It's not breaking news that the financial services industry has a diversity problem. Across the sector — from commercial banking to accounting firms — financial institutions struggle to recruit and retain talented women and minorities. What is surprising, though, is that the lack of diversity persists even though firms have highly visible and expensive programs that are intended to correct the problem.

According to a recent analysis by the Harvard Business Review, the representation of women and minorities in the financial services sector has remained steady (and low) for more than a decade. The number of Hispanic managers at U.S. commercial banks, for example, rose from 4.7% to just 5.7% between 2003 and 2014. The representation of Caucasian women decreased from 39% to 25%, and that of African American men decreased from 2.5% to 2.3% during that same time period.

Though many large financial institutions are investing in diversity-focused initiatives like unconscious bias training and mentorship programs, their efforts don't seem to be making much of a difference.

There are a number of explanations for the failure of these initiatives. First, many diversity initiatives — especially those that are embedded into hiring processes and promotion protocols — are primarily designed to avoid lawsuits, not to increase diversity. Sure, an attempt to outlaw bias by training managers and implement formal complaint processes is admirable; however, it might actually damage a firm's diversity.

According to the same Harvard Business Review study, the three most common diversity programs (mandatory diversity training, job tests and grievance systems) correlated with less women and minorities at the management level.

Even carefully studied diversity initiatives, though, will fail unless they actually reach a diverse pool of talent. Many companies in the financial services industry recruit most new hires from existing employees' alma maters, perpetuating homogeneity.

When diverse talent is successfully recruited, it's often at the entry level or in operations and back-end roles, not in the lucrative roles that are tied to profit and loss. In October 2015, the Financial Services Pipeline Initiative — which includes representatives from banks and others in the Chicago area — released research that found that the industry mostly hired minorities for low-level positions and few were promoted to higher ranks. Without diversity at the mid- and senior-level, diverse talent is unable to see a path to the top and is more likely to look elsewhere for opportunities.

Finally, many financial services firms continue to rely on a client base of older, white and wealthy men and seem to believe that it takes a white male to effectively build a relationship with those clients. This is evident, again, in the presence of diversity at the lower ranks but not in positions related to high-value sales, lending and business unit management. While commercial banks that serve individuals and small businesses are more motivated to increase diversity to better reflect their clientele, wealth accumulation among minorities continues to lag behind that of whites.

Financial firms should think long-term. Investing in diversity and inclusion initiatives that work nowcould be the difference between outperforming competitors, or falling behind ten years from now. Instead of re-implementing a series of programs that have had lackluster results for the financial services industry, banking leaders would be wise to pioneer these three efforts:

Replace Mentorships with Sponsorships

We've seen a great deal of companies creating mentorship programs that pair junior- or mid-level diverse talent with senior-level leaders. These programs are designed to offer minority and female employees the informal networking and coaching opportunities that white men seem to automatically enjoy within mostly white companies. Sponsorships take this relationship to the next level and encourage the senior employee to more aggressively advocate for his mentee within the organization and take responsibility for his or her professional development.

The Center for Talent Innovation, a Manhattan-based think tank, studied multicultural sponsorships and found men and women with sponsors were more likely to ask for stretch assignments, pay raises and promotions. About 70% of those with sponsors were satisfied with their rate of advancement, and 60% of people of color with a sponsor were less likely to quit within a year than those without sponsor support.

Get Creative with Professional Development

Professional development programs can help retain diverse talent. But programs specifically designed for minorities and women are often met with skepticism and resentment from both participants and non-participants. Additionally, professional development programs generate a heap of unbillable hours, making them a tough sell for financial services companies.

Some firms are overcoming these challenges by rewriting the playbook on on-the-job training. The global financial services company CME, for example, has recently launched a talent exchange program in which employees looking to develop certain skills can volunteer to help on projects that need extra bandwidth. This system allows employees to gain real on-the-job experience and also delivers a return on investment for the company when projects are completed more quickly. This type of professional development also creates the opportunity for informal networking and relationship building between junior and senior team members.

Get the C-Suite Involved

Change must start at the top. First and foremost, financial services firms must prioritize creating a more diverse executive team. This requires identifying high-potential talent before there is a vacancy, branding one's firm as an attractive destination for female and minority leaders and fostering a leadership culture that welcomes diverse perspectives. If a company lacks diversity in the C-suite and at the senior leadership level, they'll become a revolving door for young diverse talent.

Senior leaders and executives should also be held accountable for diversity and inclusion goals. It's important that they are seen as champions of diversity and inclusion internally and avoid passing the initiatives off as HR problems. A number of companies — Sodexo, LinkedIn, Johnson & Johnson — tie executive bonuses and compensation to diversity metrics.

Peter Gomez and Susan Medina are executive headhunters with Battalia Winston, one of the nation's largest woman-owned executive search firms.

Editor's note: This post is part of an ongoing series looking at gender and diversity issues in banking and finance. For more on this subject, see previous posts in this series from Sam Maule, Yolande Piazza and David Casper, and visit American Banker's Women in Banking page.