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5 Ways to Create a Sense of Belonging through Sponsorship

Men sponsorshipThis blog post is the second part of a two-part series on intentional sponsorship, or dedicated efforts at a firm to ensure that everyone with leadership potential has access to a sponsor.

At HORNE, we launched a formal sponsorship program at our 525-person firm because we recognized first and foremost from a business case perspective, for us to be relevant in the future, we must develop a diverse leadership team.  Collaboration, connecting and creativity require diverse leadership and we cannot win with less than half the leadership talent.  Failure to develop a diverse leadership team will limit our ability to grow, to attract great talent or to have a sustainable succession plan. We also estimated our tangible cost of our turnover at $3 million a year which includes recruiting, onboarding and training.  We excluded the additional costs of lost knowledge and lost client relationships. 

Beyond the business case, it really hit home to me personally and to our partners, when an internal survey in 2013 opened our eyes.   It clearly showed that women and minorities were less likely to feel a strong sense of belonging or to have adequate access or information to increase their contribution to the firm or to reach their full potential.  This lack of an equitable playing field was limiting our ability to sustain a diverse leadership team.  

1. Focus on inclusion. To respond to these challenges, we launched our sponsorship and advocacy program in 2014. We’ve now have a total of three pilot groups ongoing.   When introducing the program, we emphasized that it was a part of our effort to create an equitable playing field for all team members and foster a firm wide sense of belonging. 

About 45 team members have been involved in the program, including people of both genders, of diverse backgrounds and all ages, although the primary focus is women and minorities. In the first two pilots, partners nominated high-potential team members, but in the third pilot we allowed people to self-nominate and attracted a wide range of applicants. In our selection process, we consider applicants’ interest in a deeper exploration of their long-term career opportunities. Have they shown interest in developing into a well-rounded business person? Do their developmental needs match what the program has to offer? Do they understand HORNE business goals and the marketplace? Are they willing to invest the necessary time and energy? Do they have a real or immediate need to raise their visibility? Some of these issues may not be pressing in their first or second year, but when they have supervisory or client responsibilities this may become more relevant.

2. Build a plan that meets your needs. Our program begins with a training session that covers everything the sponsor or team member needs to know, including why we’ve undertaken the program and our expectations for each role. The sponsor and team member create a two-year plan that includes working on goals they form together based on the team member’s development or advancement needs. We recommend regular face-to-face meetings to discuss progress.

 3. Understand the obstacles. Intentional sponsorship is challenging because it removes people from their comfort zones and takes time out of busy schedules. In addition, the profession has traditionally evaluated certain success factors, such as chargeable time and utilization, and sponsorship doesn’t follow that established path. The solution is building a strong business case so that you can return to it if problems arise or the program drifts off course.   We recognized unintentional bias as a big obstacle and with this program we began to intentionally limit its affect on our firm. 

 4. Consider results. After just a few months of the program, the first two pilot groups’ participants nearly unanimously reported having a much stronger sense of belonging and the ability to achieve their dreams. Our turnover is down 25% (and will decline more this year) due to a number of factors and our sponsorship program is playing a significant role. While we may not be able to point to the results on our balance sheet or income statement, when you consider the importance of diverse leadership and access to the full talent pool, the return on investment is obvious.

 5. Make it a way of life. Our ultimate plan is to make sponsorship a natural effort that is just a part of how we define ourselves. Every single team member should have a sense of belonging and the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. Sponsorship is one of many ways we are working to ensure that happens.  At HORNE we stress that it is each team member’s role to help others develop a strong sense of belonging. 

Sponsorship is one of the many interesting topics that will be covered this year at the AICPA Women’s Global Leadership Summit, taking place in San Francisco, California on November 12 and 13. Online attendance is also available. A new AICPA mentoring tool, accessible by all members, will be launched at the summit.  

Joey Havens, Executive Partner, HORNE LLP

Businessmen image courtesy of Shutterstock



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