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Sponsorship on the road to the C-suite

Within reach? Achieving gender equity in financial services leadership

The path to leadership can be long and winding, but sponsors may be able to help smooth the way. Deloitte's Kenny Smith, Monica O'Reilly, and Neda Shemluck discuss the impact sponsorship can have as we move toward gender equity in leadership.

Women tend to leave the workforce at particular milestones. It tends to be primarily when there’s a change of having a child or starting a family or something like that. Companies now are looking at how do we make it easier for women to come back into the workforce.
—Monica O’Reilly, Risk and Financial Advisory leader, Deloitte & Touche LLP
“If you’re in a particular organization that doesn’t reflect diversity, whether it’s a client or a customer or whether a supplier or a partner or something like that, [you’re] at a great disadvantage today. ”
—Kenny Smith, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP & US Financial Services Industry practice leader
“There’s a lot of research around imposter syndrome and women who feel like they need to check all the boxes, etc. ”
—Neda Shemluck, client relations executive and managing director, Deloitte Services LP

Tanya Ott: What does your workplace look like? Are there just as many women in senior leadership positions as men?

I’m Tanya Ott and this is The Press Room, a podcast where we tackle some of the biggest issues in the world of business. And today we’re talking about gender equity in the financial services sector. Now, I’ve never worked in financial services, but I did enter the ranks of management in the media business when I was in my early 20s. I was the number two in a newsroom with dozens of reporters. My boss was a man. His boss was a man. Over the next 20 years I climbed the ladder until I was eventually VP of a statewide network. That was the first time in my career where women in senior leadership outnumbered men.

Many industries have made strides, but many of us believe there’s still a long way to go. Just look at all of the Fortune 500 companies. As of June 2019, according to, there are 33 women CEOs.1 In the US, female college students outnumber male college students, but only about a third of college presidents are women.2

In the financial services industry, the number of women in leadership roles is expected to grow over the next decade, but still below equity.3

I invited a few people from that industry to join us for a conversation about how to get—and keep—women at the table.

Neda Shemluck started out in investment banking, then moved into consulting …

Neda Shemluck: And what I loved was this opportunity to get much deeper in an industry—work with someone whom I learned a ton from over the years

Tanya Ott: For the past decade she’s been working as a client relations executive in financial services and managing director with Deloitte Services LP. And that someone whom she learned so much from—that’s Kenny Smith. He’s a principal within Deloitte Consulting LLP and leads the US Financial Services Industry practice—that includes banking, insurance, investment management, and real estate. He’s been with the firm for almost 30 years.

Kenny Smith: My mother jokes about this—I actually was a teller when I was in college. I had a part-time job at a bank, and I was a drive-in bank teller for a couple of years and a vault teller. So, I’ve pretty much been in banking my entire professional career.

Tanya Ott: And my other guest today also has an interesting backstory.

Monica O’Reilly: I came from the banking industry. I started actually as a programmer, which is an interesting start to a career. And then because of that technical background, I got hired by a consulting firm and ended up traveling around the world doing a lot of what I would call technology enablement, maybe security controls, security, and privacy control.

Tanya Ott: Eventually, Monica O’Reilly found her way to Deloitte & Touche LLP, where today she is the Risk and Financial Advisory leader for the financial services industries. She works with banking clients around the world.

Collectively, Monica, Kenny, and Neda have about 80 years working in the financial services sector, so they’ve seen a lot of changes—especially, Neda says, when it comes to gender equity.

Neda Shemluck: Gender equity is important, and the way that conversation has evolved from not just “let's get a certain number of women at the table,” but “let's make sure that we have diversity of perspectives and that women are being heard” is increasingly important in business. And this opportunity to be exploring this topic more, in this time, is interesting.

Monica O’Reilly: If you think what we're trying to get to is a sense of fairness and balance and making sure that we are taking advantage of all of the collective power we have within any organization—how do you harness the power of the collective? We really need to be thinking about, are we bringing together all of that? And looking at women in particular, to make sure that there is a level of equity, I guess, in ensuring that we’re getting that point of view.

Kenny Smith: If you look around, particularly in the United States, you look around most of the business community [and] it’s very diverse. And it’s diverse from a gender perspective and for other dimensions as well. If you’re in a particular organization that doesn’t reflect the diversity of your counterparty, whether it’s a client or a customer or whether a supplier or a partner or something like that, [you’re] at a great disadvantage today. So, it’s not just the right thing to do, as Monica and Neda commented on. It’s an imperative in the business community.

