Jane is a minority with ten years of experience in public accounting. She is certified and versatile in the areas of practice in which she might contribute now and in the future.  She has deep community roots in the major metropolitan area in which she works and she has shown great promise in promoting the Firm in the market.  She has demonstrated ability to target in on very valid and significant business development opportunities.  She is liked by her peers and develops the people on her teams.  She also plans to leave the Firm and possibly public accounting altogether.  What is wrong with this picture?

Jane feels as if she works tirelessly to stay connected in the Firm and to expand her network. She has been successful in this regard and is networked and capable of tapping into opportunities.  She feels she has to prove herself every day when she walks through the door and again if she is working toward a significant opportunity in the Firm or the market. She feels when she speaks she must work much harder to be heard and taken seriously then her white male peers.   She feels that her superiors are not connected to her and that she is not on their radar screen.  She has observed the favoritism or Sponsorship circles that drive the assignment of opportunities, promotions and pay increases.  She has managed to tap into these organizational circles from time to time, but also notes that she has to assimilate in order to stay connected.  She is uncomfortable with the degree of assimilation required.  She understands that this assimilation also limits the value she may bring to the Firm. She has come to the conclusion that the energy she is pouring into trying to fit into the organization could be better applied to her work if she was in a more inclusive environment.  Her exploration of the Public Accounting marketplace has turned up very positive options for her.  In fact she is contacted often by headhunters working for organizations who are looking to hire her.  She knows she has many career options.  She cannot see a reason to stay where she is with no points of connection for the foreseeable future.

The sustainability of our Firms is dependent upon attracting, retaining and developing the best talent.  A significant portion of this talent is represented by individuals who represent something different then our current partner ranks.  Our ability to develop and bring new solutions to new markets is dependent on our success in creating an inclusive culture that supports a very broad level of diversity.  Diversity in thought, lifestyle, ethnicity, gender, education, socioeconomic experience and much more.  Creating an inclusive culture can be accomplished with targeted effort.  How do we attract, retain and develop the individuals who represent the change we need for the future while we continue to work on our culture?

What can an organization do now to retain and develop top talent like Jane?  One of the most important strategies that an organization can employ is sponsorship.  In our profession sponsor relationships drive talent development and career navigation.  These relationships are a natural part of our organizations and have been so for decades.  Sponsors not only understand how to navigate through an organization to access key opportunities and networks at the most appropriate junctures of a career but they also use personal political capital and reputation to facilitate these moves for their protégés.  Sponsors also help the protégés to become visible in ways that individuals cannot do for themselves.  These relationships exist and drive our profession daily.  These relationships are essential for election to owner which is one of the ultimate career destinations in our profession.

It is critical to note that for individuals who represent something different from the norm, the sponsor relationships do not form as naturally as they do for the majority group.  Human beings are drawn to individuals who remind us of ourselves, those we can identify with.  This is especially true of Sponsorship relationships that may form naturally in public accounting Firms.  This is significant and an important element in Jane’s story.  How can a person like Jane reach the conclusion that the price to pay for success in public accounting is too high?   We expect to work hard to attain this goal.  What is lost on those of us who may represent the majority is that the path is not the same for those who are diverse, those who may represent our future.  The path is much harder every day.  When we hear that these individuals do not want to do what it takes to succeed we must understand that in significant ways we are asking them to do more then we have had to do.  This is true in many Firms for women, minorities, those with different educational or socioeconomic experiences, those with different lifestyles, or those that represent any significant difference that currently requires the individual to suppress in order to assimilate and be accepted. If you are a member of the majority and dominant group, the need to suppress fundamental elements of who you are to succeed may sound like fiction. Those who represent diversity in the ranks of your Firm would assure you that the energy it takes to try to be a fully accepted and engaged member of the Firm is significant.

Sponsorship relationships must be in place for all of our top talent.  If left to chance, the relationships will most likely not be in place for the individuals who represent a critical part of our future because they represent something different.  Targeted Sponsorship Programs are not difficult to implement.  The ripple effect benefit of these programs is immense.  One method of shifting culture is to work closely with those individuals who represent the future.  Bias is generally unconscious.  Bias begins to break down as we gain personal experience interacting with individuals.  Both the Sponsor and the protégé learn from these relationships.

About the author

Mary BennetMary has spent the majority of her career as a partner in a top ten firm.  Mary now works as a consultant to public accounting firms in all areas related to organizational development and effectiveness.  Mary’s expertise includes diversity and inclusion, executive coaching, business performance, and leadership development as well as many other areas of organizational effectiveness.

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