Executive sponsorship may be the “silver bullet” for women who aspire to top leadership roles at CPA firms.
It is “a single strategy, already in play at most firms, that addresses many of the factors that shape women’s determination to stay or depart,” according to the 2016 Accounting MOVE Project report, which surveys leading financial and accounting firms to determine the state of women in the industry.
But it is also the most “overlooked tool” for firms trying to increase the number of women at partner and principal level, said Joanne Cleaver, president of Wilson-Taylor Associates Inc., the content and communications firm that manages the Accounting MOVE Project.
Most firms already have a strong culture and formal programs for executive sponsorship, an arrangement in which firm leaders champion top talent at the senior management level. Opening the doors to that will pave the way to partnership.
But for women, significant gaps can undermine the power of sponsorship and mentoring, derailing firm leaders’ expectations for a robust leadership pipeline, Cleaver said. Last year, the Accounting MOVE Project found that while 78 percent of participating firms offer leadership training programs (which typically include a sponsorship element), only 28 percent specifically address training for alternative tracks to partnership, and only 38 percent purposefully rotate rising women through operational roles – a typical goal of executive sponsorship.
“Executive sponsorship for women is a real blind spot for senior leadership because most firms believe they have a culture of sponsorship, but they’re not calling it that or they are sending women mixed messages about how to find a sponsor,” Cleaver said. “If firms want to increase the number of women at partner and principal level, they have to be clear and deliberate about how they use executive sponsorship programs for women.”