Over my career, I’ve had a lot of different mentors and sponsors, and I’ve worked with a lot of diverse people. And almost to an experience, it’s the people [who] are at the table, because they bring the right skills, they bring the right perspective, they bring the right content that’s necessary for whatever the task was at hand.

Tanya Ott: Kenny, you make reference to being in the industry for a long time. What did gender equity look like maybe in your early years?

Kenny Smith: It was certainly less gender-diverse than it is today. And so, I do believe, as Monica mentioned, we’ve made some improvements and strides over the last few years. In the early days there was … I remember the days when you could smoke on an airplane. I never was a smoker, but it conjures up these images of these mahogany and leather board rooms, smoke-filled rooms with these deals coming out of them. And I would tell you, that wasn't terribly inaccurate. You would see that quite a lot. Most of the organizations that I happen to be affiliated with, there would be diversity in those rooms. Now, maybe it wasn’t parity, there wasn’t a 50/50 blend, but women were represented in most of those companies and at very senior roles; however, those that were able to adapt to that you could see them advance a little bit more quickly. You don’t have that same kind of club mentality today—or we see less of it than we did back 30 years ago.

Tanya Ott: Monica, Neda—what was that club mentality like for you guys when you first got in?

Monica O’Reilly: So, two things. I was in a heavily [male]-dominant job doing programming and technology. This was the late 80s, early 90s, and in financial services, banking. And it was interesting because the dress code was pretty formal. The women had to wear skirts and a blazer. And I was working on servers or I was crawling under desks sometimes. That’s not an easy thing to do with a skirt on. And I don’t think it was done maliciously. I don’t think any of that. It just wasn’t understood that you would have an opportunity to have a different sort of gender outfit, or whatever you want to call it, for the different types of jobs that were available. At that time, most of the women in the bank tended to be working in the front lines at the branch operations, where they did need to suit up every day to meet with customers. [Eventually] I had a male boss who understood [and said], “Oh, my goodness, we’re having you do all this work and your dress code isn’t appropriate for the job we’re having you do.” So he was more than accommodating around that. But I would say that club mentality was there—that was the way the workforce had been established, primarily with breadwinners being primarily male. And as it evolved into the 90s, it started to gray a little—where you didn’t see that club mentality. I don’t know, Neda, [if] you felt differently?

Neda Shemluck: You’re making me laugh because I actually forgot about the whole dress code. But yes, even when I started, it was you wear a gray, black, or navy suit and either black or brown shoes and there was a uniform. It was very prescribed. But the times have evolved and it’s hard to see them evolve when you’re in the thick of it.

When I started, there was a lot of talk about the scarcity of women in leadership. And there was a lot of talk of the “token” woman in leadership, and women competing with one another to get those leadership roles. I really feel the times have changed from that perspective. I have not heard that story in years. More than anything, I see women really, really championing other women and encouraging them to stay the course, to move up within organizations, etc.

But what’s really surprised me is the past couple of years, there’s been an even more dynamic shift, which is that men have become really vocal in advocating for women in leadership. It’s very different for women to continue to pound the tables for other women and for men to become part of that conversation. My eyes light up every time I hear a man say, “Where are the women in the room? Where are the women in this meeting? ” And then really digging in to ask the questions around, “Well, if it’s a pipeline issue, why is there a pipeline issue, and how do we help solve this?” Because it’s really different to say that from a man’s perspective, recognizing the issue, versus a woman constantly touting that.

Tanya Ott: So, Kenny, you’re the man in this room ...

Kenny Smith: Let me add to something Neda has to say. We’ve seen a shift in that and it’s very good. For example, women in FSI promoting the women's initiatives; [but] it’s going to take more than that in order to move the needle. But more importantly, it’s going to take two things. One is, it’s going to enlighten the men in terms of what the women can bring to the table, because there may be some that are slower to adopt than others. [What] will continue to be a real factor in terms of achieving this parity is that it’s an education process, in addition to having the woman representative.

Tanya Ott: There are a lot of strategies that companies are using to promote gender equity and parity. And one of them is sponsorship. And I want to talk about that a little bit, but I know we’re going to have listeners who work in industries where sponsorship is not a concept they’d be familiar with. So, can you talk to me a little bit about what sponsorship is? How does it work and how does it differ from just having a mentor?

Neda Shemluck: In my view, a mentor is someone who speaks with you. A sponsor is someone who speaks about you, behind closed doors. [He or she] champions you and advocates for you to get more opportunities. I would add to that sponsors also are responsible for providing you a little bit of a safety net to take risks and fail, as well.

