted is because….

(Drum roll please…..)

….you don’t have a GODFATHER!

What is a godfather?

A godfather is someone HIGHLY INFLUENTIAL in your organization…who acts as your PASSIONATE CAREER ADVOCATE operating on your behalf behind close doors where the REAL decisions about who gets promoted are made.

When these discussions are happening, godfathers are there at the table lobbying for you…they are there defending your selection from those who are pushing back saying there are other better candidates for the role…they are there selling you to the rest of the key decision makers around the table…and they are there making the persuasive case that you’re THE ONE.

The higher you go, the more important godfathers are.  In fact, I would tell you that…

I know of no HR C-suite executive…
and I know plenty of them…who have
reached that position without having
1-2 influential godfathers who “helped”
them attain their HR C-suite role.
If they tell you otherwise,
they’re LYING.

Most organizations refer to godfathers as sponsors.  I call them godfathers because they operate much like Marlon Brando (pictured above) did as the real Godfather in the movie.   Brando, as the Godfather, determined who got promoted in the “family business” …and who got whacked from the organization.

Before you accuse me of being sexist, women can and are godfathers too — probably, the best ones!

Let me illustrate.  I’ve been reading about the rise of Ursala Burns.  Ursala is the first African-American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company, which was Xerox.

It is clear she would not have risen to the Xerox’s top job without having Anne Mulcahy (Xerox’s former CEO) operating as her godfather  behind the scenes…ADVOCATING for her as her replacement and grooming her for the job.

If you read any of the interviews with Anne Mulchany, she openly shares this.  She’s talks about spotting Ursala early, navigating her career, coaching her, mentoring her, kicking her butt when that needed to happen, and pushing back on others who subtly tried to undermine Ursala’s success…in other words, she acted as Ursala’s godfather.

It operates the same way in HR.

Let me give you an example.  Years ago, we were chartered by our CEO to reduce HR headcount by 10%, just like every other department in our company. I gathered with my fellow HR leadership team executives in our large board room. We spent two days (and nights) going through every single HR name in our organization.

As each HR person’s name was called and discussed, unless an HR executive spoke out on that person’s behalf, vouching for his or her performance, potential and value to the company, that person was canned.  Clearly, those who were poor performers or in less essential jobs were let go.  And so were those without godfathers to speak up on their behalf.

When this ordeal ended, one HR senior executive told me afterwards:

“You know something that was a bloodbath. Someone’s career can get destroyed in 19 seconds in one of these meetings. If you don’t have someone in the room who can jump to your defense, put any setbacks you’ve had in perspective or advocate strongly on your behalf, your career is cooked.”

He was right. And, that’s exactly what godfathers do.

The same thing happens with promotions.  People without godfathers have a very tough time getting promoted the higher and higher you go.

If you asked me what ONE single asset I would wish for most if I were striving to reach the next rung on the HR ladder…my answer would be, without hesitation:  just give me 1-2 godfathers.  

That’s all.

I’ll take care of the rest myself.
I’ll work night and day to deliver great performance.
I’ll build my business skills.
I’ll toil away relentlessly to polish my HR competences.
I’ll move heaven and earth to improve my leadership skills.
I’ll nurture my relationships and network like no one you’ve never seen.

Just give me those 1-2 godfathers…and you take anything else….and I’ll beat you to the HR C-suite every single time.  

Hands down.

No contest.

You might say that isn’t fair.   That it’s discriminatory.  And, I’d say you’re probably right.  But, so what.  My view is accept the fact that life isn’t always fair.  Fair is something that you pay when you jump in a taxi (i.e. fare).  There are spoken HR rules for getting promoted.  And there are unwritten HR rules for getting promoted…like having a godfather.  It’s crucial to your HR career that you understand both.

You also might say that mentors and godfathers are the same thing.

And, I’d say…not true.

Sure, it’s possible that your mentor and godfather are the same person — but this is rare. 

There’s a big difference between the two.  Mentors are people you choose.  Godfathers are executives with clout WHO CHOOSE YOU!   Both are people who believe in you, have your best interests at heart and look out after you.

But here’s the REAL distinction:  when you have godfathers higher up the HR org chart, you are nearly bulletproof.  Not only can they bail your butt out of trouble, they’ll keep you from getting into trouble in the first place by offering good advice. It’s like having a life raft in place when the waters get choppy and a riverboat guide who will help navigate the rising and falling tides of the organization.

GODFATHERS have the POWER to open doors for you. You can have a godfather and not even know it.

In the Ursula Burns case, I’m sure she had many different mentors who gave her great advice in different areas of her career — but they didn’t have the ability to make her CEO — Anne Mulchany, her Godfather (and mentor) did.

Huge difference!

Since you cannot go out and recruit a godfather, you must attract one to you.  Obviously, this is a hell of lot easier said than done.  But here are some tips to get you started…

(1) Having a godfather always starts with your boss. When your boss has your back, you get the benefit of the doubt from people up and down the HR org chart. Having your boss in your corner is a great foundation for your reputation and career. However, to be a REAL trump card for you, your boss should have clear, unmistakable influence and clout with the most senior members of your organization that have the power to promote you to the job you want.

(2) If you have senior-level HR mentors already, look for opportunities to potentially convert them into godfathers. Start by being likeable, proactive, helpful and useful.  Look for ways to do favors for and support your mentors. Sign up for and join their project teams that support pet projects and initiatives of your mentors. This could be anything from helping them fund raise as part of the United Way campaign they’re leading to volunteering to serve on that compensation redesign project they’re heading up.

