A helping hand: sponsorship programmes
Corporations on both sides of the Atlantic are introducing formal sponsorship programmes to propel women and other under-represented groups into very senior roles. Law firms that want to boost diversity at the top of their organisations and improve their business performance should take note. In the US, notes Deborah Epstein Henry, founder and president of US-based legal consultants Flex-Time Lawyers LLC, sponsorship programmes are becoming ‘a hot topic that law firms are considering now that corporate America has begun to adopt them’.
There is growing interest in the UK, too. At a recent international ‘women in law’ summit in London, organised by the Law Society, 66% of women attending the event indicated in a straw poll that they backed firms introducing formal sponsorship schemes.
Sponsorship - seen as a US import and not to be confused with law firms’ funding of students - is not the same as mentoring, which involves senior members of an organisation advising and providing feedback to more junior staffers on their careers. Sponsors boost protégés’ visibility, provide ‘stretch’ opportunities, and talk them up to important clients, which in law firms would mean preparing them for partnership.
As Eleanor Tabi Haller-Jorden, general manager of Catalyst in Europe, puts it: ‘Sponsors can supercharge a woman’s career by giving her access to essential networks, bringing her achievements to the attention of senior level executives, and also recommending her for key assignments.’ Catalyst, a US non-profit organisation set up to expand opportunities for women among its 400-plus member companies, found in its most recent research, Sponsoring Women to Success, that ‘effective sponsorship is critical’ to ensure that women and minority ethnic employees are noticed by senior-level executives and are considered for the most senior roles.
The idea behind a formal - as opposed to informal - sponsorship arrangement is to increase fairness and transparency. One key problem is that when left to themselves, patrons tend to champion proteges who are carbon copies of themselves. As University of Leicester Professor Hilary Sommerlad puts it: ‘Who are the powerful people in most of these organisations? On the whole, they are middle-class white men and they tend to back young, middle-class white men.’
‘We tend to be more comfortable with people who remind us of ourselves,’ adds Haller-Jorden. ‘We see that bias all the time and it’s not only in sponsorship - it’s in recruitment, it’s in promotion and it’s in configuring a team.’ The EU’s consultation on whether to bring in mandatory quotas for women in company boardrooms is adding to the impetus for companies to take action. ‘A growing number of Catalyst members across Europe have decided that, by going the formal and official route, they may be able to circumvent some of the implicit bias that seems to prevail in all of these other approaches,’ says Haller-Jorden.
This bias may explain why women only account for 23% of partners in law firms in England and Wales and only 4.4% of partners are from black, asian and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, according to the Law Society’s 2011 Diversity and Inclusion Charter report.
Large firms are the worst performers: women account for a greater proportion of the partnership in small practices - 38% compared with 22% for the large players. With respect to BME solicitors, the contrast is even greater: in small firms, they represent 17.8% of partners, compared with just 4.4% in large firms. Sundeep Bhatia, Law Society Council member for diversity, explains: ‘BME solicitors are coming through but they are not progressing above a certain level. A lot of them end up being sole practitioners because they hit the glass ceiling.’ Bhatia would like to see more structured efforts that push BME and women lawyers to the very top: ‘Firms adopting these initiatives are showing their commitment to diversity,’ he says.
Sponsorship v mentoring
Enthusiasm for sponsorship is driven by the conviction that it provides a level of backing to would-be organisation leaders which is missing from other talent management approaches, such as mentoring. Haller-Jorden recounts how a woman recently told her that, despite being ‘mentored to death’, she had made little progress in her career. She notes that despite much focus on mentoring, for long regarded as ‘one of the critical features of a diversity and inclusion strategy’, women have not risen to the top.
Catalyst found that lack of access for ‘critical networks’ and to ‘compelling role models’ who might advocate the career progression of under-represented groups were a real barrier. Talented women and BME employees tend to be excluded from informal - yet crucial - networks: for example, in the legal world, mixing with partners over a game of golf or socialising over drinks after work. ‘It seems to us that, based on our research, sponsorship was the missing ingredient,’ says Haller-Jorden.
While a sponsor can also be a mentor, Haller-Jorden stresses that the ‘level of public endorsement’ is what differentiates one from the other. ‘Mentoring tends to be in that psycho-social development space where people have a mentor to whom they can say: “I am thinking of moving in this direction. Do you think that makes sense or can you give me a bit of feedback in terms of how I came across in that meeting”? Sponsorship has this element of public advocacy, whereby an individual is explicitly supported and endorsed, whether for developmental or promotional opportunities,’ she adds.
Henry concurs: ‘Sponsorship has really become the new focal point - and the idea behind having high potential women backed by very significant power brokers is really critical to get women onto the next step.’
Sponsorship and law firms
There are no formal sponsorship programmes in place in law firms on either side of the Atlantic, but Sommerlad states: ‘Informal practices have been around in organisations, not just law firms, for decades, whereby powerful senior people act as the unofficial patrons of more junior people.’ Elaine Aarons, senior partner at Withers, concurs: ‘Sponsorship goes on all the time in law firms. It is under the radar.’ Sponsors - or patrons - decide who is going to be put on a team for the most exciting big transaction that comes in, who is going to be on the pitch team, and whose name is going to be put forward for partnership, according to Aarons.
Aarons has herself had sponsors both from within the firm and from clients.
‘The sponsorship I have benefited from in my career has been absolutely crucial,’ she says. ‘What a formal programme does is move sponsorship from being haphazard and almost accidental to being something that is more thoughtful. If you structured it properly, you could reduce some of the favouritism.’