Monica O’Reilly: Yes, sponsorship is about someone who's willing to put a little bit of their own political capital out there to vouch for you, to give you a platform or to help you elevate. And sponsorship is more active. It’s similar to mentorship in that it’s a two-way street. But it is much more active in the opportunity to help elevate, which is part what we’re trying to achieve around equity.

Tanya Ott: So practically, how does that look in the workplace? If I had a sponsor, is that someone who might go into a meeting where we’re planning a major initiative and really lobby for me to fill a role in that initiative? What does it look like?

Monica O’Reilly: It’s not someone pounding the table just by saying, “Hey, I need this person.” It’s usually based on the fact that that sponsor has a lot of respect for the individual that they’re sponsoring. They see the potential. They understand the skill set. They understand the capabilities. And then they’re saying, “OK, given this picture that I have, I believe the best use of my political capital is to advocate or vouch for this individual to be participating in opportunities they may not know of or would not get exposed to.” It’s vocal. It’s them maybe pushing the individual in the right direction, but also looking for the opportunities for that individual to take on more of a limelight role or are something that would elevate them.

Kenny Smith: The sponsor also has to have a good understanding or a good grounding on the environment of the organization or the team or the situation that they're advocating for their sponsoree to be involved in. There may be some political landmines or there may be some biases that exist within the organization. There’s some active engagement on the sponsorship that help relieve some of those concerns so that sponsoree, so to speak, can be adopted and accepted into that environment.

Tanya Ott: How has sponsorship played a role in your careers?

Neda Shemluck: I have been really, really lucky in that; without even knowing what sponsorship was early in my career, I have always had a person who has taken me under their wing and given me opportunities, oftentimes when I don’t even believe that I was deserving of those opportunities. There’s a lot of research around imposter syndrome and women who feel like they need to check all the boxes, etc. [While] working with Kenny for 10 years, as a sponsoree, I really felt compelled to make my sponsor proud. To not disappoint them. But I also feel like I got a little bit of a skip in my step knowing that I had someone advocating for me, knowing that I had someone championing me, and knowing that sometimes it was a person who believed in me more than I necessarily believed in myself at that point. What’s interesting is now, climbing the ranks a little bit, having the opportunity to have seen what a significant role that’s played in my own career and how lucky I’ve been because of it, I really feel a responsibility to do the same for other women and, frankly, other men and people as a whole, because I know how impactful that is in your day-to-day career, having someone who really has your back in every respect.

Tanya Ott: So, Neda, you talk about being a sponsor to other women and then you tag on “and men.” And Kenny, I understand that you had a woman who was a sponsor for you.

Kenny Smith: I’ve had several women that have been [sponsors for] me. In fact, having a long career, and working in a very high-performing, high-expectation environment like our firm for many, many years, you simply cannot be successful without active sponsors. Full stop. And there’s just so many changes and nuances and opportunities that get presented over the span of a career, particularly in an environment that’s very dynamic and very aggressive, and so you need that sponsorship. You need people that are shoving you into the position that you don’t think you’re ready for. And maybe you’re not. You know they’re going to be there with a safety net to kind of help you along the way.

I can go back over the span of my career and probably point to three or four or five sponsors that really made a difference. And in most of those cases, the thing that I probably respect the most was the honesty. It’s very difficult to get good feedback, regardless of how well our organizations think we provide feedback. But they’re the ones that were comfortable telling you something that you really needed to hear that you might not want to hear, that might not be very comfortable. And I respected that feedback from that sponsor more than anything.

Tanya Ott: Some of the words that I heard you guys say are things like “dynamic” and the “political landscape” and “social capital.” And as we all know in organizations, things change. Sometimes people leave companies. Sometimes people lose power within their own company. They might not be able to advocate for you the same way they would have before. So how do you navigate that kind of challenging situation when a sponsor leaves or a sponsor clearly doesn’t have the sort of voice in the company anymore that you might need?

Kenny Smith: Yes, there’s a concept that I have espoused for a long time now and you call it your personal board of directors. Just like a corporate board, you have different board members that bring a different perspective. They may have some inside knowledge of the organization. They may have a particular technical domain that’s important. They may have a marketplace view or something like that. But you need to construct that personal board of directors in a way that can be adapted as the environment changes, like the political environment might change in your company. Maybe not everybody on your board of directors is a sponsor, but many of those probably are and many others probably could be a sponsor even if they are not [able] to help you through those kind of transitions. Because quite honestly, when a transition like that occurs—a change of leadership in a company, an acquisition, whatever it could be—that’s when you need that sponsorship the most. You can’t nest all of your eggs in the basket with one sponsor. That’s why you need to have some breadth and some diversity of your sponsorship in order to be successful over a sustained period of time.

