Leading a staff network is under-valued because, outside of those who hold leadership roles, it is rarely examined in the context of professional development. It isn’t usually seen as requiring a professional skillset.
Here I want to explore the demands of staff network leadership in relation to the NSW Public Sector Capability Framework. There are 20 general capabilities divided into 5 groups. Below I have identified 16 capabilities that could be applied to a staff network leader. I will go on to briefly discuss each.
- Display Resilience and Courage
- Act with Integrity
- Manage Self
- Value Diversity
- Communicate Effectively
- Work Collaboratively
- Influence and Negotiate
- Deliver Results
- Plan and Prioritise
- Think and Solve Problems
- Demonstrate Accountability
- Project Management
- Manage and Develop People
- Inspire Direction and Purpose
- Optimise Business Outcomes
- Manage Reform and Change
Staff network leaders of necessity contribute a very substantial level of their own time to the role. Sometimes this can create tension in their personal lives. In addition to efforts to negotiate an accommodation of their staff network role within their formal role can raise challenges that must be handled sensitively and deftly. The need to display resilience and courage, and manage self is fundamental to being an effective staff network leader.
A strong positive personal reputation in relation to network members and the agency in general is essential. The need to act with integrity is foundational to effective staff network leadership.
No staff network functions in isolation. Aside from intersectional links with other staff networks, those who might be allies and champions have their own styles and priorities. The ability to genuinely value diversity is essential.
The relationship capabilities are central to leading a staff network effectively. The ability to communicate effectively is foundational and is perhaps the most complex and nuanced of the capabilities. It includes private conversations with individual members, running small and large meetings, and engaging with managers and executives. Writing skills must also be well developed in a variety of formats.
Working collaboratively is critical. This may include working with other staff networks or engaging with business units to achieve network objectives.
Because staff networks aren’t part of the formal structure the ability to effectively influence and negotiate is magnified in value.
An effective staff network must be results-oriented. It must provide benefits to members, and it must deliver a business outcome (improving staff welfare and agency culture are 2 good examples). Hence delivering results is a key priority.
Time and attention are scarce resources for volunteer staff networks. Effective prioritization and planning are essential to ensure intended benefits are delivered.
Because staff networks sit outside the standard organisational operational structure the need to think through risks and opportunities and solve problems can be significant.
Staff network leads must demonstrate accountability to members, whose interests they represent, and to the agency, whose resources (time, funds, and attention) are relied upon. The agency, the members, and staff more generally are all critical stakeholders.
Of the 4 capabilities project management was the one that was most applicable across all networks. Leading a staff network itself can be a major project. As well, reform and change related activities are best seen as discrete projects.
Staff networks are voluntary, so people management skills must be developed to a high degree. Inspiring direction and purpose are critical to a network where engagement is voluntary.
Managing and developing people is vital with members who participate in network activities which may be new to them. This is especially the case with leadership teams where members may not have leadership experience and need support to build confidence in their capacities.
The challenge of optimising business outcomes is essential if a network is to provide benefit to the organisation to justify the time and resources applied to the network. These outcomes not only benefit members and staff more generally, but also the agency as a whole.
Networks can be actively involved in reform and change, so the need to influence and manage change and reform processes can be central to network activities.
In many respects, being DEN Chair was the hardest role I have ever had. It was more complex than any previous role. Most of my previous roles involved engagement with the public in some way (individuals, service providers and businesses – usually in ways that were dynamic and challenging – but always within a clearly defined set of parameters.
I have described being a staff network lead as being a ‘wildcard’. You don’t have a place within the clearly defined hierarchy of status, responsibility, and influence. But you must respect it and work with it. There is great opportunity but also great risk. You must be a diplomat able to engage with staff at all levels about matters that can be complex and delicate.
I hope I have shown that being a staff network lead can be more challenging than many other leadership roles. The fact that it is voluntary and requires a lot of additional time adds to pressure to perform at a high standard. People who put their hands up to take on a leadership role are driven by a passion for the cause. But they rarely know what they are taking on – in terms of the complexity and the nature of the challenges.
Recognition of the skills required can transform how we value staff networks and support their volunteer leaders.
Staff networks, or Employee Resource Groups, exist because there is an assumption of benefit to be had from their activity. Or maybe they are merely tolerated because their creation is a matter of policy and compliance is performative only. The latter situation is the worst-case scenario for a network lead. The magnitude of difficulty is magnified. Getting good results when the organisation’s senior leadership is not committed to the desired positive change is a far greater challenge. Network leaders who succeed under such circumstances will have earned our respect. Its hard enough when senior leaders are actively supportive.