How to Turn Your ERGs into Leadership Development Engines

Despite spending billions of dollars on leadership development in the U.S. alone each year, few organizations believe they are effectively meeting the growing demands of the global business environment. There is, however, a bright ray of hope in the form of ubiquitous employee resource groups (ERGs), or as some companies prefer to call them, business resource groups (BRGs).

According to some estimates, over 90% of the Fortune 500 companies had ERGs as far back as 2011. In 2015, a study led by i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board revealed that organizations that are the highest performers—relative to revenue, profitability, market share, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction in their industries—were outpacing lesser-performing firms in leveraging these ERGs to develop leaders. These high-performance organizations are getting ahead by using their ERGs to provide a platform for powerful experiential learning.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of distinguished leaders at the Elevate ERG Summit in San Diego, where the panel joined me in exploring just how companies employ their ERGs as part of a leadership development solution. The panel included:

  • Lori Nickel, Vice President and Senior Diversity Consultant, MUFG Union Bank, N.A.
  • Darcy Pierson, SVP and Director of Inclusion, Engagement, & Change Leadership, Associated Bank
  • Maggie Murphy Maertz, SVP, OED Leader, Talent Development and Organization Effectiveness, Wells Fargo & Company
  • Paul Martin, SVP & Chief Diversity Officer, Sony Pictures Entertainment (and a member of i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board).

Here’s my summary of the five-step approach that emerged from our discussion of the various activities at their organizations:

1. First, identify the leadership skills needed by the person being targeted for development.

One way to do this is to have the CDO or someone from the D &I function and/or the ERG executive sponsor meet with the supervisor of the person being targeted for development. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the opportunities for learning various skills such as presenting, project management, influencing, etc., and to focus on a specific area of developmental need. So, if I want to develop a new ERG Chair named Christine, my first step would be to meet with Christine’s supervisor to talk about the opportunities for learning a variety of leadership skills through the ERG and ask her what she, the supervisor, thinks would be most valuable for Christine and her department. In this meeting, let’s say Christine’s supervisor tells me that “influencing” is the skill she thinks would be most valuable for Christine to learn.

2. Next, enable the learner to observe the target skill or skills in action.

The goal here is to connect the learner to a sponsor or member of the group who is considered to be effective in the target skill. Let the learner see what good execution looks like. So, continuing with my example, I would ask Christine to observe Mary, who is another ERG leader and someone who is recognized as an influencer. Mary is currently working on a cross-ERG project for a big event, which can serve as an opportunity for Christine to learn from Mary. Of course, before introducing Christine to Mary, I would meet with Mary and let her know the purpose of their partnership. Assuming Mary is okay with the arrangement, I make the introductions and move on to the next step.

3. Subsequently, let the person being developed role-play the skill they are learning.

The overall thinking here is that this role-play could be accomplished by giving the learner an ERG project or a task that requires the use of the targeted skill. So, after some adequate time observing Mary, Christine will be asked by Mary to begin playing a bigger role in influencing the other ERG leaders to support the cross-ERG project.

4. While they are role-playing, provide the learner with performance feedback.

Perhaps the person whom the learner observed when learning the skill or another capable leader steps in and acts as a coach at this stage. In our example, Mary can provide corrective and supportive feedback to Christine, carefully building on Christine’s growing skills and eventually letting her take a stronger lead in the project.

5. Finally, support bridging the newly learned skill into the learner’s workplace.

In this final step, the CDO or the person from the D&I function and/or the ERG executive sponsor that met with the supervisor in step 1 circles back to the supervisor. The purpose of this meeting is to highlight what’s been learned and look for opportunities to carry the newly-acquired skill back into the person’s workplace day-job. Perhaps some additional coaching may be offered to complete the process at this point. Ending our example, at this point, Mary might coach Christine through a project in her department that requires the use of Christine’s newly acquired and tested “influencing” skills.

In my writing and speeches, I’ve often shared a story titled “Field of Diamonds” about a man who sold his farm and home to go unsuccessfully looking for diamonds in a far-off land. What the man never realized was that the land he once owned and sold, which was littered with a bounty of almost colorless transparent stones that had a light yellowish to brownish tint, was indeed a rich field of diamonds on the rough. Many organizations with a little effort will find huge deposits of “future leaders in the rough” in their midst. The ERGs sitting in almost every one of these organizations offer their companies the tools they need to polish these future leaders into brilliant corporate gemstones. I invite you to follow the steps of high-performance companies and start leveraging your ERGs to shape and polish your own leadership treasures.

Joe Santana is the Chair of i4cp's Chief Diversity Officer Board.