ERG Leaders Add Value by Challenging Business Leaders

Over the year of writing this blog, I’ve focused on a number of ways that ERGs can drive value to their members as well as their companies. My suggestions have covered a broad number of topics and provided tips and ideas that are pretty easy to apply. In this post, however, I would like to focus on how ERG leaders can be of ultimate value to everyone in their organization, as a voice for the progress of the members they represent and a catalyst for positive change.

ERGs certainly add value to the entire organization when they act as homes and hearths for the underrepresented. They also add value when they join outreach efforts and leverage their members’ social networks and perspectives to provide the organization with new avenues of business opportunity. There is one thing that some ERG leaders do, however, that I believe is the highest means of driving value and supporting the company’s evolution toward greater diversity and inclusion. It is to become the authentic voice of their members’ needs for advancement in numbers, level and engagement. To do this, ERG leaders must speak their minds honestly and respectfully, with the goal of challenging status quo thinking and behaviors that do not create an inclusive and engaging environment for the members they represent. If some of you think of this as a return to the activism roots that started many of these groups back in the ’70s, well, it is. It is ultimately a challenge to keep all the good things that have been added to what ERGs and BRGs do, without losing the power of those behaviors that were the seeds of their birth and development.

While we have made progress in diversity and inclusion over the past decades through numerous efforts, including those led by ERGs, let’s face it: the results are not earth-shattering. According to a 2010 study, over a period spanning 10 years starting in 2000, women in America went from earning 79 percent of a man’s salary for a comparable job to 81 percent, and from being 40 percent of the management population to 41 percent. Many other countries show the same underwhelming results for women, and the pictures for blacks, Hispanics, Asians and many others are pretty much the same. Should an ERG’s only response to these challenges be to hold more Women’s Day celebrations, sign more diversity charters, or increase the frequency of what a good friend of mine once called “food, fun and flag celebration days” to show the inclusivity of their company, despite these statistics? I think not.

I believe what’s needed is for ERGs to provide the most value-driving gift they can give to their organization and the people in it who truly want to become more diverse, engaging and inclusive — challenge them! Specifically, challenge your organizational business leadership and the stewards of various parts of your talent pipeline (recruiting, development, benefits, etc.). The next time you give a presentation detailing what your ERG has done for its members and the company, add a few of the following questions for your leadership team:

  1. What are you doing to increase the attraction, development, engagement and inclusion of (add here the social aspect that your ERG represents; for example, LGBT, women, blacks, Hispanics)? Even if you don’t have demographic representation numbers, go by what you see. It’s your perception and therefore your truth.
  2. Since leadership behavior shapes perception in an organization, I would like you and your direct reports to attend some of our meetings. Please know that your absence is perceived as a sign that this is not important enough for you. Again, speak your truth.
  3. Now that we’ve talked about what we are doing for the company and members, I would like to invite you to share your thoughts with us on how you can help us make this company even more attractive and inclusive for (add here the social aspect that your ERG represents). Make sure to leave a generous amount of time for this discussion, and don’t back down from challenging anything that is unspecific and unclear.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but just a few examples of how you can push and take your leadership and yourself to what some refer to as the ZOUD, or zone of uncomfortable debate. The bottom line is that if you never take conversation to this challenging place, where authentic beliefs find themselves in conflict, and you need to work toward a solution through facts, you are supporting the status quo with all of its current deficits.

If some of you are getting a tight feeling in the pit of your stomach as you read this, it’s because this level of authenticity that brings you into the ZOUD with your executive leadership takes courage and skill. To speak your truth and get others to speak their truth with the intention of working toward real fact-based solutions is important for real progress. Something that may help along the way is to develop your skills in holding respective, but authentic, fact-based discussion with others (a shameless and irresistible plug for one of the things I coach, and my own style).

Organizations are generally a reflection of their leaders. If we want an organization to evolve, its leadership must evolve. To do this, leaders must acquire an authentic understanding of the diversity of thought and opinions within the organization. Without that authenticity, these remain hidden and useless. Leaders must also be challenged to face questions outside their comfort zone. Therefore, I urge you as change agents to give your company the gift of your membership’s perspectives and truth! For real progress speak your truth loudly, and frequently take them into the ZOUD!