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Why sponsorship is key for women's career progression

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Consulting firms have made huge strides in recent years in order to attract higher numbers of women into the industry. Whether they've gotten better at keeping them is more debatable.

Consulting is an inherently difficult industry for women who are juggling families with work. The amount of travel, the antisocial hours, and the perceived need to put clients above any personal considerations all make it hard to manage other commitments. The pinch point tends to come just around the time women are starting on the road to becoming partners. As a result, the proportion of women who’ve make it to the top of their organisation remains depressingly small.

Source Information Services and nbi recently teamed up to look at what could be done to help women through this challenging period.

While almost three quarters of the 40 senior people in leading consulting firms around the world who we interviewed for our research had received active encouragement to go for promotion to partner, only a quarter thought that the promotion process itself was gender-neutral. 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 per cent 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.”

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.

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.”

Fiona Czerniawska

By Fiona Czerniawska

Fiona Czerniawska is the founder of Source Information Services

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