Succeeding at sponsorship
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.
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:
Protégés’ responsibilities can include:
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.
A formal sponsorship program offers significant benefits for firms:
For protégés, the advantages include:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.
The committee in charge of the program should develop goals before launch, then evaluate progress at regular intervals. Objectives may vary but commonly include:
Questions to consider include:
A stronger pipeline
Has the pool of potential leaders improved since the program began? Factors to make this determination can include:
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’
Coach (performance adviser): ‘Talks to you’
Sponsor: ‘Talks about you’
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.
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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