Tanya Ott: What are some of the interesting or innovative things that you’ve seen perhaps your clients doing on the diversity and inclusion front that maybe aren’t sponsorship?

Neda Shemluck: A lot of companies are transitioning from the conversation around diversity to inclusion. Diversity really focused on, “How do we get a better representation?” Inclusion is a broadly encompassing culture of, “How do we create an environment where all perspectives, all types of people, are included in the conversation and their voice is heard?” And so, we’re seeing that shift across many of our clients, in many organizations. And this is really powerful because again, it makes everyone part of the solution rather than these various groups trying to solve on their own.

Monica O’Reilly: It is morphed and changed. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago there was a focus on, “Oh, we need to bring women together and have women talk to women.” Focus on ensuring that women have a voice for each other, but mostly in these sort of isolated opportunities where there were programs, I want to call them, that were around advancement. And the workplace has evolved now to understand that you don’t do these separate programs in and of themselves and think that everything is going to change. It’s making sure that it is embedded within the inclusion environment and ensuring that from an inclusion perspective, it’s about the whole person, not just about gender.

Neda Shemluck: We’ve seen clients, both in the US and abroad, that have some really, really big targets. Transparency is a really big part of the challenge because frankly, we [as a society] don’t like to acknowledge that we haven’t made the progress we probably would have wanted to see over the years. So, some companies are taking a big stake and saying that these are the numbers we are trying to achieve. And there are actually some banks that have said we want 50 percent women in leadership, and in doing so, got really creative about what that meant in terms of being able to recruit women into leadership roles. And so there is a lot of innovation. We’re seeing that in boards as well, whereas historically, you would look for any member of a board to be a former CEO. That’s a very short list that you can pick from. And so how do you change the dynamics in the first place to be able to allow that greater pipeline into either leadership roles or board roles. That has been an interesting turn as well.

Monica O’Reilly: Yes. And I would say one of the things that has evolved in the thinking of that is, women tend to leave the workforce at particular milestones. It tends to be primarily when there’s a change of having a child or starting a family or something like that. It’s well known, that rate is much higher than you would [find among men]. And companies now are looking at, “How do we make it easier for women to come back into the workforce if they decide to take time to raise a family or whatever?” And there are more opportunities now that I see what companies are doing around that. For example, apprenticeships—bringing women in to learn the ropes of a different job or get up to speed on new technology since they’ve been out of the workforce. And we’re going to start to see even more of that.

Tanya Ott: So, we’re having this conversation in 2020. I want you to fast forward to 2030, 10 years from now. If we were checking back with you on this podcast and talking about this topic, what would you hope you’d be able to say?

Kenny Smith: Neda made a point around transparency a moment ago, and by the way, there is a tremendous amount of pressure around transparency in the marketplace, public company boards and things like that. I would hope in 2030 that we can look back and say, we do have a much greater level of parity. And maybe that it’s not 50/50, maybe it’s 60/40. Whatever the marketplace needs at the time and whatever the expectation or the demand in the marketplace, it will continue to drive this. And the progress that we’ve made over the last few years has really been driven, not out of the sense of doing good, but out of the sense of responding to an open marketplace that requires a more diverse workforce. And so, I’m hoping that we are able to close this gap dramatically in the next 10 years.

Neda Shemluck: In 10 years I would like to know that my daughter has grown up in a workforce where gender didn’t even show up in the conversation as a topic. That we are focused on the best and the brightest, which we are today, driving an outcome or solution into our businesses. And so that would be my hope, that she grows up in a workforce where this isn’t even a topic anymore.

Monica O’Reilly: I agree. I want the best and the brightest to be able to get the leadership roles, and for every woman who aspires to stay in the workforce and to climb the leadership ranks to be able to do so [without] gender being part of that equation.

Tanya OttKenny Smith is the US Financial Services Industry Leader for Deloitte LLP. Monica O’Reilly is Managing Partner for the Financial Services US Risk Advisory practice at Deloitte & Touche LLP. Neda Shemluck is Managing Director for Client and Market Growth in the United States for Deloitte Services LP.

You can find more about women in financial services—there are reports, videos, podcasts, and all kinds of resources at

The Press Room podcast is available where you get your podcasts, online at and on Twitter at @deloitteinsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be back here again in two weeks.

This podcast is produced by Deloitte. The views and opinions expressed by podcast speakers and guests are solely their own and do not reflect the opinions of Deloitte. This podcast provides general information only and is not intended to constitute advice or services of any kind. For additional information about Deloitte, go to

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