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Sponsorship Can Drive Diversity In The Workplace

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Early in my career, I had one of those painful learning experiences we wish we could forget ever happened (because it didn't need to).

A leader in the company I was working for took me under their wing, which was initially exciting. I was hard-working, conscientious, and full of good ideas and ambition to put into practice, and here I thought I was getting my chance to put it all to work. Too quickly, however, my naïve excitement turned to disbelief: for what seemed like no rational reason, my "sponsor" was deliberately denying me access to learning opportunities, deceiving me about important activities that could have been beneficial to my success, setting me up to take the fall for their own failures, and generally making my life hell.

I'm not exaggerating. And nor am I exaggerating to say that I have heard tales exactly like mine from countless other women with whom it has since been my great privilege to work in the intervening years.

It doesn't need to be this way. Both in terms of formal programs and corporate philosophy, genuine sponsorship is known to be effective at accelerating careers; but, unlike more established mentorship programs, is not at all widely used.

So, when a few great women at my current workplace asked what we could do to push the needle forward on diversity, we knew this was a golden opportunity to find out why sponsorship hasn't quite taken off, and what could be done about it.

Enter Diversahack, a hackathon-inspired event put on in a collaboration between Deloitte, Dentons, HSBC, and the Ontario Public Service with the aim to develop a sponsorship strategy capable of propelling women to senior executive positions at leading Canadian organizations. Participants were placed in mixed-firm teams and tasked with "hacking" the problem. Each team submitted a proposal to a panel of judges comprised of leaders from each of the participating firms, out of which one winner emerged.

Plenty of research has shown that organizations whose leadership is gender-balanced outperform those whose isn't. Meanwhile, the benefits of sponsorship are clear: 68 percent of sponsored women report satisfaction with the pace of their career advancement, compared with only 57 percent of women who do not have a sponsor. Among women with children, those numbers are 85 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

Surely something can be done to narrow this gap.

As it happens, Diversahack's winning team landed on a Hunger Games analogy. That's because it's honestly fair to say that competition for sponsors is fierce with scarce resources in a cut-throat world. And they, like Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen, wanted to "end the games," instead focusing on the needs on the sponsoree.

But how? By flipping two core orthodoxies, namely (1) that sponsorship is a one-to-one relationship and (2) that the sponsor picks the protégé.

More specifically, they proposed a three-part strategy:

1. In order to ensure that people of both genders have the chance to shine, an organization would identify top talent and provide them with a platform to showcase their skills -- such as placement on a cross-functional team assigned to a business-critical project. This pool of protégés would then be given the opportunity to pick sponsors by asking them to join the team, in turn allowing the protégés to develop important relationships with numerous sponsors. Rather than building a one-to-one relationship, then, sponsors would effectively manage a roster of protégés.

2. Next, senior leaders who set the example as sponsors would be rewarded with opportunities to work on interesting projects, participate on committees or boards, and grow their own profiles. And to encourage inclusive and diverse sponsorship relationships, successes would be shared and celebrated.

3. Finally, sponsors would receive training on the importance of diversity, the impact of sponsorship, how to be a good coach, how to sponsor women specifically, and key barriers women face in their professional lives. Protégés, meanwhile, would be educated on the importance of having a sponsor, how to be a good protégé, how to build relationships with male sponsors, and how to leverage the relationship. And people across the organization would be educated on the importance of diversity, the power of sponsorship relationships, and how they can incorporate those relationships into their own roles.

It's quite literally win-win-win (and then some).

The kicker is that organizations seem to understand how to craft effective sponsorship programs and strategies. That isn't the reason for the dystopian implications of their impact. The real challenge seems to be in building an effective business cases for sponsorship, the kind that win executive buy-in and prioritization.

While every organization has to decide for itself how to move forward, I believe the truth is this: the more strongly executive's performance is rewarded for driving inclusive outcomes, the more likely they will be to champion the initiatives with the most impact.

This is true even when those initiatives are harder and require change and effort on the part of the leaders, because we know that's what works. Isn't that what we all want? For this to work?

It's good for business, because it helps unleash your talent to bring their best to work each day. About this, too, I can speak from experience: eventually I have found many genuine sponsors along the way who not only see potential in me but also advocate and champion my work and put me forward for stretch assignments I couldn't even see on my path. Imagine how much energy I spend working for those leaders versus the former? And I'm loving it, too, and am actively paving the way for others.

Carolyn Lawrence is a Toronto-based senior manager in Deloitte's Consulting practice, and the leader in gender diversity and inclusion. She can be reached at clawrence@deloitte.ca. For more information about sponsorship and Diversahack 2016, read the report "Sponsorship advances top talent, so why aren't we using it?"

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