Emma Spitz of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, who coaches female lawyers, reckons that sponsorship would be particularly beneficial to women because they, unlike men, are notoriously bad at promoting themselves. ‘For many women, it’s almost as if they have always achieved through hard work, conscientiousness, and talent. They think work speaks for itself. A sponsor can really help women by making sure that it’s not just about what they produce, but also who knows about the work they do and that they take the credit for it.’
A sponsor can also address specific problems that under-represented groups experience, owing to a lack of personal links with power brokers in a firm, and which will impact upon a partnership’s collegiate decision-making process. ‘If you just rely on the voice of your direct line manager, the partner who gives you the most work, that could be quite a lone voice in a room full of partners. Whereas if you have that voice plus the voice of a sponsor within the firm who really knows you and who can vouch for you that could be incredibly helpful,’ says Spitz.
There are clearly some good arguments for establishing formal sponsorship in a law firm, but how would it work? Henry says: ‘Sponsorship really requires a connection where the senior individual is so enthralled by the junior person that they want to put their name behind that person.’ This can be achieved by matching people up through work assignments. ‘It’s a very easy way to test out whether these relationships work and whether that senior lawyer really wants to endorse and back that individual lawyer,’ says Henry, adding: ‘It is, of course, not just the quality of the work and knowing that somebody is smart and hard-working, but it is also the manner in which they do their work.’ For example, somebody who demonstrates team-player and leadership qualities and is sophisticated in dealing with clients and colleagues.
Bhatia concurs, noting: ‘The person pushed forward has to be competent and have experience in that particular partner’s area of work. It can’t be like a blind date.’ And this leads to another crucial point. A recent study ‘Diversity in the Legal Profession in England and Wales’, commissioned by the Legal Services Board suggests that women and BME lawyers suffer in promotions because they tend not to be given the same opportunities as their white male colleagues, including the better-quality work projects. Sommerlad, the project director and lead author of the report, explains that this has also been found to be the case in US law firms, where such lawyers are described as ‘flatliners’ because of the tendency for them to be restricted to routine work, thereby limiting their career prospects.
Sommerlad further argues that this failure, albeit not deliberate, to allocate work ‘equitably’ to under-represented groups like BME and women lawyers should be addressed by formal talent management schemes. So, at what stage in a solicitor’s career should sponsorship kick in? Spitz suggests that sponsorship should be introduced in law firms at mid-associate level before, or as women are promoted to, senior associate, which would be about three years before they would be considered for partnership. ‘It’s at that point when you start getting the more interesting work and you might see that your male colleagues are getting more challenging deals than you. If you just wait to catch people as they are coming up to partner you are in danger that you will have lost too many of the talented people before that point.’
Identifying the talent you want to be sponsoring also requires monitoring and understanding the career paths of solicitors in the firm. Haller-Jorden says: ‘Before you consider any talent management strategy, you need to know the demographics of your own law firm and whether there is any differentiation in the rate of progression of men and women, for example, and why. Do a very careful analysis. It’s astonishing to me sometimes how little corporations know about their own demographics.’
Another challenge is ensuring that the most powerful people in law firms find the time - and the motivation - to sponsor their proteges. Take mentoring. ‘I have found mentoring programmes to be quite patchy in law firms,’ Aarons notes. ‘The more successful partners sometimes find it quite difficult to carve out the time required for mentoring programmes.
‘How are you going to get to a position where the partners who are supposed to be doing the sponsoring really think that this is going to be seen as a core and important part of what they do and not just a new fad that the firm has introduced?’ she asks.
The answer is two-fold: establish buy-in among top managers of the diversity business case; and create incentives for individuals acting as sponsors. Organisations could benefit from linking sponsorship programmes to talent management systems, that is, programmes that aim to recruit, retain and develop high-performing employees. This can be done via ‘succession planning or with explicit ties to performance reviews’, according to Catalyst. Law firms could, for example, make an hour of ‘real sponsorship’ a month part of the billable hour target, Sommerlad suggests.
Deutsche Bank, which has introduced a pioneering sponsorship programme (see case study box), includes sponsoring in top executives’ performance appraisals, though they do not have to meet specific sponsoring targets. But more important for the bank was an appreciation by senior executives of the broader business advantages of formal sponsorship. ‘There was an understanding that if we reflected our client base and we had diverse teams we’d make smarter decisions and that would bring us a competitive advantage,' explains Sarah Burgess, vice president and diversity specialist for the bank in the UK. ‘This led the group executive committee to understand the business case,’ she adds, referring to the bank’s top management.
Deutsche Bank employs more than 100,000 people globally and clearly such a highly structured programme would not suit much smaller organisations. Bhatia says that sponsorship would be more feasible in medium-sized and large law firms. ‘It is not going to work with Joe Bloggs down the high street,’ he says. And in any case, as research shows, small firms are not the big problem.
Furthermore, there is no hard-and-fast model that has to be reproduced and firms need to be flexible and creative in introducing sponsorship so it suits the size and culture of the organisation. Haller-Jorden says: ‘The form that the sponsorship might take in the context of a legal environment might have features that would be very unique and specific to the law firm culture but I think it’s a terrific opportunity to challenge, from the get-go, some of the assumptions around how and why promotion takes place.’
And for any decision-makers concerned that launching sponsorship schemes is inappropriate in these tough economic times, she adds: ‘We hear over and over from our corporate members that they are struggling to find the talent that they need.’ Deutsche Bank’s Burgess concludes: ‘I would definitely encourage organisations to develop something along the formal sponsorship line. I am a firm believer that sponsorship really is a key to women progressing to senior levels. Mentoring alone is not enough because of the door-opening and the strong advocacy that needs to go on.’
Marialuisa Taddia is a freelance journalist
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