By Simone E. Morris, MBA
Organizations follow various approaches for selecting talent for Employee Resource Group leadership (ERG) roles. Some organizations look to their high-potential employees or go through a rigorous interview selection process to fill the role; others allow members of the community to “raise their hands.”
No matter how your organization selects its ERG leadership, it is not often that you will find someone jumping up and down at the chance to embrace the role or take on the additional workload required. In a work world where many of us struggle to find a satisfactory balance between work and life, the benefits of ERG leadership need to be better marketed in order to get people interested and willing to take on this opportunity.
Many years ago, I was an ERG member that attended meetings and waited for change to happen. The change was slow to come, so when the opportunity came along to take on a more active role, I raised my hand and volunteered to share the leadership of the group as a co-chair of the group.
I’m sure you can guess what happened next.
So as chair of the ERG—rather than a co-chair—I began my service. Of course, it would have been easier with some sort of guidebook for success, but there was none. You simply had to roll up your sleeves and learn while in the role. As I look back, I realize there are several things I wish someone had told me before I took on the role, including the following:
1. Review, then plan. Assess your ERG’s current position. Then, consider your skill set and where you will need the most assistance. This will help you craft both your plan for the coming year and the leadership team you’ll need to get you there. When you propose your plan, allow your team to buy in by raising challenges or providing builds. This can increase the time it takes to create a strategy, but it is well worth the investment.
2. Develop a variety of solutions. You may very well find that your directors, and above, aren’t sold on the benefits of investing time in the ERG, and see it more as a constant pull on their time. Flex deliverables to allow attractive opportunities for
both senior and junior community members to participate.
3. Think like a business unit leader. As an ERG leader you will be leading a group and collaborating with senior leaders from the various functions in your organization. Being able to clearly articulate your ideas and ask for support is a necessity. I’ve come across ERG leaders who are fearful of the organization’s response to their request for time or support and therefore, limp along
with what the organization doles out. Think big, and come with a plan to achieve your goal. Managers value employees who are resourceful and able to bring solutions to the table. Wouldn’t you want someone like that on your team?
4. Create a win-win partnership with your executive sponsor. Be sure to nurture the relationship so it can grow and bloom over time. For example: your executive sponsor is likely very busy with a small window of time available for meeting with you. Be flexible with your schedule and be sure to keep your connection points regular, so you are both benefitting from the relationship. Working with an executive sponsor can be extremely advantageous to both of you. You can learn successful business strategies that you can’t get from any textbook, and your sponsor can gain cultural awareness he or she may be lacking. If you are successful, you may be surprised at the champion you’ve created.
Being a champion for you and your cause is the role of an executive sponsor; it is quite different from the role of mentor. While your mentor may be able to share valuable lessons, he or she may not have the ability to create opportunities or remove roadblocks for you. Should your relationship have more of a mentorship vibe, invest the time to grow it into a sponsor relationship. These types of relationships can help take your career to places you haven’t imagined.
5. Don’t avoid risk. Be careful not to stifle your creativity, and stay away from feedback that says your idea won’t work. Very often, we listen to others, fear impact to our positions, and aren’t willing to risk doing things that may rock the boat. Put on your life vest and take some Dramamine, because you could just be what the organization needs.
6. Celebrate your success. Talk is good, but being able to show results will go farther in building your credibility as an ERG leader. Do not be quiet about your successes. Tooting your ERG’s horn subtly toots your own! Find communication vehicles like internal newsletters or intranet portals that can spread your message.
7. Be patient. There are people who won’t want to get on the bandwagon. While you are going around sharing that your ERG is the greatest thing since sliced bread, others may not want the perceived stigma of being associated with an ERG, or may not be convinced that the organization is capable of change. They may tell you to “take them off the mailing list” or simply not show up
when you need them. This can be disheartening. Don’t try to figure out why these individuals think this way. It is instead more beneficial to focus on the people who are supporters. You will be surprised that people do change their minds over time. They may just want to hang out and see what happens before they stick their necks out.
8. Be an influence. As an ERG leader, you have to influence volunteers to take time out of their jobs and work on things that they may not get credit for. You have to influence executives to support your vision and approve solutions. You have to influence business stakeholders to leverage employees to help solve their problems. You have to win over line managers to allow their teams to participate. It is indeed a big job to be an ERG leader. The rewards are incredible if you allow yourself to embrace the opportunity instead of running from the responsibility. I can tell you that for me, being an ERG leader raised my credibility and visibility in the organization. In fact, I remember being recognized by Diversity Best Practices and that the leadership team in my department took time out for me to address the team by sharing what I was doing in the diversity space. Wow! I don’t know that I would have been allowed the platform to speak on diversity challenges in the organization or be seen as an expert without being an ERG leader.
Today, there are many resources available that set ERG leaders up for success and allow them to be true intrapreneurs of the organization. That is what ERG leaders are–intrapreneurs who change the culture of an organization and create legacies we can be proud of. Are you doing that in your day job? If you’re not, I’d suggest you raise your hand and take advantage of this underutilized opportunity. This may just be your opportunity to grow and shine.
Simone Morris served as an ERG member, co-chair, chair, and advisor to Employee Resource Group leaders. She has been recognized for her exemplary Employee Resource Group leadership skills by her previous employer Diageo North America, Diversity Best Practices, and Diversity MBA Magazine. You can follow Simone on Twitter at @jubileetown.