There are many opportunities for leadership in an Employee Resource Group (ERG). Depending on the size of your company and the maturity of your ERG program, leadership roles and responsibilities can vary greatly. You may have positions that are locally focused with as little as ten or less employees, or regional levels that encompass multiple cities or states, or company-wide leadership roles (which I will refer to as national roles) that are responsible for the leadership of the entire ERG, typically in conjunction and supported by a company diversity and inclusion program.
I have held ERG leadership roles at all levels in an organization. There many similar skills and management practices that all leaders in an ERG share and need, but there are also distinct differences in how you lead and what your focus should be.
In this article, I will be addressing the national (company wide) leadership role in an ERG. In the second part of this article, A Primer — Local Leadership, I discuss how it may differ to a national position. Consider this two-part article a primer for leadership in an ERG. It will not cover all aspects of what being a leader may need, but it will level set the mindset and general approach to leadership at these levels. In later articles, I will be focusing on more specific aspects and challenges of leadership within an ERG in greater detail.
National leadership may sound overwhelming, especially considering most employees will first have their “day job” (where they earn a paycheck, and most of their career focus is), and then they have their “gay job” in an LGBTQ ERG, which goes above and beyond the call of duty. So why do it? What’s the payoff? And what does it take to become a national leader?
I have identified three factors that are essential for any national leader.
Each of these is also important for a local leader, but the difference in national leadership is in the intensity of the role and overall responsibilities.
It may seem intuitive that anyone willing to take on a volunteer role in their company needs to be passionate about the cause. Employee Resource Group roles are particularly passionate roles as they each identify with a shared community for the employee, whether that be ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, or any other common trait or shared experience. I have found that leading an LGBTQA ERG involves so many of these common traits, in a variety of complicated relationships, that passion is the number one factor you should consider before taking on a role.
My passion comes from my personal experience growing up as a gay man. I know the fear of rejection and persecution that comes with being an out man. I encountered many “tolerant” managers and colleagues that never outright challenged my sexual orientation. Being in the financial industry, in particular on the west coast, provided for a more accepting work environment. But my first bank I worked for was owned by a Japanese bank, and my current company has offices across the Midwest on out to California. This diverse landscape was a new leadership learning curve that was enlightening and challenging.
In the corporate world, depending on the industry, you may find the culture even less inclusive or counter to your beliefs, which is something that, hopefully, you considered before you joined the organization, but in general your company will first be focused on business. Many companies currently have a balanced focus on customers and employees, understanding that happy employees make for happy customer experiences. Regardless of corporate culture, recognizing the need for ERGs is a company’s first step towards an inclusive work environment.
I had a passion for helping others succeed. I always found satisfaction in helping others learn and develop, sharing my knowledge and experiences to enable others to grow in their careers. It felt natural to me to share and give back. When the opportunity to start an LGBTQA ERG presented itself to me, I first felt slightly overwhelmed at the prospect of taking on something that was being built from the ground up. I quickly realized, though, that I felt truly passionate about helping others share more than just their skills and abilities. I felt that recognizing each other as individuals were essential to teamwork and personal growth at work.
If you have the drive and passion for helping others succeed, no matter their position in the organization, then you have the first ingredient to lead — passion.
I quickly learned, mainly from my “day job,” that even the best-laid plans can take a quick u-turn in the business world. Leadership changes, ideas change, economies change, technology changes, many things change that will impact the work you do, for good or bad.
When leading an ERG, you will need to know that more than half the ideas you have, and initiatives you may start, many never reach their full potential or completion. I state this with the reminder that you are working as a volunteer in the role of an ERG leader, as are the others in your ERG. That means your time and resources can quickly shift dependent upon your “day job” needs and requirements. You will have times when you are quickly developing your ERG programming and events, with company support and colleagues putting in the time above and beyond their usual work. Then, in a blink of an eye, someone leaves the organization, your company decides to focus on a different project and may pull your funding, or your day job suddenly requires your increased focus, pulling you away from your ERG role. It happens to us all. And it will happen to your ERG. Trust me; it will.
But don’t despair! I have had dozens of ideas, events and initiatives for my ERGs start and stop several times. At first, it became frustrating, but I soon realize that adage “everything happens for a reason” has some value here. Many of the “delays” that occurred served to develop the initiative even better later. Or it provided the time to plan more for a bigger launch or more advanced program. Or we eventually realized that we would rather do something else that presented itself later.
The point is that there will be road bumps, or even roadblocks, as you build and develop your ERG. The key is to establish your mental perseverance early on in preparation for these challenges. Learn to welcome these obstacles as opportunities to learn and find new and innovative ways to still move forward. Don’t let one challenge strike down your passion, just find a new path to traverse down in your exploration of getting the job done.
The final key ingredient in being a national leader of an ERG is perspective. Whether your organization has ten or a thousand employees, you will have to work with just as many personalities and ideas. As a national leader, you want to set yourself up with the appropriate expectations of others that while understanding what your leadership objectives are.
I established my expectations for an LGBTQ ERG to focus on education and engagement. Straightforward and open to a variety of options. My personal observations and experiences in the LGBTQ community, both from a business leadership and community leadership perspective, have been that the LGBTQ community has many issues and challenges to tackle, and it is through education and engagement (with LGBTQ individuals and our allies) that we succeed the most. With education and engagement as my perspective, each and every idea and conversation I have with ERG leaders and members can easily fit into one of these two categories.
Additionally, you need to understand the perspective of the other ERG leaders and volunteers. Ask them for their thoughts and feedback as much as possible, which will garner their support for your final decision when it comes to national programs and initiatives that may impact local ERGs.