Sponsorship: An intentional strategy for diversity in leadership
The World Economic Forum states that “none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes nor likely will many of our children…gender parity will not be attained for 99.5 years.”1
If there ever was a call to action, these figures should motivate us. And if more convincing is needed, consider these figures from the Forum: “Just 1% of Fortune 500 companies [are] led by Black chief executives”2 and there are “no Black executives in the top three roles of the UK’s FTSE 100 firms.”3
The question then becomes, how can we effect change more quickly and change this landscape? Because 99.5 years is just not acceptable.
In an attempt to level the playing field, Deloitte is looking to use sponsorship—one of the three pillars underpinning its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) strategy—as a mechanism to bring about change. But what do we mean by sponsorship?
Often the terms sponsorship and mentorship are used interchangeably. But in order to impact the diversity of senior leadership, with a particular focus on gender and race, it is important to recognise that they are not the same thing. Mentoring provides an opportunity to share in the knowledge and experience of your mentor, whereas sponsorship is a more directed, driven, intentional relationship. A sponsor advocates and creates opportunities for their beneficiary, empowering and enabling career advancement with a guided hand. A sponsor is invested in the relationship and acts as a protector.
These relationships form quite naturally for those in the organisation who look like the existing senior leadership team, with unconscious bias often impacting how an individual is selected and advocated for. This can lead to a resounding cycle of the same profiles in leadership roles—despite the development of intentional sponsorship schemes.
Instead, there needs to be an opportunity to build relationships and sponsor talent that is the polar opposite in gender and race to the established leadership, ensuring that these candidates are able to push through barriers. Achieving diverse leadership requires a deliberate strategy that connects diverse talent with senior leaders who can advocate on their behalf.
Constructing deliberate relationships with intentional outcomes
Relationships are at the heart of sponsorship. But these relationships are not transactional. On the contrary, they are long-term and need to be cultivated and nurtured. A good sponsorship relationship is built over time with a willingness of the sponsor to use their influence, reputation, and ultimate decision-making power to clear the path for the beneficiary to develop and rise. This requires a commitment from senior management to facilitate and develop these relationships (despite the current restraints of remote working).
We have reached a point where, if we are to effect change, we must be the ones to effect it. At Deloitte, this means senior leaders taking to heart the 2021 Women’s History Month theme of #choosetochallenge. On a global scale, Deloitte leaders are choosing not only change but sponsorship in the battle against underrepresentation.
When all is said and done—and there is a diverse leadership team—how do we create an environment in which these leaders will want to remain? The sense of belonging is so powerful at this juncture. Actions at this level need to be authentic—from the projects assigned to the opportunities provided—ensuring there are no hidden agendas or unknowing pitfalls. Sponsorship needs to continue, directing underrepresented talent to projects that stretch, grow, and develop the skills they need to achieve the next level of management.
Without even crunching the data there should be a visible difference in how the leadership team looks. Successful sponsorship means employees can look to the top of the organization and see role models that look like them. And while there would still be a need to gather and analyze data, it will be more important to capture the experiences and stories of those newly appointed to leadership that can inform the development of policies, practices, and strategy.
Achieving diversity in leadership is now a global imperative, recognised by world organisations as a driving force that can affect the communities and markets in which they operate. Sponsorship is a strategy, but it cannot exist in isolation. There are so many factors that can impact the success of diverse leadership, including a sense of belonging, a genuine willingness to create a path to successful development, and an understanding that diversity is not an end in itself. But by wholeheartedly backing and supporting sponsorship, there is a hope that, despite the 99.5 years WEF estimates, gender and racial parity can indeed be achieved in our lifetimes.