It was as if the firm was running to stand still. Every year it hired a greater number of underrepresented talent than the year before. But every year, the firm also lost more underrepresented talent than the year before. The result was a stubborn inability to significantly increase the overall representation of such talent in the firm.
The challenge isn’t unique to any industry, but it is more pronounced among professional services firms, in part because they are among the most active recruiters of underrepresented talent, hiring tens of thousands of these employees annually. Michele Parmelee, the deputy CEO and global chief people and purpose officer at Deloitte, says the industry stands out to this worker population in particular because of its entrepreneurial nature and the ability it affords them to shape their own careers. “It’s the best avenue for talent to learn as much as possible as fast as possible,” she says.
Yet, despite regularly ranking among the best workplaces for underrepresented talent, professional services firms have had trouble advancing people to senior and executive leadership ranks. While many factors contribute to that dynamic, a growing body of evidence suggests one of the main reasons is how these firms manage the talent experience.
Because professional services firms rely heavily on an “apprenticeship model,” where career advancement is often a function of the projects to which talent is assigned, the onus is on the individual to create their own personal networks and find internal mentors and sponsors, says Juan Pablo Gonzalez, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and sector leader for the firm’s Professional Services practice. As a result, he says, teams tend to form organically, with the same people continuing to do the same type of work together. Put another way, managers want to keep reliable performers on the same projects, and employees want to build their reputations by working in areas and with people they know well.
But that makes it hard for people to move around and get the experience and recognition they need to advance in their careers, says Gonzalez. “This type of model inadvertently creates barriers to the development, advancement, and engagement of underrepresented groups,” he says.
Those barriers have suddenly become larger in light of the pandemic and the shift to remote work. Underrepresented talent was already disadvantaged when it comes to access to critical experiences, such as profit and loss responsibility, and mentors who can show them the hidden rules to success in an organization—and they are even more so now. “Ask any managing partner in a professional services firm how they achieved success, and they will tell you stories about the mentors and teams that shaped their careers,” says Gonzalez.
When viewed through that prism, and against the backdrop of the pandemic and the purpose movement, Gonzalez says there is an immense opportunity for professional services firms to leverage their talent experience capabilities to advance diversity and inclusion efforts.