Get the Most Out of Leading an ERG

Daniel was feeling terrible. After four years as the chairman of one of his company’s employee networks, otherwise known as an employee resource group (ERG), he was feeling a bit tired and did not see much personal return for his efforts in terms of skill development or career growth. The only saving grace was that he had met many more people in his company, but frankly, that wasn’t translating into any added career or personal opportunities. He was also getting pressure from his boss, who felt that this “non-department focused activity was taking away time that could be best spent on his formal job.” Daniel was stuck in what I would call a bad ERG chairman situation. Daniel is real, although his name has been changed.

Being tapped by your company to lead an employee network or volunteering for the role can be extremely rewarding, but the benefits do not accrue automatically without planning and having a strategy and healthy conditions in place. Unfortunately, there really is such a thing as a bad ERG chairman situation. Here are just a few common clues that will let you know when you are in this situation:

  1. You are not receiving any leadership training or coaching, but are expected and held accountable for driving strategies, action plans and results clearly beyond the scope of your organizational experience and current competencies.
  2. You are essentially the ERG’s chief, cook and bottle-washer. In this case, being the chairman means you do all the heavy lifting alone: get the speakers for an event, secure the venue, get the food, invite the attendees, do the fundraising and clean up the conference room after meetings (and you do it all on lunch breaks or after work hours).
  3. No one else seems to want the role, especially the most career-minded people in your company, even when they share your passion for the ERG’s objectives. They may attend your meetings, but they are not willing to join you in the leadership of the group or to position themselves as your future successors. The message here is clear: You essentially have the job that no one else wants.
  4. Your ERG job — and believe me it is a job — is not factored into your performance evaluation. It’s not even considered a developmental experience.
  5. The worse sign of all: Your manager does not recognize value in your taking on the role. In fact, your immediate manager suggests your ERG participation is interfering with your “real job.”

The good news is that you can fix these problems if you are already an ERG chairman, or you can avoid the problems that might arise as a result of taking on the role in the future. Here are a few simple steps you can take:

  • Before accepting or continuing in an ERG leadership role, make sure your direct manager fully supports your participation. If you are not sure, set up a meeting and ask. If the answer is no and you proceed, you are doing so at your own personal cost. If you do not want to incur personal costs, you probably need to pass on this role.
  • Assuming your manager supports you taking on this role, during your next performance evaluation and planning session, talk about how your role as an ERG leader can be evaluated and included in your performance review. At a minimum, you should be able to identify how the experience will contribute to your development of specific skills such as leadership, project management, organizational, etc.
  • Explore and discuss areas where you will need training, coaching or support to fill the role of network leader. Be clear in stating what you need. Perhaps your organization already has in-house resources that can supply needed learning, experiences or coaching. If it doesn’t, there are plenty of external options available. Be prepared to present whatever options are suitable in your situation.
  • Make sure your coaching is more than a once-a-month discussion with a sponsor that ends with you learning very little, but adding to your list of tasks that need to be completed. Coaching is about your development, not about having work dumped on you. Start your relationship with your coach by identifying the areas you need to target for development to fulfill your network objectives. Track the progress of the coaching by measuring your development in the targeted areas and the results you are producing through the network.
  • Don’t try to do it all. Build a core team of leaders for specific areas of focus, such as funding, getting speakers, event planning, etc. These core leaders should also make sure they have the general support of their managers, as well as support for development in specific areas. Also, these members of your leadership team should ensure that their developments and accomplishments are also considered in their performance reviews.
  • Establish a term limit and make grooming a successor to take on the role when your term ends one of your objectives. Give someone else the opportunity to learn and develop.

Organizations today are increasingly recognizing the value of ERGs. Different from their early days as grassroots, employee-driven efforts, ERGs in most companies are now a basic component of the firm. Leading one of these networks can be an opportunity to contribute to your company in areas where you have a natural passion while at the same time developing valuable new skills and contacts. Getting the most personal career value out of the experience and avoiding possible frustrations, however, does require some thoughtful planning.