Sponsoring equality within leadership teams: Q&A with Dr Jess Murphy March 2018


Dr Jess Murphy has always had a strong sense of justice. At 14, she knew she wanted to get out of her small mining town in search of new opportunities and as an adult, she knew it would be “a crime” not to do something about the lack of diversity within leadership teams, which is how Pathway To Your Potential, her business for creating effective leaders, came to be. Jess tells us more about P2YP, including her partnership with Mercer, how the program works and the barriers that we need to dismantle in order to move forward.

Can you give us an overview of what the Pathway To Your Potential Program (P2YP) is all about?

P2YP is about becoming more effective as a leader, with a strong focus on sponsorship and ensuring talent, in all forms, realises their potential. One of the key programs involves customising a longitudinal experience that focuses on two sets of participants, the first being high potential talent – whether that be women, introverts or people from different backgrounds – and the second being leaders, in particular executive male leaders.

The way the program works is that the high potential talent goes through a six-month experience where various aspects are facilitated to help develop confidence to take action in terms of career opportunities, stepping up and being more visible within their organisation. Parallel to that, the senior leaders go through an experience that focusses on sponsorship and how to involve those different to them more effectively in order to capture latent potential and bring it to life within their own lines of business and organisation more broadly.

The magic happens when we bring those two groups together and pair them up; they get to experience the workplace through the eyes of the other person and see a different perspective to what they know.

Can you tell us more about what ‘sponsorship’ means? How does this differ from traditional mentorship?

A coach talks to you, a mentor talks with you but a sponsor talks about you. Coaching and mentoring tend to happen in one-on-one scenarios and the key difference with sponsorship is that it’s all about public advocacy. It’s a highly impactful process because someone is putting their brand and reputation on the line to talk about you to audiences that you wouldn’t usually have access to. There’s plenty of research out there showing that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored.

…and what lead you to partner with Mercer?

There were three key reasons from my perspective. Firstly, I was looking to scale my business but I didn’t want to spend energy doing certain things, such as finding the right employees etc, I was looking for a more innovative approach. I wanted to find a partner that could bring elements to the table that I couldn’t or didn’t want to do and in exchange I could provide my expertise to their organisation and clients.

The second part was finding the right fit. I knew Yolanda Beattie, Mercer’s Practice Leader – Learning & Inclusion, from her work with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency and she opened the door for the initial conversation – a great example of sponsorship in action! This is a true strategic alliance where both parties are receiving mutual benefit but more importantly, we’re both aligned to the broader goal which is to ensure that workplaces are set up to thrive, instead of just survive, in the 21st Century. This was the third aspect that attracted me to Mercer, its entrepreneurial approach and different perspective.

"A coach talks to you, a mentor talks with you but a sponsor talks about you...There’s plenty of research out there showing that women are over-mentored and under-sponsored."

Can you talk us through the impact that P2YP has had on individuals in the past?

We partnered with Deakin University and the Cairnmillar Institute a couple of years ago now, who provided unbiased research outcomes. For the ‘sponsees’, the evidence showed a significant increase in leadership effectiveness and an increase in confidence to take action when opportunities arose.

That increase in confidence also applied to the senior executives in the program. Six months later we saw significant increases over that time where they had truly become far more effective and therefore confident in sponsoring those who were different to them. Their antennas were up to see talent in all its forms which then influenced their entire organisational systems. These senior executives are the true change makers through the very positions of influence they hold and I believe, critical to embedding sustained change.

Being able to have open and honest conversations with senior leaders, and helping them to understand the impact they can have in bringing change to life, is incredible. A lot of people already know the benefits of diversity, they get it from a logical perspective, but it’s the how that people struggle with, how to bring it to life. That’s where P2YP can add value.

P2YP aims to rewire deep-rooted behaviours within its participants. How much face-to-face time do you spend with participants to achieve this outcome?

