Best Practices on Improving Retention

January 26, 2011 12:00 am

The Big Four accounting/consulting firms all have a retention problem, especially for the coveted demographics of Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women, and particularly in the key area of client services and relations. What happens? As people hone their skills and abilities, the clients recognize their value and start hiring them. Thus, the pool of talent on the long road to make partner or principal—especially from traditionally underrepresented groups—gets increasingly narrow.

“Our talent is in high demand,” says John Zamora, former chief diversity officer for Deloitte. “Our client-service personnel start being recruited around year two and it often goes through year 10. Their value to the market goes up every year. We have to be very aggressive with our high-performing talent.”

Consider these statistics for the Big Four (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG). This information is supplied by aggregate industry data submitted by these companies for the 2010 DiversityInc Top 50 survey, which was based on calendar year 2009.

Overall, managers are retained at an 84 percent rate—but Black managers are retained at only a 75 percent rate, and Latino, Asian and women managers are retained at significantly lesser rates than whites. By contrast, the DiversityInc Top 50 average close to a 90 percent retention rate, which is virtually equal across all racial/ethnic and gender groups.

Zamora notes that it takes between eight and 15 years to make a partner, depending on an individual’s skill set and experience level. In his industry experience, he estimates only about 10 percent of those who join professional-services firms in entry-level management jobs make it all the way.

For companies like Deloitte, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG—and consultancies such as IBM and Accenture—people are the main assets. For consumer-facing companies, the talent is critical to reaching an increasingly multicultural marketplace and devising innovative solutions to competitive and often global concerns.

“When you look at the business community, the landscape is changing. In order to compete, we have to be like our clients—even outpace the demographics of our clients,” says Zamora.

Making It Work

So how do they—and other companies—create talent-development programs that encourage people to stay, reach their full potential and contribute innovative solutions? Most talent-development programs, like mentoring programs and employee-resource groups, are inclusive and open to everyone, including straight, white, able-bodied men. For example, WellPoint includes diversity representation into its overall corporate talent-development efforts “so that we can achieve maximum interaction and exposure across all racial segments,” Chief Diversity Officer Linda Jimenez says. That includes the company’s 18-month accelerated leadership-development program, Executive Excellence, which includes team learning, personal introspection and on-the-job learning.

But since dominant cultures already have a significant workplace advantage in understanding the signals, receiving informal mentoring and speaking the same language as most of the bosses, people from traditionally underrepresented groups need more support. And some programs are, therefore, aimed specifically at them.

Kerrie Peraino, senior vice president of international human resources and global employee relations at American Express, explains it this way in discussing the variety of talent-development programs her company has that benefit people from traditionally underrepresented groups: “Each program is created specifically for a particular group of people with certain attributes … We clearly see a correlation between development and retention. Diverse talent is in high demand and we understand that we must actively invest in developing our talent. We see the results of our investments in our annual performance-management process via high ratings and high performance evaluations from leaders.”

There are two types of talent-development programs—external and internal—and some combine elements of both. External programs, such as the Ascent Leadership Mastering Management Program, run by Dr. Ella Bell in conjunction with Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business and the UCLA Anderson School of Management, is a leadership education program for Black, Asian and American Indian women and Latinas who have, on average, three to five years of management experience, preferably with a master’s degree or significant experience, who are considered “high potential.” American Express has participated in this program, as has DiversityInc. For more on Ascent Leadership, go

Another external program American Express utilizes is the Center for Hispanic Leadership, which helps Latino employees grow through culturally tailored curriculum. American Express partnered with Aetna and Credit Suisse to create a customized learning and development experience for the top Latino talent at the mid-management level. Peraino says that “2010 was our first year of the program, and the feedback from participants has been very positive.”

Growing Your Own

How do companies use their own resources to identify and nurture their own talent?

Deloitte has a host of programs that benefit women and Blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians. Zamora is particularly proud of the Emerging Leaders Development Program (ELDP), now in its sixth year, which identifies high-performing/high-potential Black, Latino, Asian and American Indian managers and senior managers to help them get to the next stage of their careers. Last year, the program had 120 participants (almost half were women), and for the first time, they were given sponsors within the company as their advocates, as well as external coaches (the coaching relationships last eight months to a year). Most of the sponsors were cross-cultural and most were white.

“A sponsor should be someone NOT like you. We have a larger number of non-minorities who are senior partners and they are the pool for sponsors,” Zamora says, emphasizing that the sponsors offer a good window into the existing senior-level corporate culture.

One of the participants in the program is Kwasi Owusu-Aduomi, 32, a senior manager in Deloitte’s Audit Practice in New York. Born in Ghana, Owusu-Aduomi grew up in South Africa, but as the child of educated, middle-class Black parents, he had a relatively protected existence. He attended Rhodes University and the University of Natal in South Africa, graduating with honors and a degree in accounting. He joined Deloitte in November 2001, starting as an assistant in the Audit Practice. In January 2005, he was transferred to New York and worked his way up to his current position.

