Chair of major law firm champions ‘sponsorship’ pilot program

November 14, 2013

Kent Gardiner, chairman of the law firm Crowell & Moring, sat down to talk about why his firm is partnering with economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Center for Talent Innovation to promote sponsorship of women and minorities in the workplace, how sponsoring is different and why it matters.

The following is an edited transcript.

Q:Why were you interested in starting a sponsorship program? Women have been graduating from college in greater numbers than men since 1985. Women make up nearly half of all law school students. Aren’t we “there” yet?

Gardiner: We’re nowhere near there. I’ll be happy if I see my children live in a color- and gender-blind society. That’s the next generation.

I think most law firms have gone through periods of trying to enhance entry-level diversity, with a fair degree of success. But the falloff of success, the ability to retain and develop [diverse talent] has been much less satisfying.

Then along comes the notion of sponsorship, which is really quite radically different.

Many of the more senior people in these organizations think diversity enhancement is some accommodation, an agreed-upon weakening of the organization. That’s unconscious bias.

Sponsorship goes right at that and says, “No, wait a minute, you’re completely misunderstanding here. The folks who are of a more diverse nature, whether gender, race, or ethnicity, are just encountering a different obstacle course to success than the relatively obstacle-free course that exists for white men.”

Q: How so?

Gardiner: It has a lot to do with role modeling. An older white male sees himself in a young man and assumes this person is going to follow exactly the same career path and have exactly the same responses to experiences that he did. Then he encounters a young woman who he finds oddly reticent and different and not responsive to all the stimuli that he responded to.

So there’s a mismatch. And that leads to a different level of progression and trajectory and familiarity.

Why is it harder to be a woman or a person of color in the junior ranks of a professional services organization? The answer is not because you’re less qualified. The answer is because you have this thicket in front of you. And you’re pretty lonely. And so you try a while. And then you leave.

So the whole concept of sponsorship is to clear the thicket.

When Ellen Dwyer, our managing partner, and I sat down to discuss this, we became convinced that it was a game changer. But we also realized it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s very labor intensive. It requires enormous trust. It’s very hard for a young, say, female associate to come into any senior person’s office and ask for help, much less describe what’s complicated about her life.

I had a young female associate come in and ask where the firm stands on work-life balance, because she was getting different messages from people at different levels of the organization.

I thought, “No big deal, come talk to me.” But it is a big deal for her to come and potentially expose herself to scrutiny as someone who is part time, who’s trying to perform, with family constraints.

I spent all my time assuring her that this is exactly the conversation we should be having so we can create the right path for her that’s a powerful one. She’s spending all her time absolutely terrified that by revealing she has to leave by 5:30, she’s just nixed her career.

She was hearing from some people that she should not tell anyone that she worked part time.

I interrupted her and said, “I couldn’t disagree more.” The most successful part-time lawyers are the ones where we have created a safe space for them, associated with complete transparency.

Q: How do these work-life issues fit into the sponsorship initiative?

Gardiner: When we talk about the sponsorship program here, it’s not about work-life balance. It’s about opportunity within the organization. And that’s the much more endemic problem that we’re trying to deal with here.

They intersect. But we’ve been very careful to say that we’ve got to build a culture of sponsorship here that’s focused on the situation faced by, frankly, the entire population.

We have some part-time male lawyers. It’s harder to be male and be part time. It’s less socially acceptable. We’re constantly encountering new levels of bias that we have to work ourselves through as human beings.

Ultimately, your goal is to cultivate talent. So you make a basic talent judgment. And if the talent is worth it, it’s worth it. To squander that at the first sign that they might need some tailoring of their career at the firm is kind of nuts.

Q: There are workplaces that have policies for women and minorities to rise, but the workplace culture’s expectation is that they’ll rise only if they act like the people who are already in power. So they don’t have the sense that they can speak up, speak out or be their authentic selves.

Gardiner: That tends not to be successful, because you’ve abandoned your strength. To engage in emulation, which is almost definitionally weaker, doesn’t end up succeeding very well.

There’s a whole generation of women who rose up in legal organizations by figuring out how men acted and behaved, and they acted and behaved that way and they made it through. Are those the people we’re counting on right now to lead us further? Actually, no. We need authentically different perspectives to help us think differently.

Some of the most difficult role-model challenges come where our junior women are looking at a whole generation of successful older women and saying, “I don’t want that life.” And so now what do you do?

It has been a challenge.

Q: So what’s the difference between a sponsor and a mentor?

Gardiner: A mentor is someone who says, “My door’s always open. If you have a question or a problem, come by and I will try and help you out.” It doesn’t require much of anything from the mentor, but it puts enormous pressure on the mentee to have to work up the nerve to come ask.

What I was learning from [discussions with junior attorneys] was that almost everyone had mentors. And sometimes those senior people, particularly if they were working in the same field, were unconsciously keeping them in a subordinate position.

Sponsorship requires you to step aside to allow some of the spotlight to be cast on someone other than you. To potentially give up some power. To go out of your way. And that’s the difference.

Q: It sounds like this is a “hearts and minds” campaign as much as anything. Have you seen hearts and minds at the senior level change?

Gardiner: It’s a work in progress.

People are busy. The most successful people are the busiest. And they’re the people you’ve got to reach to get them to pause and rethink. This is just an arduous thing that you can’t do by memo. Some people are getting it. But I think a lot more people need to get it for it to be really effective.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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