Jill is an African American woman 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?
Jill 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 to be taken seriously. 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 advocacy 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 few options upon
deep research. She knows she has many career options. She cannot
envision herself on the outside trying to gain access daily for the undefined
and long term future. This is a very difficult career path without taking into account the need to break into circles of influence that others do not have to work at to gain access.
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 Jill? One of the most important strategies that an organization can employ is targeted advocacy. In our profession advocacy
relationships drive talent development and career navigation.
These relationships are a natural part of our organizations and have been
so for decades. Advocates 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. Advocates also help the protégés to become visible in ways that individuals cannot do for themselves. These relationships exist and drive our
profession. 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 advocacy 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 advocacy relationships that may form naturally
in public accounting Firms. This is significant and an important element in Jill’s story. How can a person like Jill reach the conclusion that the price to pay for
success in public accounting is too high? As an experienced 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, 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
Advocacy 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 Advocacy 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 advocate and the protégé learn from these relationships.
The power of sponsor-advocacy relationships is not very well understood in many organizations even though these relationships have been the electricity of career progress as long as there have been careers. Intentional sponsorship and advocacy is frequently the missing element in building inclusive environments where all top talent can thrive.
The issue of sponsorship and advocacy is often subtle and requires a close look at how individuals move through the organization. How do they advance? How do they become visible? What is considered an increase in value delivered that puts someone on "the radar screen"? Many of the subtle but essential rules about how an individual advances in an organization are real but unwritten. As a result , it is critical that all top talent have access to sponsor-advocates in their career journey.
Sponsor- advocacy in the development and career advancement process is often missing for emerging leaders, especially those who represent diversity from the current and past leadership teams. This is not because those in positions of influence are deliberately or even consciously excluding anyone but because human beings regularly exhibit something called "affinity bias". This is simply a pattern of identifying with those who remind us of ourselves , with those on a path similar to the one we have taken. We reach out to those who we feel an affinity with and "take them under our wing". As a result of these human patterns the natural formation of traditional sponsor-advocate relationships can unevenly provide critical "survive and thrive" training.
In most organizations there remains a lack of broadly defined diversity in the majority of positions of influence and power. The positions that represent deep knowledge of the unwritten rules are still today not held by individuals who represent a broad definition of diversity. In many cases, senior leaders naturally reach out to younger leaders who remind them of themselves as protoges. When asked, senior leaders are often not aware that an uneven execution of sponsor- advocacy is happening and they are a party to it. When the question of why more emerging leaders who represent broader diversity are not in their circle the leaders often indicate that they do not feel they can be a mentor to women, minorities, GLBT, or the disabled. They acknowledge, when asked to reflect, that they have reached out naturally to people they feel they can help because they have walked the same road. These influential leaders sometimes feel they do not have as much to offer the individuals who they perceive to be walking a different road. This is in fact not the case, there is much they have to offer and it is possibly even more important they offer it to those who represent diversity because these individuals have less access to critical information about the majority culture. In addition, these individuals may represent unique perspectives, networks, and experiences that will make the organization stronger.
These factors are a catalyst behind the lack of an even playing field for all top talent. Without the same access to senior leadership, critical learning and developmental experiences,all individuals do not have the same opportunities.
Moving through an organization seeking advancement is a very
real journey. This journey is one that requires a map that comes from a sponsor- advocate. All individuals should be thinking about gaps in experiences needed to increase our skill level and our balance sheet of talent. It is important to first understand what the organization is looking for in its emerging leaders. This is not always , in fact not often , written. A sponsor-advocate provides critical information that helps the individual understand where they are on track and where they are missing the mark. While understanding high value activities is the first step in efficient career navigation, an individual is not always in a position to acquire access to these opportunities and experiences without someone in the inner circle acting as an advocate. In some cases, it is nearly impossible to broker opportunities such as committee assignments, over seas promotions, strategic client relationships, profit and loss responsibility without assistance. Advocacy from those in positions of influence is required.
Many emerging female and minority leaders do not have deep sponsor-advocate relationships. This fact slows the career progress of these diverse leaders. It creates real difference , not only in the opportunities that this talent has access to but also meaningful differences in learning and skill development. While it may be heresy to post this next comment- it is true. When we hear that there were no female or diverse candidates for promotion that were qualified...it is sometimes true because these candidates have not had the experiences needed to qualify them for the new opportunity largely because of a lack of sponsor-advocate intervention.
What can we do as individuals and organizations? Individuals must work to form relationships with senior leaders in order to access critical career navigation information and support. If you represent diversity from the current leadership team it is important that you work even more proactively to develop these relationships as they may not form naturally without you acting as a catalyst. The good news is that talented individuals can get what is needed from multiple relationships and sources, and in fact should not expect to get everything from one sponsor-advocate. Putting all of your efforts into one relationship is not a good strategy because there will always be change within organizations. How hard a talented individual works and the quality of their work is not the only thing that matters... it is the merely price of entry. Talented individuals need to know if they are doing the right things at the right time in their career. In addition, the right people must know they are doing the right things. The "right things" are those things recognized as having top value to the organization.
Organizations that understand all of the above take a hard look
at their assignment, promotion and sponsor-advocacy processes. Uneven access to senior leadership can be addressed through awareness raising, sponsor-advocacy programming and an enhanced talent development culture.
There is a lot of buzz about the need for advocacy or sponsorship relationships as opposed to mentor relationships. What is the difference?
The most significant difference between mentors and advocates is the level of active involvement in the career of the protoge. Sponsors and advocates are in a position of influence in the organziation. Sponsor/advocates are also close enough to the protoges career trajectory AND personal goals to clearly see in detail where the protoge should be focusing their efforts in the near future to accomplish THEIR professional (and sometimes life) goals. In addition the sponsor/advocate is in position to be able to influence the opportunities the protoge has access to and is willing to actively "advocate" or "sponsor" this individual by placing personal reputation and political capital on the line in support of the protoge. Lets face it, if we recommend someone for an assigment, promotion, raise, committee, opportunity of any kind- we put a portion of our reputation on the line. This is the primary difference between mentors and sponsor/advocates. Many people have mentors who in fact have been playing the sponsor/advocate role -many times without the knowledge of the protoge. Until we are insiders of the leadership team we often are unaware of how prevalent the sponsor/advocacy system is.
The sponsor/advocate also plays the role of education, awareness raising and skill building which may be common to mentor relationships. One of the most challenging things about career progression is understanding exactly what you should be doing when , how to procure these assignments for yourself and how to ensure the right people know you are doing the right things. These steps cannot be accomplished independently in most organizations. Hence the need for sponsor/advocates.