Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are strange things. They sit in a shadow land within an organization. They are not part of the normal formal power and influence hierarchy. They represent the voice of a specific minority community within the organization, advocating for its interests. This generally means seeking to stimulate change in favour of its membership. It also means representing a certain impatience its membership feels.
ERGs often fall within the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) area because they tend to be formed to redress some kind of injustice or inequity that arises because of how the attributes of the membership are perceived and responded to by the other members of the organization as a whole.
While an ERG is formed and sanctioned as a change-agent organizations are inherently change resistant in DEI matters. This means that an ERG has a difficult, complex, and delicate role to perform. It must harness the natural membership’s impatience into a strategic and diplomatic impetus that can effectively drive desired change.
For ERG leaders this is no easy task. In fact, being an effective ERG leader is extremely hard. The role is voluntary and must be performed alongside their ‘real job’. Some kind of time allowance will be made, but this will vary between organizations. But it is generally fair to say that time and attention will both be at a premium.
So, ERG leadership is a difficult role that many will have to perform under less-than-ideal circumstances.
In this essay I want to focus on leadership because, to put it bluntly, leaders can make or break their ERG.
I want to talk about ERGs in general. I joined a Disability Employee Network (DEN) back in July 2010 and was the only remaining founding member when I left my department in June 2021. I was Chair for 3 years and 4 months. There were 3 preceding Chairs. I was the longest serving – entirely by accident rather than design. I stepped down in March 2020, with no desire for another term.
The joys and perils of leadership
Being an ERG leader is rewarding but it is demanding. There are challenges and pitfalls to be overcome or avoided.
Leading an ERG is no easy thing, though it can appear to be otherwise. So much depends upon what outcomes are expected, and how attaining those outcomes is imagined.
Leadership is a deeply personal matter, and herein lies both pitfalls and opportunities. In most ERGs one person is designated as ‘the leader’. It’s a standard model in any organisation. We have Chairs, captains, managers and so on. Sometimes this works well, but mostly it does not. This is a really important consideration. It may surprise the reader but be patient.
Leadership is a difficult and complex role that is almost never performed at an optimal standard. I am not saying it is done badly, just that it can always be done better. This is something mostly recognised in hindsight.
The biggest impediment to being an effective leader is one’s ego. There are other impediments of course, but this has the greatest adverse impact.
I have been reflecting on leadership recently because of conversations about the fate of an ERG I was involved with. I have watched from a distance and was tempted to ask; ‘What would I have done differently’. That’s not a good or useful question. You cannot parachute yourself into a situation you are not involved in. Had you been involved, that situation would not have arisen. There would be an entirely different one – better or worse than the one being considered.
Leadership sometimes causes situations to arise. Other times it responds to internal and external events – and ameliorates or exacerbates the matter. I do not want to think in terms of leadership being done well or badly – but how equipped a leader is to handle a situation that arises. Leaders do their best, but their best is not always equal to the challenge.
Here I want to focus on 6 things that, for me, defined the key attributes of effective leadership. I am not saying I got them all right all of the time. I did my best. Those 6 things are:
- Time and Attention
I tried several times to become ERG Chair and was rebuffed by members. Eventually I got to be Deputy Chair – which was nothing at all. I got to be Chair only because the incumbent quit unexpectedly and moved to a different department – and I was deputy Chair at the time.
I wanted to be Chair because I thought I could contribute something to the role, but I didn’t know what. Two previous Chairs were moved by the same desire for service, but they were not very effective. Getting the job was one thing. Doing something useful with it was another. I had no idea whether I would be a good Chair
Being a Chair of an ERG can be something. It has status. You get invited to participate in events you wouldn’t be invited to otherwise. You get to meet senior leaders and other ‘important people’. You also get to run meetings and be the person in charge.
But it can also mean that nothing much happens. Being an ERG leader is a difficult and challenging role that demands a lot. It is hard work if you want to do it well, and it will be humbling. It is an act of service, not something to gratify an ambition, a need for status or a desire for power.
So many leadership roles become vehicles for working out unresolved personal psychological issues. That’s pretty much the landscape we all live in. So, it should be no surprise that this might happen in an ERG. However, let me be plain – it is a betrayal of trust of the ERG’s membership to aspire to leadership motivated by anything other than a commitment to service and a rational understanding that you are fit for purpose as a leader.