Senior managers are the pool from which partners eventually are drawn, and Owusu-Aduomi has high ambitions. But he realized he had certain attributes—both personal and cultural—that could hold him back, so he, therefore, was eager to be part of the ELDP program.

“My coach helps me see the unwritten rules, and I get feedback of how people view me as an individual, people who work for men and people I report to,” he says.

One of the greatest lessons he’s learned is that he has to be more visible and more proactive about seeking relationships with senior leaders, even those from different lines of business within the firm.

“Where I’m from, people might consider me proactive, but compared to a New Yorker, I’m not. It’s a different culture around here,” he says. The ELDP program includes having partner groups at lunch panels and leadership dinners. In the past, Owusu-Aduomi would have met senior people and hoped to see them again. Now, with coaching about being more proactive, he’s following up and keeping the connections going much more assertively.

He admits that like much of the top talent Zamora cited earlier, he’s been wooed by clients wanting him to leave Deloitte to work for them. But programs such as ELDP keep him at Deloitte, with a goal of making partner. “What I’m learning here, I can’t learn at most of the companies that give me job offers,” he says.

Using Your Employee-Resource Groups

Ninety-four percent use their employee-resource groups to develop talent, up from 48 percent five years ago—especially talent that might not be obvious. Increasingly common practices include putting ERG leaders in high-potential talent-development programs and exposing them to senior leadership frequently.

At AT&T, ERGs have been brought together for two years in a row with the leadership team for a national meeting built around identifying and developing talent and leadership. More than 80 AT&T officers attended the most recent meeting, including Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson. The senior executives met with members of the ERGs and specifically discussed leadership development. In addition, this year AT&T is launching the ERG Academy, a special program for ERG officers, regardless of their level in the company, to participate in multi-day sessions at AT&T University that are the same alignment and development programs aimed at senior leaders.

At WellPoint, associate-resource groups (ARGs) are a key source of talent. Jimenez notes:”WellPoint views ARGs as an important talent-development venue. We recognize that through ARGs our organization has the opportunity to identify and groom talent that may not have been identified through formal succession planning.”

Jimenez says a key aspect of every ARG’s business plan is a focus on providing opportunities to all members for personal and professional growth through networking, mentoring, educational sessions and other development opportunities/assignments. “Leaders of associate-resource groups are in a unique position to showcase and further develop their personal leadership skills and gain exposure to executive management with the potential of gaining sponsorship,” she says. All the ARGs meet at least once a year with Chair, President and CEO Angela Braly, and the ARG leaders meet on a regular basis with their respective executive sponsors to discuss strategic direction and team-development opportunities.

WellPoint ARGs have worked collaboratively in the design and implementation of programs that are specifically geared toward leadership skills and competency development. For example:

  • ARG Learning Circle is a development program that focuses on mentoring and coaching. It provides ARG members the opportunity to be paired with a more experienced WellPoint associate who serves in the role of a mentor. Mentors guide their protégés andhelp them establish goals around areas of development and career aspirations, and they develop action plans to accomplish them.
  • Building Your Leadership Profileis a teleseminar seriessponsored by WellPoint’s ARGs. ARGs collaborate to select topics, secure speakers and implement monthly teleseminars and webinars focused on a variety of personal- and professional-development topics. These virtual sessions include both internal and external panelists and speakers.

The Next Level

The talent development shouldn’t stop just because a person reaches a high level. Take Roger Yang, an assurance partner in the Los Angeles office of Ernst & Young. Yang, 41, made partner in 1995 and now is a partner in the Real Estate, Hospitality and Construction Practice. A certified public accountant with a bachelor’s degree and an MBA from the University of California, he hasn’t yet reached the zenith of his career.

He heard about E&Y’s Inclusive Leadership Program, which started in 2009 and combines separate executive programs for women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians. It’s also aimed at LGBT employees and employees with disabilities. The program creates mentoring relationships by pairing the high-potential partner (such as Yang) or principal with an Americas Executive Board member as well as an external coach. It includes a customized development plan based on 360-degree feedback. It also includes annual learning programs, co-mentoring groups and networking opportunities.

For Yang, the program has been eye-opening. “I needed to find out how I keep challenging myself and how I become a real leader,” he says. He’s in his first year of the three-year program and he found that he needed to be self-promoting, a frequent cultural issue for Asians.

“I learned I have to go to people and tell them I am interested in taking on a new role and ask them what they think about that. You have to force yourself to have that conversation—if you aren’t doing it, others are. I thought that if I focused on the here and now and did a good job, then good things will come. But if you aren’t proactive, if you don’t step out of that comfort zone, you can’t find out what else you can do,” he says.