For the longitudinal experience, the sponsees will spend five full days with the facilitator and the leaders have three half days across a six month period. Really though, it’s not about the quantity of time spent with the participants, it’s the quality of the time. What we do in P2YP sessions, is create a safe space where everyone is listening and learning from different perspectives and then we bring that to life with courageous conversations around taking action and practical micro-actions and experiments that can be applied as soon as they walk out the door. We tap into the collective wisdom in the room and provoke different ways of viewing the world that are equally valid and then we challenge participants to step up, be accountable and take action.

What are some of the not so obvious barriers that women in particular face in the industry when it comes to advancing through the pipeline?

We talk a lot about unconscious bias, which is valid, but I think there’s a bigger conversation to be had around unconscious privilege. The workplace system has been built by men and we’re spending an awful lot of time trying to tinker with that system, which is based on a very specific model of what an employee, and in particular a leader, looks like. People, not just women, want more flexible and adaptive workplaces, so there are a lot of socio-cultural changes happening that’s forcing the workforce to adapt but what I think we need to appreciate is that the people at the very top of these organisations are still men, in the majority of instances. They don’t ‘see’ these barriers because the workplace has been built for them, by them. Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes, you have no idea what the working environment is like for them.

You can have policies in place for flexible working, pay equity, recruitment etc. but that alone is not going to help in dismantling these cultural barriers. That only comes when we have leaders who are willing to see how the workplace system actually impacts people different from them and then do something about it. It’s not about men versus women situation, it’s about understanding that when we come together and have great conversations, all of us can benefit from that. We need to break down the ‘us and them’ approach and just be curious to learn more about different experiences within the same system.

"The workplace system has been built by men and we’re spending an awful lot of time trying to tinker with that system, which is based on a very specific model of what an employee, and in particular a leader, looks like."

What attracted you to this particular line of work?

I see incredible but latent talent all the time, not only with emerging leaders but with the most senior executives and leaders of organisations and seeing such latent potential is what drives me. Both our current and future leaders are sometimes so focused on achieving KPIs and ‘managing’ that they forget that what drives people to perform is when leaders invest their time and efforts to connect and lead effectively. The work I do is around instilling confidence to challenge the status quo and to become more effective leaders. For me, not doing something about it would be a crime.

What has been one of the best personal lessons that you’ve taken away since creating P2YP?

One of the key realisations I’ve experienced is that there is really a lack of space available for men to talk openly and safely around these topics. By creating that safe space and allowing people to have a voice on this topic, we all get to learn from each other and progress the conversation. That has been one of the biggest insights for me. When people start to show vulnerability and honesty, you know you’re tapping into people’s heads and hearts and entering a new and different dialogue.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in a remote mining town in central Queensland called Dysart. In many people’s view, I had an ideal childhood in that it was a very safe place and a great community. My parents and family gave me the gift of confidence and to believe in myself. One of the pivotal moments in my early life was when I was 14 and realised that I didn’t see a future for myself in Dysart. I actively advocated to go to boarding school in Brisbane, which was a 12 hour drive away from my home town. I knew that there was a bigger world out there and I wanted to experience it.

I’m so grateful to have grown up in a small, local community as well as have the exposure to a big city full of new ideas and possibilities.

This week marks International Women’s Day. On that note, can you name a woman who has influenced your life/career in some way?

I have to choose my gran. She was the mother of nine children, meaning I was one of many grandchildren. Her advice to me was that ‘you have two ears and one mouth, make sure you use them in that ratio’. In other words, the best way you can be of service to others is to listen and to learn. Being an extrovert, that can be a challenge for me that I try and keep at the forefront of my mind. I also recognise that the impact and success I’ve had, comes from giving people the space to speak and then listening and learning from them. In this day and age, when everyone is busy being busy, it’s not often that you get people who will actively listen to you. I’ve found it’s the best way to build strong relationships with people, by giving them your 100% attention.

Read more on Jess Murphy's thoughts on the importance of sponsoring female workers here.

View Jess Murphy's profile