How to sponsor diversity in the leadership ranks

A regional accounting firm uses a traditional tool to mix up its traditionally white, male leadership ranks.
By Sabine Vollmer

How to sponsor diversity in the leadership ranks
Photo by Jag_cz/iStock

The results of a firmwide survey three years ago were a wake-up call for the board of directors and executive management at Horne LLP, a Ridgeland, Miss.-based accounting firm with offices across the Southeast and Texas: The way the firm had long retained and developed leadership talent wasn't working.

Women and minorities among Horne's more than 500 employees didn't have the same chances of being promoted because they had less information on how to succeed than their white, male colleagues, the survey results suggested. Women and minorities also had a weaker sense of belonging to the firm, and they were less likely to be able to identify a sponsor in the firm who cared deeply about their career development.

The survey was designed to pinpoint unintentional bias. Its findings alarmed members of Horne's board and executive management, who consider diverse leadership critical for future growth, succession planning, exceptional client service, and talent recruitment.

"For us to be relevant in the future, we have to have a very diverse leadership team, and we cannot continue to show up with half the talent and expect to compete in today's marketplace, especially when our clients are changing, their demographics are changing, their diversity is changing," said Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA, executive partner at Horne.

A BETTER WAY TO DEVELOP LEADERSHIP

Mentorships and sponsorships are traditional go-to tools for accounting firms to develop leadership talent.

Sponsorships are more involved than mentorships—sponsors must be willing to spend political capital, while mentors typically stop at giving advice. Sponsorships have long been used by senior leaders in accounting to promote protégés and help them meet the right people and move up in the firm. However, sponsorships can be an obstacle to diversity when leaders associate with and promote mostly people who remind them of themselves.

To tackle unconscious bias, Horne established a sponsorship program that adds transparency to the advocacy and broadens the likelihood of opening advancement opportunities to seasoned professionals who come from different socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds.

The program recommends do's and don'ts to sponsors and protégés to ensure success. For example, sponsors are encouraged to schedule uninterrupted blocks of time with protégés, practice active listening techniques, and advocate for protégés in situations where they cannot do so for themselves. Protégés are encouraged to openly discuss areas where they feel they need support from a sponsor, ask critical questions, and work with sponsors to increase their interaction, visibility, and peer-level connection with management and partners in their practice area.

As a result of the new approach, "we've seen team members step up in leadership positions who might not have," Havens said. "We see relationships across geographical boundaries from New York to Texas where the sponsor and the protégé are meeting and working together, and they're not even in the same line of business."

The firm is more connected, better able to retain leaders, and positioned to provide clients deeper expertise, he said. "All of that is occurring within our firm, as well as raising up a lot of positive energy."

The process undergirding Horne's sponsorship program is designed to maximize transparency and equal access to all employees and follows these principles:

  • Apply. All Horne employees are encouraged to participate in the sponsorship program, Havens said. Everybody fills out the same form and answers the same questions when applying for one of about a dozen slots per class. A new class starts about every six months and lasts 24 months.
  • Match. Volunteer sponsors and protégés spend one day learning what is expected of them. Protégés come up with goals they hope to achieve through the sponsorship program, for example, how to reach certain career milestones. Then, based on the experiences and insights gained throughout their careers, sponsors are matched with protégés, who hope to accomplish certain goals laid out in individual development plans.The sponsor-protégé relationship is expected to be personal, with both sides willing to be vulnerable and open to feedback, Havens said. Sponsors should spend time in face-to-face meetings with their protégés, listen intently, and provide their protégés with opportunities that open doors. Protégés must be able to trust their sponsors enough to talk about their wishes and fears.
  • Evaluate. Horne contracts with an executive coach who monitors the sponsorship program's effectiveness. The outside consultant interviews sponsors and protégés twice a year about their experiences in the program and delivers an annual progress report on the findings, Havens said.Unlike mentors, who usually coach professionals at the beginning of their careers, sponsors develop close partnerships with their protégés, who tend to be seasoned professionals, and promote them within the firm.

About the author

Sabine Vollmer is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at svollmer@aicpa.org or 919-402-2304.


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