Over the past few months, I have had the privilege working with ERG leaders – disability and others – though the intersection with disability is a persistent accompanying theme in most cases.
Leading an ERG effectively is a demanding and tough job. It’s not a case of putting on one’s leadership hat a couple of times a month. It is a passion that is constantly present.
Here I want to reflect on and celebrate the role of ERG leadership.
The wildcard role
Most significant organisations these days have a formal DEI team that sits within a defined hierarchy and has a clear status. Now DEI teams have their passions and challenges too, so I don’t want the reader to infer that what I say about ERG leads doesn’t apply to DEI teams.
Some things do not, however, apply and one of those things is the wild card nature of an ERG leader.
I have met NSW public sector ERG leads who have been at grades significantly below the usual manager grade of 11/12. This includes 3/4, 5/6, 7/8, and 9/10. Of these grades, typically 9/10s and some 7/8s may lead teams.
Depending on circumstances it is not usual for staff under grade 11/12 to engage directly with executives. One is generally definitely seen as a subordinate in status, power, influence, and skill.
ERG leaders must perform key management functions, but without any official standing beyond their role title. And to make things just that little more interesting the members of their ERG are all volunteers. While there may be explicit recognition of the fact of being an ERG lead, all else is essentially contingent.
Who an ERG leader is is really down to the luck of the draw. Any ERG could end up with a person with substantial proven leadership skills and experience or somebody with nascent potential which may or may not flower during their leadership term.
Possession of potential plus passion is the mark of a truly interesting wild card.
The potential isn’t rare. There are always people with potential at lower grades, though some may be stuck there through circumstance or bias. Becoming an ERG leader can unplug that potential and when it is mixed with passion for the ERG’s cause great things can happen. But being a wild card is also a risk.
The art and science of leadership
Doing leadership well isn’t easy. It is an art and a science. Knowledge of the science can be acquired through self-directed learning, training, coaching, or mentoring. The art can be developed only through passion-fueled practice.
Typically, though, leading an ERG is under-appreciated. To be fair, sometimes ERGs bring this upon themselves because of perceptions created when ERG leaders who have the passion and commitment get stuck for want of understanding the science side of leadership equation. This can be more often true of new ERG leaders with no formal leadership experience.
Being an effective leader takes knowledge plus the necessary personal attributes.
Leadership is a function, not a role
In books such as Fearless Leadership by Loretta Malandro (2009), The Fearless Organisation by Amy C. Edmondson (2018) and Dare to Lead by Brene Brown (2018) we develop an understanding that leadership is less a formal role and way more about personal attributes. So, people who are not leaders can find themselves in leadership roles. But equally so, people who are leaders may not find the opportunity to get into a formal leadership role. Happy the days when the two come together.
For ERG leaders whose backgrounds have given them limited formal leadership opportunity and whose status in the organisation is decidedly subordinate, moving into their new role may precipitate a conflict between their passion and ability and their reflex to be responsive to their normal position in the organisation’s hierarchy.
For them, being a wild card is a distinctly uncomfortable and even perilous position to be in.
An intense learning curve
Books like Primal Leadership by David Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee (2001), Quiet Leadership by David Rock (2006) and Leadershift by John C. Maxwell (2018) remind us that the art of leadership can (and must) be continually refined. It is often an ongoing journey of self-discovery and personal development.
For those new to ERG leadership roles settling into that role can be a demanding time, especially if critical guidance isn’t available. While organisations are happy to facilitate ERGs it is rare that there is commitment to supporting leaders to develop into their roles.
Becoming a great ERG leader is a big challenge that those with the passion needed to drive them will meet. But they must also seek out the guidance they need.
I have been deeply impressed by ERG leaders emerging from the middle to lower ranks in organisations. Their passion for their cause gives them the energy to meet the considerable demands of their roles.
Leadership is a function before it is a role. And whether it is looked at as either, or the happy marriage of both, it must be seen as an art and a science. Natural leaders still must develop the rational skills that give their potential expression of the art the necessary coherence.
Being a wild card isn’t easy, but it is full of great potential if played wisely. This is part of the art of leadership that can’t be learned anywhere but on the job. This is perhaps the most important, challenging, and rewarding insight for any ERG leader to embrace.
There is a future potential for organisations to recognise that ERG leadership in an outstanding opportunity to develop and hone leadership skills, and to invest in supporting emerging leaders.