Creating a diverse leadership team with a sponsorship programme

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All companies are in favour of more Diversity & Inclusion. However, in reality, many businesses are struggling to turn theory into practice. In this series of articles, we focus on inspiring practical examples. 

Episode 3: How PwC creates a diverse leadership team with a special sponsorship programme for women and talent from cultural minorities.

A father and his son get into a car accident and are rushed to the hospital to be operated. Unfortunately, the father cannot be saved and dies on the way to the hospital. 

The son however still has a good chance of survival. As he is brought into the operating room the surgeon looks at him and says: “I´m sorry, I am not allowed to operate him, because he is my son.”

This is not a true story but a classic riddle that is often used to demonstrate our unconscious biases. If you have trouble in solving the riddle - and many of us have – that´s because you have a specific image in your mind of what a surgeon is supposed to look like. 

All the way to the top

It´s one of the reasons why it´s more difficult for people who don´t fit that mental picture – for example women and cultural and ethnic minorities – to climb the career ladder all the way to the top.

At the same time companies would like to have a more diverse leadership team, not only because it feels like the right thing to do, but also because diverse teams simply produce better results. 

The question is how you pave the way for woman and talent from various cultural backgrounds to reach the top? The consultancy firm PwC is determined to have 30% female partners and 15% partners from a cultural or ethnic minority by 2030. This is their advice to companies that want to do the same:


Create an inclusive culture

“Everything starts with creating an inclusive company culture,” explains Terence Guiamo, Head of Inclusion & Diversity at PwC. Although he is the first one to admit that´s easier said than done. “Sometimes it´s a matter of changing small things, which can make people feel included. We´ve created, for example, a cultural calendar where people can see the different feast days around the world. That seems insignificant, but some time ago I spoke to a colleague who has a Chinese background who was in a very good mood at the time because one of his co-workers had sent him best wishes for Chinese New Year. People can also exchange a public holiday, like Whit Sunday or Ascension Day, to celebrate another cultural feast day, like the Sugar Feast or Divali.”

At a higher level the company trains directors and partners in inclusive leadership. “It´s about making sure that everyone is being heard, and feels they can give their honest opinion,” says Terence Guiamo. “When you work in teams you tend to agree with the majority, even if you have different opinions. It´s difficult to go against the grain, especially if you are not the most extravert person. That´s why we teach leaders to also get the opinion of that one team member that doesn´t speak up that easy, because she or he just might be right.”


Create a formal sponsor programme

No one reaches the top on her or his own. You need people in senior positions to guide you and introduce you to their network. In the ideal world this happens naturally. “What usually happens is that a senior partner takes a newcomer under his wings, because he reminds him of his younger self,” says Terence Guiamo. “That system obviously doesn´t work if you want to create more diversity and inclusion.” 

So instead of relying on the informal system, the firm created a formal program where all women managers and managers a from cultural or ethnic minority are supported by a so called “sponsor”. The sponsor, one of the senior partners in firm, serves as an advocate who helps them on their first steps towards senior leadership.

“It’s not always easy,” says Terence Guiamo, “because as a sponsor you might have to work with someone who might not always act or think like you. That´s why we teach our leaders not to judge too quickly, and to hold their thought for a moment, because your first impression for someone might be deceiving.”


Offer leaders a cultural awareness training

“We all have certain biases,” explains Terence Guiamo, “that´s just the way we are wired.” That´s why everybody within PwC receives a specific training to become aware of cultural differences. It helps them identifying different cultural behaviors. “For example, as a manager in our company it´s quite common to ask a team member: ´how do you think it´s going? ´ If then you don´t really get an answer, you might jump to the conclusion that your team member is not really engaged or motivated. However, there are cultures where you are not supposed to give your own opinion to your boss. In our training colleagues learn how to deal with these kinds of differences.”


Get the buy-in from the top and measure your goals

If you want your I&D program to be more than a paper tiger, you need to have the absolute support from the company´s leadership. That´s what made our approach at PwC a success.

“The Covid crisis makes things a bit more challenging, but so far the results are ok,” says Terence Guiamo. “Looking at our turnover rate we see that men and women are equal. We are also very attractive for non-western applicants, almost 30% of our applicants have a non-western background. Over 43% have a migration background. The balance between male and female applicants is nearing 50% as well.”

That´s not to say that there´s nothing left to improve. The percentage of female partners and directors is still 18.7% and 3.6% come from a cultural or ethnic minority. But recently the firm has taken new actions to improve these numbers and create a more inclusive and diverse leadership. 

Moreover, there´s no one in the leadership team anymore who doesn´t know the answer to the classic I&D riddle about the father, the son and the surgeon.


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