Representation Matters: The Importance of Sponsorship To Retain Talent from the Start

Sammy Miller Energy Audit Partner, PwC US 12 February, 2021

Sponsorship means using your professional clout to uplift a more junior person, and it’s essential for making the workplace more equitable. 

Growing up, I assumed I would become an investment banker, and so I majored in finance at Texas A&M. My parents were not able to complete college, so forging a professional path through higher education has always been very important to me. To me, there was a linear path to success: Go to college and study finance, get a coveted internship and land a job at a big bank because that’s where the money was. One day during my junior year of college, I overheard some upperclassmen talking about PwC and its internship program. Knowing nothing about PwC, tax or audit, I just went for it, and got an internship in the tax department. Years later I eventually transitioned to audit. During my internship something just clicked, and I knew PwC was where I was meant to be. I was drawn to the people, culture and work, and also felt I could be a part of a team. Twenty years in, it’s safe to say I am a PwC “lifer.”

Though I wanted to be a partner at PwC one day, I didn’t embrace it as an option. At the time, there wasn’t someone who looked like me in an active leadership role in my office, so it was hard for me to imagine myself in a place of leadership and influence. However, I was fortunate to have people at PwC who were invested in my success: When I was a senior associate, there was an audit partner who respected my work ethic and took me under his wing. That partner taught me about the importance of my presence and presentation, how to lead, how to command and how to pay attention to the small details. Most importantly, he encouraged me to work toward becoming a partner. Because I had a leader advocating for me, I eventually became the first Black male promoted to partner in our Houston office. I cannot stress the importance of having someone senior champion for you like that. It’s invaluable.

As a Black leader in a white male-dominated industry, I’ve seen firsthand how diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives can be successful. I’ve also seen how they can go wrong. Often, companies are so focused on the diversity component of D&I that they forget the inclusivity. Hiring more people of color is an important first step in building a more equitable workplace, but companies often risk losing amazing talent if they don’t prioritize mentoring and sponsorship—the inclusion. 

In response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s death last June, numerous companies committed to hiring more Black employees—specifically to leadership positions. Though Black people make up 12% of the population, they only hold 3.2% of the leadership roles at large US companies. I believe a big reason for this is that there often aren’t adequate support systems for Black employees early on in their careers. I know how crucial it is to have leaders in your corner when you’re first starting out.  

Building representation takes time, and simply hiring people of color is not enough. It can be extremely difficult to constantly see yourself as “other” in the workplace. That’s why I’m working to continue building a community at PwC that emphasizes inclusivity from the ground up. For example, we’re having numerous conversations about race in the workplace, and thinking about how we as leaders can play a part in extending our culture of inclusivity beyond our day-to-day jobs to help increase the talent pool through our work in the community. It starts with a support system: Companies and leaders can help attract and retain Black talent—then advance them to leadership roles—through formal training, frequent feedback, and, above all, sponsorship. We all need to do our part, at work and in our communities.  

If companies want more diverse senior leadership, it’s on all of us to sponsor our Black junior employees. The next generation needs to see themselves as leaders. I have a responsibility to show my teams at PwC and students looking for jobs that it's possible to get there.