Does Your ERG Have an Executive Figurehead, Sponsor or Coach?

What is the role of employee resource group executive sponsors? I recently read an article in the Jan. 7 edition of Forbes.com titled “Diversity Management Is Outdated and Demands a New Approach.” It quoted an anonymous senior executive stating his or her concern about being asked to sponsor an employee resource group that the executive felt was disorganized, time-intensive and at risk for damaging the executive’s reputation.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time I heard this position; it always makes me wonder what these prospective executive sponsors believe their role is relative to employee resource groups. Imagine what the board’s reaction would be if a senior executive expressed this same sentiment in regard to taking some responsibility for helping a disorganized marketing or sales department. Not good, I can assure you.

Reading this senior executive’s comment, one is led to believe that this person feels that the ideal role of the sponsor is to find that special ERG where he or she can participate as an executive figurehead — investing as little time as possible and reigning over a well-oiled machine run by people who don’t really need that leadership. That lucky executive figurehead could then be on hand to make a few nice speeches and take bows at special ERG events and just look good. Perhaps he or she could invest a few dollars from time to time toward an event and voilà! — the executive’s work is done, plus his or her reputation is enhanced with a minimum of effort. Sounds like a really cushy little job, doesn’t it?

Contrary to this approach, some of the best executive sponsors I’ve met have a tremendous amount of drive when it comes to people development. They are passionate and tireless mentors, coaches and decision supporters who, among other things, help:

  • Develop and grow leadership qualities in the ERG chairmen, who are for the most part more junior than they are. They often do this by sitting down with the ERG’s formal leaders and holding coaching sessions.
  • Counsel and steer the chairmen toward actions that drive business value. In some cases, they do this by connecting ERG leaders to their business contacts or proposing an idea for consideration that will align some of the ERG’s activities to organizational business goals.
  • Counsel and steer the chairmen toward actions that attract and develop members.

These executives tend to be people developers who serve their companies and ERGs by using their accumulated experience and wisdom to develop the next generation of leadership. At the same time, they also support the alignment of these and other groups in a way that drives greater value to the overall organization and its people.

Perhaps part of the problem is in the use of the label “sponsor,” which certainly does not define the role of the people-developers I’ve outlined above. I think a better term for this group is “ERG executive coach.”

Another factor may be the fact that this dedication and effort on the part of these exceptional leaders tends to be a thankless job and thus another thing that spawns a negative attitude in some executives; they don’t want too much of their time and energy pulled into supporting time-demanding, needy ERGs that pose little opportunity for personal recognition and reward — despite the opportunity for additional exposure.

For organizations that want to have executives engaged in developing and supporting ERGs, therefore, the effort may be twofold: Change the name of the role to ERG executive coach and work to raise the level of visible and public organizational appreciation, as well as concrete rewards, for those senior executives who do take on the tough role of ERG coach. With these two steps, companies can make progress toward eliminating “empty-suit-figurehead sponsorships” and raising the profile of their ERGs and the overall culture of community leadership development throughout the organization.