(3) Look for opportunities to support new senior HR leaders when they first join the organization. When new HR senior executives join a new organization they are very vulnerable. They don’t know a lot. They are trying to build relationships, learn a new culture, take charge, while trying to figure out how to best make their mark. Most welcome lots of help. You can position yourself as a helpful supporter and score some early points by taking the initiative to introduce yourself, buying them coffee and share your perspectives on the organization.

(4) Become someone worth godfathering. This all starts with performing and excelling in your current role. No one wants to be a godfather to someone considered to be a “B” or “C” player. So, be open to candid feedback. Be willing to take risks. Often there will occasions when the godfather’s guidance seems risky, be willing to operate out of box.

Again, you may or may not ever know that someone has taken you under their wing as your godfather.

So always be prepared to support, acknowledge, and respond quickly to requests from senior members of the organization.

One, because you are committing career suicide if you don’t.

And two, he or she may be your godfather lurking in the shadows.


Note:  This article was partially excerpted from my book: Unwritten HR Rules: 21 Secrets For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources.

Feel free to add your comments on this article by clicking here.


Want to discover more unwritten rules for THRIVING in your career in Human Resources?  Then check out:  UNWRITTEN HR RULES: 21 Strategies For Attaining Awesome Career Success in Human Resources.  For additional details, go HERE.

About the author: Alan Collins is Founder of Success in HR and the author of a variety of best selling books for HR professionals  including UNWRITTEN HR RULES.   He was formerly Vice President – Human Resources at PepsiCo where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.

Feed your network: If you like this article, feel free to share it with your FACEBOOK friends by clicking the “share” and “like” buttons below…or share this with your TWITTER followers by clicking the “tweet” button below.


21 Responses to “No Godfather? Then, That’s One Very HUGE Reason You Aren’t Getting Promoted in HR…”

  1. Kamal Sahdev Says:

    I must say it is one of the most practical lesson ever come across in my career…sometimes we are in middle of these things but we realize its reality or existence through these thought provoking lessons.

  2. Lili Goncalves Says:

    Great article and so true. I have actually experienced this myself, in my former career in finance.

  3. Dani Schade Says:

    Very true article!

  4. Baskaran Ambalavanan Says:

    Fully agree with the need of Godfather & what they can do one’s career in HR.Thanks for this excellent article

  5. Dasneem Banu Says:

    Never never give up in your task, do your work earnestly and there will be a queue of godfathers to support you.

  6. Tony Pothitos Says:

    I was hoping no one would catch on to the Godfather domain I had down and locked.

    Now, EVERYONE knows!! lol

    Great Job yet again!

  7. Các cách thức để bạn có thể tăng thu nhập trong nghề nhân sự … Phần 5 – tìm cho mình 1 bố già đỡ đầu | Kinhcan24's Blog Says:

    […] Bài được dịch từ bài: One HUGE Reason You Aren’t Getting Promoted in HR… […]

  8. Abimbola Says:

    So pragmatic and holistically approached…Thumbs up Allan!

  9. Oludare Says:

    This is absolutely true.

  10. Nair Says:

    Spot on. Something I have realised and experienced first hand. No godfather no career ladder for HR

  11. Sabina Shahabudin Says:

    It is indeed true and I have experienced this myself in my career. I have 2 great godfathers and they are also my mentors and role models to me.

  12. Mike T Says:

    Soo true and a great thing as long as your godfather is firmly in place, be aware that your godfathers could retire or be restructured out of a position and your backside will be exposed. Be sensitive to the shifting landscape or the demographic of your godfather. Start to cultivate replacements or be prepared to move on as the “seasons” change.

  13. Evelyn Qubti Says:

    So true but this applies to all professions not only HR.

  14. Opg Says:

    surprised this article is posted. since when don’t “Godmothers” not exist

  15. Irene Says:

    This is so true. In this fast paced environment, it’s difficult to create these types of alliances.

  16. Diana Dema Says:

    It is so true. Have seen happening in my personal and others’ worklife experiences the truthfulness of the Godfather’s positive and negative magic. Sametime, I am a stronger beleiver that first and foremost is the indivdual’s competencies, passion and commitment. The article shares the truth in both a formal and informal style of communication, which made me comprehend the truthfulness of the content whilst feeling as if communicating directly with Alan, in a friendly talk. Thank you, Alan, for the so true made insights!

  17. Astrid G Says:

    Loved this article which is so true. Thanks for sharing, Alan! There are no cultural differences to Germany where we call those godfathers “vitamin B” (B stands for ‘relationships’). And finally: What is really fair in life?

  18. ellie g Says:

    Such a great article and something I’be had to learn the hard way. One thing I would add is don’t assume your current boss is a Godfather in the organization. I liked the difference here between sponsor and Godfather because that respect factor is so critical.I’ve had good sponsors, but only a few Godfathers and it makes a huge difference.

  19. Kelley Says:

    Great article!

  20. Dn Says:

    This is a great article. I have had godfathers and have been one to many across our organization, not just in HR. However, if you are a godfather and pick someone to support who doesn’t have the requisite skills and support them only because they like the same football team as you do or are a drinking buddy, you will quickly lose your clout as a contributor to your organization or anyone else’s career.

  21. Chickie Says:

    Alan, as always a great article indeed.