What’s in a name?


I have been engaged in consulting with half a dozen diversity networks, including a DEN, mentoring their leadership teams. It has been an opportunity for me to reflect on my own practice and to encourage leads to take a fresh look at their own.

The networks have retained the now well-established practice of referring to the primary leads as Chairs (man, woman, or person). This reflects the traditional committee structure – and its time to put that aside, and the titles related to it.

The committee model has done great service over the centuries, but its formality doesn’t suit the contemporary workplace cultures that many networks operate in. Leadership team members are often time poor, having to fit their network roles around their formal roles.

Functions and habits

There are critical jobs to be done in any network. But the model for how they are done isn’t fixed. The committee approach has been the standard, but now we can explore more dynamic approaches drawn from military doctrine and enterprise creation. The emphasis adaptation to need, flexibility, and innovation as well parsimony of effort. In an earlier post I explored the idea of a network lead being a ‘wild card’ in that they do not fit within the standard organisational hierarchy. For example, as DEN Chair, despite my mid-level grade and non-manager status I had direct access to the department’s Secretary.

It’s not usual to see that an enterprise and a military action are similar, but there’s an advantage in discovering how the idea of military doctrine provides a foundation for a highly effective results-oriented leadership approach. A good example is the Leadership Strategy and Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink (Kate Nash, CEO of PurpleSpace is a fan of this author). I am not suggesting an aggressive approach so much as one that is highly adaptive and flexible – something our contemporary military has crafted into a high art.

In the public sector context these enterprise and military perspectives offer a contrast in thinking about how a staff network can best operate in service of the needs of its members and the organisation. The challenge is to break away from habits of thought that tend to preach conformity to the prevailing conceptions of authority.

Models that focus on how to make best use of limited resources (time and attention especially) to achieve significant outcomes are better suited to contemporary circumstances.

In May 2018 I attended the Australian Network on Disability’s (AND) annual national conference in Sydney. The keynote speaker was Kate Nash, founder of the UK based PurpleSpace – an organisation dedicated to supporting staff with disability to achieve change in their organisations. I have written extensively about that experience, so I won’t rehash the detail here. The key observation is that Kate exposed me to a way of operating that was novel and, as I adapted to it, it transformed how I operated as DEN Chair. The DEN became a highly effective instrument of positive change precisely because it changed how it behaved.

What Kate Nash did for me was open me to a way of operating that dealt with the realities experienced by staff with disability rather than conforming to past ways of doing things. Most importantly, you can’t drive change by meeting only 4 times a year. There’s an ‘always on’ mode you must find – a committee is not a good vehicle to do so.

Passion for positive change

As a person with a fulltime disability, Kate helped me see that a parttime passion for change is a bad match. But it has taken me over a decade to fully appreciate that a fulltime passion for change doesn’t have to be an extra impost of time and attention, rather a refinement of my personal approach. Always on isn’t something that has to be a burden to be shouldered, but rather a value to be lived.

The value of a name

I have been gently suggesting that ‘Coordinator’ is a better title than ‘Chair’ because it suggests active engagement better. You can chair a meeting and still not arrive at actions as the primary concern because ‘chairing’ implies sitting down and talking as a primary function. On the other hand, being a coordinator is instantly more of a doing name.

I am not asserting that coordinator has to be ‘the name’, only that ‘chair’ has to go. Also ‘coordinator’ tends to be thought of as a job, whereas ‘chair’ is an occasional role. And everybody knows what chairing a meeting is about – something you do for a short time and then go back to your ‘real job’.

I don’t like committees. I have been on many and I have chaired many. My dislike has been honed over decades of steady disappointment. That’s why, as DEN Chair I called the DEN members who offered to be more engaged the Guidance and Action Team (GAT) and not a management committee. They performed the necessary functions of managing but as guiders and action initiators.

I’d rather see those engaged with leading a network called the leadership team with no reference to management or committee.

Time and effort

Staff networks are voluntary but vital. Their role in evolving workplace culture is invaluable when they are operating at peak potential. But to enjoy that potential some things must come together in a harmonious and productive way.

These days, time and attention are scarce resources which must not be squandered. We can begin with crafting crisp understandings of what a network is for – what potential value it can add to the inclusion aspirations of staff (the workforce community), and the organisation as a whole.

If we name functions correctly, in ways that suit a network’s purpose, we can focus attention on the positive and productive nature of a role. That will help focus attention on important actions and ensure that the attention expended is crisply focused.


My legacy as DEN Chair is cemented and I cannot revise it. But chairing is what I did least. I negotiated, wrangled, persuaded, inspired, aspired, and envisioned. It was one of the toughest roles I have undertaken, and one of the most rewarding.

Being a member of a staff leadership team can be complex and challenging. It often propels members into challenge areas they are unfamiliar with. It’s a real and difficult job that takes personal commitment and dedication to be done well. In a very real sense, it can be as professionally demanding as any mainstream leadership role. That reality is, however, effectively camouflaged by the names we give these leadership roles. 

By choosing your role names carefully you can focus attention on core goals and values. This in turn can clarify expectations and prevent misinterpretations of the nature and purpose of the network.

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