Sponsorship-Barrier to Exit for Talent

Jayne is a woman with ten years of experience in public accounting.    She is certified and versatile in multiple 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 unique connections in several diverse business networks which as valuable a multi-racial female, one of the few in the firm. She has demonstrated ability to target in on valid and significant business development opportunities.  She successfully develops the people on her teams.  She also plans to leave the Firm and possibly public accounting altogether.  Jayne feels as if she works tirelessly to stay connected in the Firm and to expand her network. She has been somewhat successful in this regard and is capable of tapping into opportunities if she puts in a great deal of effort to find out when opportunities may be occurring and look for openings to be included.   Just this week she learned of an important client meeting that she was not included in.  The dinner meeting was after hours.  She received an invitation, after suggesting to the partner that it would make sense for her to be a part of the meeting.  She works hard to gain these critical experiences with clients because she knows she cannot develop as a business person if she is not at the table experiencing the critical conversation.

Jayne 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 that her superiors are not connected to her and that she is not on their radar screen.  She has observed the favoritism, sponsorship and advocacy circles 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 in any meaningful way.  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 attractive alternatives.  She knows she has many career options.  She cannot envision herself continuing with the status quo, trying to gain access daily for the undefined and long term future.  The energy spent breaking barriers takes time away from serving clients and growing the business.  Time that her peers have because they are naturally included and do not have to put so much energy into this aspect of success.

John feels that his career is on solid ground.  He feels he really “fits” with the firm because he is so connected to the leaders. Just this morning a senior partner stopped by his office to discuss their golf game over the weekend and to invite him to play a round with clients later in the week.  As an afterthought, the partner mentioned a meeting with a prospect later that day and invited John to attend to observe and learn from the session.  This natural inclusion in opportunities is something that has made a huge difference for him as he has worked to learn the business.  He feels special and knows he has a place in the firm long term with the current relationships and attention paid to him.  The partners seem very comfortable with him and they have a lot in common.  They often share information about the things he needs to do to create more value in the coming years if he wishes to proceed on the partner path.

These two scenarios about Jayne and John represent the different experiences that top talent has every day in public accounting.  Multiply these experiences by weeks, months and years and we see a huge divergence in the career navigation paths of our talent pools.  It is important to note that this divergence is the result of something called affinity bias, which is also largely unconscious.   Affinity bias simply means that as humans we are comfortable with people who remind us of ourselves and gravitate towards these relationships.  As leaders we have a responsibility to be intentional in building talent in our firms if we are to survive and thrive, and provide quality solutions to the marketplace.

The sustainability of our Firms is dependent upon attracting, retaining and developing the best talent.  A significant portion of this talent now consists of 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.  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?

One of the most important strategies that an organization can employ is targeted sponsorship.  In our profession sponsor relationships drive talent development and career navigation.  These relationships are an invisible 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 political capital 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 drive talent development in our profession and do not happen equitably and often enough to produce the magnitude of talent we need for succession.  These relationships are essential for election to partner which is still 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 Jayne’s story.  How can a person like Jayne reach the conclusion that the price to pay for success in public accounting is too high?   As a prior partner in a public accounting Firm, I would be the first person to acknowledge the road is long and challenging.  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.  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, and more than their peers. This is true 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.

Sponsor relationships must be in place for all of our top talent and are an essential element of leadership development.  If left to chance, the relationships will most likely not be in place for enough of our top talent to support firm growth and sustainability.  Targeted Sponsor Programs are not impossible to implement, but they must be implemented well.  Best practices include orientation to the program for both sponsors and protégés, defined and targeted developmental plans, structured meetings with a defined frequency, program accountability, feedback and check-ins, sponsors at the appropriate level of influence to align with protégé developmental needs.

The ripple effect benefit of sponsor programs is immense.  One method of shifting culture is to work closely with those individuals who represent the future.  Bias is generally unconscious and begins to break down as we gain personal experience interacting with individuals.  Both the sponsor and the protégé learn from these relationships.   The organization begins to better prepare itself by maximizing the diversity of talent necessary for future sustainability.

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