Leadership experience is essential. If you haven’t led anything before, an ERG is not the place to have on the job learning. The reason is simple. You make dumb mistakes when you are learning how to lead, and sometimes they are catastrophic – a reality that may become apparent only long after the fact. You owe other members of the ERG a duty to be fit for purpose as a leader.
I had held several leadership roles previously – in the public sector and in the community. I had made a few monstrous mistakes that led to miserable failures and deep enduring lessons. At the time I became DEN Chair I was an acting team leader during a time of powerful change in our organisation. My team members were deeply concerned about their continuing employment. They were understandably distracted. We managed to maintain quality output, stay together as a mutually supportive team and deal with the ongoing employment challenges. That turned out to be a very useful experience for me.
I had also a long history of influencing others. I started off full of passion, and just got into trouble. I eventually got to be pretty good at making things happen through a lot of trial and error. By the time I became DEN Chair I had the fundamentals under my belt. At the time I didn’t understand any of this. I am writing with hindsight, with the opportunity to reflect on experience.
Leadership, to be effective, must be strategic. It is not easy to develop a strategic outlook if this is not already part of your way of doing things.
For some people just getting to be a leader is more than half the battle. Once in the role the dynamic energy of the campaign dissipates. I have heard of quite a few managers described as ‘disorganised’. They have passionately advocated for themselves as the best person for the job, and then delivered debilitating disorder and chaos once they have secured the role. ERG Chairs can be similar.
We have a natural bias that leads us to over-estimate our abilities and downplay our weaknesses.
Strategic thinking requires having an objective and a means of achieving it. You have a vision for the ERG, and the members agree with it. You then must set out how you will get to that outcome. It is here many leaders come unstuck. The vision of how to get there must conform to a reality in which other people behave in unexpected ways.
I have been recently seeking out informed commentary on military campaigns and have become interested in the idea of a military doctrine – a way of thinking about behaviour on a battlefield that is coherent, consistent, conservative of resources and focused on success. The military metaphor may feel uncomfortable, but all strategy is strategy, even if your approach is collaborative and kind.
My immediate goals, as DEN Chair were to rebuild membership numbers and ensure that the DEN represented all areas of our newly reformed department. I wanted to have an election as soon as possible – that took 15 months as it transpired – less time than I imagined. I had my goals, made them known and was accountable for my success or failure. I prepared monthly progress reports showing actions taken and an analysis of numbers.
ERGs are about changing the circumstances of their members for the better and too often organisations dictate the pace of change. There must be an impatience and a strategy for infecting the rest of the organisation with the same impatience.
This is where most ERGs fail. It is where leaders so often fail too. I have listened to conversations among ERG leaders who seem okay with slow progress and resistance to change. They hypnotise themselves and their members into accepting that things change slowly. Impatient members disengage and those who remain turn their ERG into a club.
Leadership is not a single heroic function. Some leaders do stand out as singular individuals, but none who are effective and successful would neglect the people who constitute their leadership team.
The best thing I did, after I rebuilt the DEN’s membership numbers, was create the Guidance and Action Team (GAT). This was a group of 15 volunteers who shared my impatience and wanted stuff to happen.
The fundamental rule of developing an effective ERG is the creating of a critical trinity of mutual support and regard – the ERG, the organisation’s Executive Leadership Team (ELT), and the organisation’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team.
This demands a lot of relationship building and maintenance – internally (GAT and membership) and externally (ELT and DEI). This is sensitive and hard work for an ERG’s leadership. It may be too much for one person, but ensuring it does happen, and keeps happening, is an essential strategic role for the overall leader.
An internal leadership team can be an essential distribution of talent, skills, and experience needed to ensure the ERG’s success. This is where a leader’s ego can be tested. Are they prepared to delegate representation? Are they happy going to a meeting with 2 members of the leadership team – and take the focus off them?
Another aspect of teamwork is succession planning. This may mean ensuring that there are maybe 2 people who could step into the leadership role at a moment’s notice.
An ERG leader may be a genuinely exceptional person. This happens now and then. Even so, seeing themselves as first among equals is even more important. Building an effective leadership team and developing a succession strategy becomes more critical.
