The Future of ERGs

Employee resource groups, or ERGs, have come a long way. They started more than 30 years ago as social networks, but today their influence is thriving. Nearly 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have an ERG.

There are many reasons for the growth, but what concerns me now is their future. I wonder if their sway and existence will continue to grow or if ERGs are reaching a plateau? To avoid a dip in prestige and power, I have three suggestions that diversity leaders should incorporate if they want their ERGs to continue to be relevant.

Take it to the top: While catering to employees at the individual contributor and manager level has served ERGs well, they must broaden their appeal to more senior levels in an organization. This means they must attract high performers who are at the senior director and vice president levels.

Doing so will improve group performance. Senior-level employees know how to get things done and often think at a much more strategic level. Being more strategic enables the ERG to have a greater impact.

Benchmark constantly: There is a group of leaders of Latino employee resource groups for most of the top employers in the Chicagoland area. The group is called the Consortium of Latino Employee Organizations, or CLEO, and member companies include Allstate, Baxter, Caterpillar, GE, Kellogg’s and Walgreens, to name a few. CLEO members meet each quarter, and they share best practices, explore ways to collaborate, address common challenges and participate in leadership development workshops together.

But even though CLEO has existed for close to five years and can boast of having more than 25 corporate member companies, there are still Latino ERGs at some of the other top employers in Chicago who choose not to be involved. Their reasons for not joining CLEO include not having time, not wanting to share their strategies, a belief that they won’t learn from their Latino ERG peers, and most surprisingly, that they don’t need to benchmark because they already know they are good.

When ERGs fail to benchmark on a consistent basis, they lose the ability to evaluate performance against others. They limit their possibilities by not analyzing external trends. And they fail to build partnerships with others they can leverage during times of need, not to mention that they diminish their ability to learn from the others’ experiences.

The ERGs of the future must not only benchmark, but also they must do so on a regular, formal basis. I’m encouraged to see that formal ERG benchmarking groups not only exist in Chicago, but also in Atlanta, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Establish an ERG leadership academy: It amazes me that so many companies are expecting more from their ERGs, such as to make a business impact, develop future leaders, provide cultural insights, serve as community ambassadors and expand nationally and globally. Yet while the demands on these groups have risen, the training provided to group leaders has not. If ERGs truly are to meet their potential, their leaders need to create and offer development focused on their group roles.

I’ve seen several progressive companies develop what I would call an ERG leadership academy. These academies consist of training and development specifically for ERG leaders. The focus of these leadership academies varies, however. Some focus on developing certain leadership competencies. For example, I helped MillerCoors put together a curriculum of courses that its ERG leaders must attend, and one such course is called The Inclusive Leader. By enhancing the ability to lead in an inclusive way, their leaders are better prepared to guide the group.

When it comes to ERGs, I’ve seen it all. Because of this experience, I feel confident that if these groups engage senior-level executives, benchmark and engage in ERG-specific training, they will be well on their way to making an even greater impact for years to come.