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Here’s How One Company Retains and Develops Its High-Potential Women

A PwC program helps high-potential women win the opportunities that can help them make partner.
By: | July 10, 2019 • 3 min read

These days, many male executives appear to feel hesitant about mentoring their female colleagues. A recent report from LeanIn.org shows that in the post-#MeToo era, 60% of male managers are uncomfortable mentoring or working alone with a woman.

At global professional-services firm PwC, however, a formalized sponsorship program means that it’s common for senior-level male executives to work closely with lower-ranking female colleagues. Since it was started in 2012, the company’s Breakthrough Leadership program has paired senior partners (male and female, although the majority are men) at PwC with female executives on the leadership tracks. The idea is that sponsorship is more effective than mentorship for helping women get ahead, says Diversity Strategy Leader Jenn Allyn, who oversees the program.

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“The research shows that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored,” she says. Women are offered plenty of advice on what they should be doing to get ahead, she adds, but relatively little in terms of advocacy from the powers-that-be.

The partners in Breakthrough Leadership (BTL) are expected to serve as “table pounders,” pushing to help their proteges get recognized and win the opportunities that can help them make partner themselves at PwC, says Allyn.

At PwC, making partner is the pinnacle of one’s career, as it is at the other “Big 4” professional-services firms. However, the path to partner isn’t straightforward. Getting there requires the successful completion of high-profile assignments and recognition for doing so—and that’s where a sponsor comes in, says Allyn.

“A sponsor can demystify the partner-admission process,” she says. “He or she can direct you to important assignments that you might not otherwise know about.”

BTL is also designed to help educate male partners at PwC about so-called “gender derailers,” or factors that can push women’s careers off-track. These can include being overlooked for assignments or promotions because they took time off for childcare duties or simply not knowing about such opportunities because they’re not plugged-in to a leadership network that remains predominantly male. Serving as a sponsor can be an important developmental milestone for male partners, as they learn about the roadblocks women often face in trying to rise through the ranks, says Allyn.

Although men still hold the majority of leadership roles at PwC today, the pipeline of female partners is growing, with 265 BTL participants having made partner since the program was launched.

HRE spoke recently with Allyn to learn more about BTL and how the program works.

PwC’s Jennifer Allyn

How long does making partner typically take at PwC?

We don’t put a set time on it. The average can be between 10 and 15 years; it can be quicker or longer depending on lot of factors. It’s a big tournament to win, so the stakes are high and it’s competitive. One of the challenges is that a partnership isn’t a promotion in the traditional sense but is more like winning tenure in academia. You become an equity partner in the firm. It requires getting support from a certain number of partners within your business group. Sponsors can help their protégés get that support.

What are some barriers that can impede women from making partner at PwC?

We developed BTL because of the gender derailers that take womens’ careers off-track. These include invisibility, lack of access to networks and work/life conflicts.

What are some examples of how sponsors help women move forward on the partner track?

Often the conversation about women is that if they just embrace their position, speak up in meetings and so on, then opportunities will come their way. But those substantive opportunities to show what you can do are hard to get, there are few of them and you may not know what they are. A protégé may not know which of the many partners in our organization are most influential in her particular business—the sponsor can help her with that. She and the partner can also brainstorm ideas, too—it’s not like the sponsor is aiding some helpless person, she knows what she’s good at. Our partner candidates are getting lots of opportunities to do things and they have to figure out which is the best use of their time. The sponsors can help with that. They have the experience to help the candidates decide which opportunities may be ideal for them.

What are the primary components of the program?

We have a three-year partner-candidate pipeline and a leadership development experience for all of those partners-in-training. BTL is for female candidates in year one. They’re identified by the business—these are the people who’ve been identified as having partner potential. It’s a three-year partner program and BTL is a part of that in their first year.

Sponsors are paired with protégés within their particular line of business, and the pairs attend a two-day-long training session at the beginning that includes an overview of the gender derailers women often face in their careers. It includes sponsorship challenges, giving and receiving candid feedback, establishing credibility and managing work/life balance.

We have an action-planning segment where the pairs talk about what they did, because there’s not one recipe for success, you have to customize it for what’s important to your business group. One example is a pair we’ll call Kelly and Mike. Kelly made a list of all the partners she needed support her candidacy, and Mike said this is a good list but there are three influential partners who aren’t on it. He started working the system to see how he could make opportunities happen for Kelly to get in front of these partners. Then it’s on her to rise to the occasion to knock it out of the park and impress these people. That’s where we get this team effort.

Sponsors can also help their proteges navigate work/life conflict. The fact is, women still tend to have more responsibilities for caregiving. The sponsor and protégé discuss how to balance that. The sponsor can protect his protégé’s time by prioritizing the things that are most important for her to work on to demonstrate that she’s ready for the partner role without being overwhelmed by all these other things.

Has PwC encountered increased reluctance or discomfort among men about serving as mentors to women in the wake of #MeToo?

It’s not been a big issue in terms of this formal sponsor role—it’s a formal expectation, so it takes away some of the fear some male partners might have that “People will wonder why we’re meeting for dinner” and so on. However, I co-created with our ethics team a 90-minute workshop to talk about #MeToo and we cite those LeanIn survey results as “This is going in the wrong direction.” Good men are feeling this anxiety and we need to recognize that.

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Funnily enough, what surfaced during the workshop is that people are worried about hugging. So, we talked about the protocols: If you’ve known the person for 10 years it’s different than if you’ve recently met. We also talked about letting women take the lead, for her to initiate the hug vs. the handshake. We had a male partner ask, “I’ve always taken clients out to dinner, should I do that anymore?” We asked the audience and they said, let her decide—dinner is different than lunch, there may be a different connotation with dinner. But we do have to acknowledge that in the wake of #MeToo, we are renegotiating boundaries and it can be awkward, but it would also be terrible if men stepped back from sponsoring. So, having these candid talks is a standard part of our diversity policy here.

How have you measured the success of the program?

This is a big investment in terms of taking senior partners and hi-pos away from their regular duties. We did a survey which found that 100% of the participants said it was worth their time. The second is, we obviously want to improve our numbers in terms of women partners. We’ve had over 265 participants in BTL make partner. I do want to be clear that you don’t have to attend BTL in order to make partner here. Also, making partner is not guaranteed. But for us, we really want our sponsors to feel more “gender intelligent,” if you will, to understand these gender dynamics and how they can be advocates for women. We’ve gotten just great feedback from our sponsors that they feel better equipped in this area.

What advice would you offer other organizations interested in similar programs? 

My advice would be to make sure men are part of the equation. Too often, women leadership experiences focus only on women. I agree that women need to advocate for themselves, but the organization—and the men at the top—have to give women opportunities in order for them to lean in to things.

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor at Human Resource Executive®. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]

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