Succeeding at sponsorship

Firms can thrive by matching talented up-and-comers with leaders who advocate for them.
By Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA, and Anita Dennis

Succeeding at sponsorship
Image by mangsaab/iStock

Kassi Rushing, director of people growth and engagement at HORNE LLP, speaks fondly of her firm's launch of a sponsorship program aimed at ensuring a strong and diverse pool of talent in its leadership pipeline.

"It's one of the best decisions we've ever made," she said.

A formal sponsorship program can help firms retain their best people and ensure there are professionals ready to replace retiring leaders, especially as the large Baby Boomer generation moves into retirement. Yet, despite the many advantages of formal sponsorship programs, just 12% of CPA firms have them, according to the 2017 CPA Firm Gender Survey, a publication of the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee (WIEC).

Firms without programs seem to be missing out on a lot. Almost all (97%) of the firms surveyed that do have formal programs said they thought the initiatives had an impact on a firm's ability to attract and retain talent.

A formal sponsorship or advocacy program can help professionals reach their goals and make valuable contributions to their firm. Formal programs help firms identify rising stars, raise their visibility, and set them on a path to leadership.

WHAT IS SPONSORSHIP?

The sidebar (see "Mentor, Coach, or Sponsor?") at the bottom of the page offers detailed information, but in short a sponsor is someone who uses his or her own influence to raise the visibility of and expand the opportunities for a selected protégé, as this article refers to people being sponsored. It is less of a one-to-one role than a mentor or coach, but one that can be pivotal in securing advancement opportunities for a promising professional.

Sponsor responsibilities will typically include:

  • Making a commitment to positively influencing the protégé's career.
  • Developing a trusting relationship with the protégé that allows the sponsor to understand the protégé's strengths and career goals.
  • Offering advice on the best ways to reach short- and long-term goals.
  • Identifying training or other firm or external programs that can enhance protégés' abilities.
  • Being alert for assignments, promotions, or other opportunities that can help protégés reach their goals, and actively advocating on their behalf.

Protégés' responsibilities can include:

  • Identifying their short- and long-term career goals and articulating them in honest conversations with the sponsor. To enhance this process, protégés should learn about the firm's career paths and opportunities from the sponsor or other sources.
  • Understanding the sponsor's role and the investment in the protégé's career that the sponsor is making.
  • Working to make the most of the opportunities that sponsorship offers.
  • Maintaining a strong working relationship with the sponsor.
  • Reaching any goals set with the sponsor.

To ensure success, firms should create a monitoring process that holds the sponsor accountable for helping achieve his or her protégé's goals. The sponsor's work should be included in the sponsor's performance evaluation.

WHAT'S THE VALUE OF A SPONSORSHIP PROGRAM?

A formal sponsorship program offers significant benefits for firms:

  • It can help you build a robust bench and solidify your succession pipelines by growing team members faster. When firms are intentional in providing all team members access to influencers, opportunities, and training, team members progress faster in their career track. Professionals with sponsors — both male and female — are more satisfied with their advancement and more likely to ask for stretch assignments, according to a Harvard Business Review research report.
  • It minimizes the impact of top talent turnover because it helps identify your top talent early on, communicate how valued they are, and take proactive steps in promoting their advancement.
  • It can make the advancement to leadership more transparent and diverse. Many talented people can be overlooked due to "affinity bias," in which people — despite good intentions — choose to work with others with whom they have important characteristics in common or who are most like them. As a result, talented women and minorities may not receive the sponsorship they need in firms whose partners are predominantly white men. A formal process that intentionally includes a diversity of talent helps guarantee that the firm benefits from the contributions of the entire talent pool and that gifted professionals are not overlooked.
  • It gives high-potential professionals a better understanding of the skills they need for advancement, making it more likely they'll be able to progress within the firm.
  • When firm leaders invest time in employees' careers, it can help foster an inclusive culture and cultivate a sense of belonging, creating an environment that enhances morale and staff engagement.

For protégés, the advantages include:

  • Greater visibility in the firm. Talented people have champions who discuss their accomplishments and potential with other leaders informally and when important career advancement decisions are being made.
  • Access to stretch assignments and other career-building opportunities. Sponsors look out for choice assignments for their protégés. The protégés' added visibility also helps get them noticed when promotions or other opportunities arise.
  • Exposure to high-powered firm leaders. Protégés gain new perspective from sponsors who are veteran leaders and through introduction to other members of management.
  • Insights on navigating the political climate of the firm. Protégés can gain valuable insider knowledge of how the firm works at the top levels.

A recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation showed that sponsors experience numerous benefits from participating in these programs. About two-thirds (66%) of sponsors said they are satisfied with their ability to deliver on difficult projects, compared with 53% of nonsponsors. And 87% of sponsors report being very engaged at work, compared with 73% of nonsponsors. Sponsors who participate:

  • Raise their own visibility.
  • Establish their own leadership abilities. Grooming those following in your footsteps is what differentiates leaders from managers. Sponsorship is a great way to achieve leadership recognition within the organization.
  • Can gain new perspectives from talented emerging leaders. Sponsors may better understand changing expectations — and the strengths — of next-generation talent and gain ideas on how to create an inclusive culture.
  • Can become better attuned to the expectations of the next generation of client leadership.
  • Achieve satisfaction paying it forward to the profession and organization by helping others the same way the sponsor may have been helped and ensuring that the firm is in good hands with the next generation of leaders.

HOW ARE PARTICIPANTS SELECTED?

The WIEC CPA Firm Sponsorship Success Toolkit recommends beginning with a committee to oversee the program. According to the toolkit, "this group can review applications, interview prospective protégés, and evaluate matches. It can also determine if the protégé would benefit from another option — such as mentoring or internal or external coaching or training in business development or certain soft skills — rather than sponsorship."

At BPM LLP, for example, which prefers the term "advocacy," the effort is just one part of the firm's culture of inclusion, development, and advancement. One way advocacy is accomplished is through the firm's NextGen program for partner-track professionals. "Twice a year, we identify high-performance, high-potential people who are on the partner track," said Beth Baldwin, the firm's chief people officer. The firm uses a nine-box grid that evaluates performance and potential in demonstrating leadership, shaping firm culture, and showing the ability to take on greater responsibility.

At HORNE, potential protégés are evaluated against six criteria:

  • An interest in committing to a deeper exploration of long-term career opportunities with the firm.
  • A track record of success within the firm.
  • A passion for self-development and commitment to continuous improvement.
  • An immediate (or urgent) need to increase visibility and gain a broader perspective within their career and network.
  • Evidence that the individual has made the effort to understand the nature of sponsorship and the intent of the firm's sponsorship program by seeking out available information and contacts.
  • Senior associate or above, and internal and external client-serving professionals are eligible. When considering whether to include less-experienced staff, HORNE's Rushing notes that sponsorship may not be as productive if the professional is unable to articulate his or her goals and work with a sponsor to create a developmental plan.

Depending on firm preferences, protégés may nominate themselves, be nominated by others, or both. And those who are not nominated don't need to worry that they have no future with the firm. If they don't get identified for formal sponsorship now, they may be selected later. And it's possible to become a partner without going through the sponsorship program.

HOW ARE MATCHES MADE?

When it comes to matching protégés with sponsors, there are two best practices. In every case, sponsors should be excited about prospective protégés' potential and playing a part in their advancement. Possibilities include:

  • The participants choose: It's not a requirement for sponsors and protégés to have similar backgrounds or personalities, but developing a trusting relationship is a necessity.
  • The firm decides: Because avoiding affinity bias is a major goal of formal programs, no matter how matches are made, firms should carefully monitor and vet these selections to ensure there is a diverse group of protégés. That includes monitoring whether those who don't normally receive sponsorship — usually women and minorities — are included.

WHAT ARE SOME KEYS TO SUCCESS?

Communication and transparency are critical, according to firms with existing programs. "We communicate very intentionally over and over and over," Rushing said. Proper communication makes it possible to accomplish many other key steps to success, including:

  • Setting guidelines and expectations: Written guidelines, as well as a set of FAQs, are highly recommended. All communication should discuss how the program benefits the entire firm by enhancing employees' chances to advance and contribute to a successful, inclusive practice. The communication should describe the application or selection process and include contact details for more information, as well as expectations for sponsors and protégés. The WIEC CPA Firm Sponsorship Success Toolkit includes information that can be used to communicate about a firm's program. It includes protégé and sponsor questionnaires, a protégé self-assessment for the matching process, and a sponsorship program sponsor/protégé debriefing.
  • Promoting engagement: HORNE's goal in communication to sponsors is to keep the program and its goals top of mind. To boost enthusiasm for the program, "we try to make it personal by encouraging sponsors to recall the people who helped them get where they are today," Rushing said.