Time and attention
Having the time to focus one’s attention on what must be done is vitally important. There is an expectation that an ERG leader will ‘donate’ a certain amount of their own time out of commitment to the cause. This is fair enough, but it must be balanced by a realistic time allowance provided by the organisation. This is sometimes not understood by an ERG’s line management. It is harder for executives who do not work to an award to appreciate that putting in substantial time outside of regular hours isn’t part of an ERG leader’s lifestyle choice – and should not be expected.
ERGs are created and supported because they are expected to do valuable work within the organisation. They drive change that supports the welfare of a certain group of staff members. This concern for the welfare of a minority is the rightful duty of the organisation and it should be relegated to ‘one of those things we will get around to when we have time’. This change is hard to make, and the ERG is properly seen as a vital ally that must be enabled to deliver its side of the bargain.
The DEN of which I was a founding member met for a full day once a quarter. Back in 2010 this looked like a generous allowance – and in many respects it was. But the reality is that you don’t drive significant change that way.
I was able to not only more than double the formal meeting time by creating the GAT but also lift the overall activity of the DEN to a much higher level. I was fortunate in that, as Chair, I was permitted at least a full day a week during critical stages. Seven months after I left the Chair, my predecessor was offered, and accepted, the opportunity to be a fulltime Chair.
I am not arguing for that now, but it did affirm the vital importance of having those critical resources of time and attention.
Neuroscience research shows that being under time pressure and having competing demands on attention degrades the quality of work done. The heroic vision of the flat-out leader juggling competing demands is actually a scenario for poor decision making. It may be true that some leaders are constitutionally suited to thriving in the ‘fog of war’, but most are not.
To be effective, an ERG leader must have sufficient access to those vital resources – time and attention. An organisation must first value the ERG sufficiently to provide adequate access to both. The ERG leader must demonstrate they use both to good effect.
Having laid a strong claim for sufficient time and attention for an ERG leader to perform well I want to consider the final element – professionalism.
As DEN Chair I was keenly aware that I was accountable to the membership for the actions I was undertaking on its behalf, and to the organisation for the way I was using its resources (my and other people’s time mainly). I was also considering my reputation and standing.
After creating the GAT, I set a standard. We had to be professional in everything we did, operating at the same standard as a business unit. We had objectives – outputs to be delivered, outcomes to be achieved, and a reputation to build and maintain.
There was no obvious expectation that we would or should be professional. We were an ERG – a volunteer part-time group. What standard should we work to? As individual employees we were required to behave in a professional manner. Why expect anything less of ourselves as DEN members and representatives?
Looking back to the origins of the DEN I can see that there was no clear vision for how the DEN should operate. Our first Chair was a senior manager, and his conduct was very professional, but there was no expectation on the rest of us. That was a weakness that led to the DEN failing to deliver as hoped for.
So, while an ERG leader must be professional in their conduct in relation to the organisation, they must also require that the ERG itself be a professional body in representing the interests of its members. The ERG must be outcome oriented.
A leader’s ego, lack of experience, and want of an effective strategic vision can risk the corrosion of the vital foundation of teamwork. If they do not have the time and capacity to give their role the attention it demands, they will achieve little. If neither the leader nor the ERG is professional, it will lose the trust and support of its membership.
These are the essential cautions, and I’d rather discourage than encourage aspiration to ERG leadership if they are not fully appreciated.
But on the plus side, there is an essential impatience for change, which energizes members and keeps them engaged. For this change to become real it must infect the rest of the organisation – and this can happen only through teamwork – a shared vision and a shared goal. And this takes effective leadership.
This is what makes an ERG a meaningful and useful creation.
ERGs are potentially powerful instruments for positive change. But they are also anomalous. They are invited to be disruptive on the one hand and are resisted on the other. They operate slightly out of phase with the organisation’s normal streams of influence. It means their task is difficult, complex, and delicate.
Being an effective ERG leader is, therefore, a deeply challenging experience. The benefits to members are potentially great. But the risk of being ineffectual is high. Inertia is a natural state in organisations. They are naturally change resistant. This means that the impatience that energises ERG membership has a natural inclination to decay into inertia.
Maintaining and spreading that essential impatience for positive change is the most important thing an ERG leader can do. It is immensely difficult but profoundly rewarding.