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4 Steps to Developing Professionals through Sponsorship

Women sponsorshipPromising professionals ascend through the ranks based on their knowledge and abilities, but many also benefit from the support and advocacy of other influential members of the organization—often referred to as sponsorship. It is important to note the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. A mentor talks with you about your career development while a sponsor talks about you. Sponsorship may be formal and methodical or informal, but by its nature is intentional and it can have a significant impact on assignments, visibility and advancement.  

In an effort to develop and retain staff, professional services firms across the U.S. are engaging in formal sponsorship, or dedicated efforts to ensure that everyone with leadership potential has access to a sponsor.

This blog post is the first part of a two-part series featuring one firm’s experience with intentional sponsorship.

We’ve had a women’s initiative at Deloitte for over 20 years. When we began, our efforts focused on the retention and development of women. Along the way, we realized that we should expand our efforts to focus on the advancement of women into senior leadership positions, which we define as partner, principal or director. Promotion to any of these positions involves an extensive process, and the bar is set quite high. To be considered for partner, principal or director, a candidate must be ready to lead in technical areas, client service relationships, marketplace activities and talent development.

As we looked at the process in our part of the business, Deloitte Tax LLP, we recognized that our existing leaders would need to be actively engaged to identify and advocate on behalf of promising potential partners, principals or directors. Our anecdotal evidence suggested that it was organically happening with white males. But, we realized there was not enough informal sponsorship of women, most likely because people tend to informally sponsor professionals with whom they share common bonds or attributes. This meant that we had to be creative in a predominantly white and male partnership to assure sponsorship of women.  

We decided to undertake a formal sponsorship program in Deloitte Tax for high talent women who would likely go through the partner, principal or director candidate process in the future. Based on our program and my personal experiences with sponsorship, here are four key learnings to initiating an effective sponsorship program:

1) Determine clear program objectives. What does the success of your sponsorship program look like? One of our objectives at Deloitte Tax is to ensure that every person who goes through the partner, principal or director candidate process has the opportunity to be sponsored, formally through a program or informally.

2) Plan ahead and create an infrastructure that allows for flexibility. Once you’ve identified the focus, build a program that meets your needs. We began by selecting women to be sponsored – those we believed could be considered for partner, principal or director within two years. We also selected sponsors - those we believed would be good at assessing, developing and sponsoring leadership potential.

3) Establish the relationship structure and provide appropriate support. Our sponsorship program lasts one year, and we encourage the sponsor and sponsoree to spend time together at the outset so that the sponsor can learn about the candidate and understand their strengths to determine where to take the relationship from there. We created materials to support sponsors in their role and to help sponsorees make the most of the opportunity. Both the sponsor and the sponsoree carve out time to dedicate to the program. Leaders of the organization dedicated time to advocating sponsorship and the program. We also realistically understand that not all attempts at formal sponsorship will be successful. A sponsor will often put their own credibility on the line for a sponsoree; no program can force a person to sponsor another unwillingly.

4) Measure results. Deloitte Tax’s intentional sponsorship programs have been under way for approximately three years, with an increasing number of participants each year. It’s important to note that the program’s goal is not to create a quota of women partners. Instead, it aims to ensure that qualified candidates have the opportunity to be sponsored as part of creating an environment in which they can succeed. We don’t grade sponsors, but sponsorees fill out a questionnaire about their experiences at the end of the formal sponsorship period. 

This Deloitte Tax sponsorship program has improved the development and advancement of qualified women. Perhaps even more importantly, formalizing sponsorship has brought the topic of effective sponsorship to a conscious level, and we see it rippling in informal ways throughout the organization. Leaders are now aware of the impact they can have on a professional’s development and advancement through intentional sponsorship, whether formalized through a program or informal. Leaders have learned the value of getting to know and intentionally sponsoring professionals who may be different from themselves. As a result, sponsorship at Deloitte Tax has taken on a life of its own; sponsorship has become an aspect of how we execute stewardship. People who have been sponsored are eager to give back and help another promising professional gain experiences that enable them to lead in the future. Through these programs and others we have eliminated or reduced the gender gaps at various levels.

We like to say that Deloitte Tax is a place where leaders thrive. Part of thriving is developing, advancing and having new experiences. From my own involvement as a sponsor, and from being sponsored myself by others, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for diversity and that success does not materialize in a one size fits all way. Success takes many types of forms and intentional sponsorship allows you to witness that.

If you want to learn more about starting a sponsorship program at your firm or organization, consider attending the AICPA’s Women’s Global Leadership Summit, November 12-13 in San Francisco, California. You can also attend the conference online.

Katy Hollister, chief strategy officer, Deloitte Tax LLP. Katy is a tax partner with over 30 years of experience. She leads Deloitte's US Business Tax practice. Katy is a member of the Deloitte LLP board and the Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited global board. 

Women in office setting courtesy of Shutterstock



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