Communication for protégés includes a video, blog posts, and an FAQ that explain the program's value. "People often lack an understanding of what sponsorship can mean to their careers," Rushing said. "They may even wonder if having a sponsor will make them look weak," so the firm's messaging highlights the advantages.

HOW IS SUCCESS MEASURED?

The committee in charge of the program should develop goals before launch, then evaluate progress at regular intervals. Objectives may vary but commonly include:

Retention

Questions to consider include:

  • Has turnover among top talent declined since the program started?
  • Has the program generated excitement among valued, less-experienced staff, who are more likely to stay on board because they may be chosen as protégés in the future?

Recruitment

  • Are experienced or boomerang professionals interested in our sponsorship program? Has there been an impact on recruitment rates?
  • If the firm tracks reasons that people join the firm, how often is the sponsorship program cited?
  • Do potential recruits seem to be aware of the program?

A stronger pipeline

Has the pool of potential leaders improved since the program began? Factors to make this determination can include:

  • Have we identified potential leaders ready to move into management positions in the short or long term? Have they been promoted to new roles?
  • Has the firm been able to strengthen leadership talent in a particular practice area or staff level?
  • Are program protégés getting bonuses for business development or other recognitions of leadership success?

Greater inclusion

  • Has the firm done a better job of holding on to "at-risk" staff — such as women or minorities — whose long-term retention numbers have been low in the past?
  • Have more of these professionals moved into the leadership pipeline?

HOW CAN WE MAINTAIN OUR PROGRESS?

In addition to tracking success measures, the firm should review the program at least annually to see what's working and what isn't, so that the effort is integral to the workplace. BPM also recommends making advocacy — along with inclusion efforts — a part of the culture at all levels of the organization, especially the leadership level. BPM CEO Jim Wallace, CPA, said: "We don't have a partner meeting without talking about advocacy."


Mentor, coach, or sponsor?

A leadership development program is most successful when the relationship between leader and learner is clearly understood.

This resource from the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee CPA Firm Sponsorship Success Toolkit can help firms and their team members better understand the differences among these programs. It is based on Share. Learn. Grow. Mentor. A How-to Guide From the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee.

Many have mentors. Some have coaches. Too few have sponsors. It's important to know the difference.

Mentor: 'Talks with you'

  • A mentoring relationship can exist between two people or within a group for the purpose of career development or navigating the workplace or a particular issue.
  • Often, the relationship is mutually beneficial and nonevaluative, with all parties learning in a purposeful way through sharing knowledge and experiences.
  • A mentor should help you understand yourself and your feedback. A mentor helps develop the mentee's accountability.
  • Mentors can be inside or outside the mentee's organization.

Coach (performance adviser): 'Talks to you'

  • In a coaching relationship, the coach often helps you find your own answers or solutions. The relationship can also be instructional, and sometimes evaluative, with a particular focus, such as developing skills or training someone on a discrete task or series of tasks.
  • A coach may or may not be part of the same organization as the person or group being coached.

Sponsor: 'Talks about you'

  • In a sponsoring relationship, the sponsor has positively evaluated the protégé and intentionally helps him or her gain visibility and get recommended for particular assignments, promotions, or positions, usually in a career- or opportunity-related situation. A sponsor advocates for the individual he or she is sponsoring in critical internal conversations that happen behind closed doors for the most part.
  • A sponsor is almost always a part of the protégé's organization, because, by definition, the sponsor uses his or her organizational influence for the protégé's benefit.

About the authors

Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is senior technical manager—Firm Services & Global Alliances for the Association in North Carolina. Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, the JofA's editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-2112.


AICPA resources

Articles

Toolkit

The Women's Initiatives Executive Committee CPA Firm Sponsorship Success Toolkit, available at aicpa.org, contains a debriefing questionnaire for sponsors and protégés that can help firms evaluate and adjust program guidelines. The toolkit also includes a detailed discussion of the value of a sponsorship program, key issues to consider in creating a program, and questionnaires to be used in selecting and matching sponsors and protégés.

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