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Sandra Guzman

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Can sponsorship help the female talent pipeline?

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Women are entering the consulting industry in unprecedented numbers, but the proportion of them who’ve made it to the top of the organisation remains small. Source Information Services and nbi recently teamed up to try and understand why.

“Having to sell my soul”

Two-thirds of the 40 senior people in leading consulting firms around the world who we interviewed for our research think that consulting is a difficult profession for women.

On top of the usual reasons given – the long working hours, amount of travel, etc. – many of the women we spoke to felt that the values they associated with being a partner in a consulting firm weren’t ones they could subscribe to, “like having to sell my soul”, was how one memorably female partner described it. 

While almost three quarters had received active encouragement to go for promotion to partner, only a quarter thought that the promotion process itself was gender-neutral. The partner election process was seen to have a highly subjective component to it.

“You have to have top grades to become a principal but, when it comes to promotion to partner, everyone is in the top or second band which means that the objective component has been removed and the subjective takes precedence,” said one interviewee.

“The partnership has to decide whether it wants to have this person, whether making a partner seems fair, and whether they want to work with the person. It’s a bit like playing in the right sport,” they added.

The right strategy and support?

Moreover, strategies and types of support that helped women progress through the middle ranks of consulting firms were seen to be less useful at the partner level.

In particular, mentoring, which almost one in five of our interviews said they’d benefited from at some point during their career, was seen to be less useful than sponsorship (and only 40% had had a sponsor).  This was because mentoring concentrates on developing the candidate’s skills, and on helping them understand and meet the performance and behavioural standards of their organisations.

Sponsorship, by contrast, was viewed as focusing as much on other people as the candidates themselves.

The best sponsors were very senior people with broad networks of similarly influential people, people who could promote the interests of an individual, who’d ‘lean in’ on their behalf, as Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, put it.

“I think women can really just work hard but get nowhere unless they have somebody who gives them broader chances and opens up new opportunities,” commented one person we spoke to, “somebody who speaks for them, and who’s prepared to allow them the flexibility they need at the right time in their careers.” 

The sponsorship strategy?

Sponsors offer more practical advice: who to see, what to do, how to negotiate internal politics. 

“It wasn’t fluffy,” was how one person we spoke to described sponsorship. “It wasn’t about deep career stuff. It was more, ‘You have to do this’. I got quite lucky with a strong sponsor who was very good at telling me what was on the horizon, what I should be ready for, who I should speak to.” 

Sponsorship is often also a more active process, rather than a reactive one: it looks forwards to what happens next rather than responds to what’s happened.

The best sponsors are men?

This means that – perhaps counter-intuitively – some of the best sponsors of female partner candidates are men, precisely because they’ve got a good understanding of what makes the still male-dominated upper echelons of these organisations tick.  They’re also, our interviews suggested, more likely to be seen as disinterested, and of course, it’s a numbers game: there are simply more senior men to choose from. 

That doesn’t, of course, mean we don’t need women at the top: that it’s important to have role models is widely understood, but our research also suggests that senior women are like magnets, they attract other women to work for them and that the mutually-supporting network that emerges from having more than a handful of token women on a team often provides a crucial foundation from which to aim for partnership.

But, because such groups are often few and far between, they complement, rather than replace sponsorship.

“I was off on maternity leave for most of my partner process,” recalled one interviewee.

“In all honesty I came into the firm from maternity leave and said ‘it’s not going to work, is it? I can’t do it.’ It was active support, active help that alleviated the barriers. Having people sponsoring and supporting me has been a massive help.”

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