Sustaining Employee Resource Groups: How to run it like a business

In today's episode, you'll learn about the critical aspects of managing and scaling Employee Resource Group (ERG) programs. We chat with Maceo Owens, ERG Homegirl, CEO and founder of The ERG Movement, and discuss the most common challenges encountered in ERG programs. Then, we dive into the pitfalls ERG program leaders often fall into. Finally discover that one game-changing tip for setting up your ERG programs effectively.

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Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) have become an integral part of many companies' diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies.

By bringing together employees with shared backgrounds or interests, ERGs can foster a greater sense of belonging, provide professional development opportunities, and advise organizations on relevant issues. However, creating and sustaining an impactful ERG program requires thoughtful leadership.

The need for a solid foundation

One of the most common issues Maceo sees with ERG programs is groups putting on events and programming without first establishing alignment on the vision and strategy for the ERG.

She explained, "Most of the time, people skip right to the product. With ERG leaders, they skip right to the programming without alignment on what the ERG program is about."

This lack of strategic clarity trickles down into confusion around goals, metrics, and governance. Rather than rushing into programming, Macio advised that ERG leaders and program managers take a step back to get alignment from stakeholders on four key questions:

  1. What are we trying to accomplish with this ERG program?
  2. Who is the program meant to serve - the business, employees, or both?
  3. How will we measure success towards those goals?
  4. What is the strategy to reach our vision?

Without anchoring the ERG in this foundational understanding, it becomes difficult to prioritize initiatives, demonstrate impact, and sustain engagement over time.

Creating the infrastructure for success

Once the vision and strategy are established, the next priority according to Macio is putting structures and systems in place to empower ERG leader autonomy.

This prevents the ERG program team from becoming a bottleneck for decision-making.

Maceo suggested creating the following for each ERG:

  • A roles and responsibilities document that clarifies the different positions within the ERG and what is expected of each
  • A data dashboard to track progress towards goals and inform strategic decisions
  • A process document that outlines exactly how the ERG functions on a day-to-day basis

With these tools in place, ERG leaders have the information and authority they need to operate effectively without over-reliance on the central ERG program team.

The ideal state is one where the ERGs can be largely self-sustaining.

Running an ERG Like a Business

To illustrate what it takes to build a successful ERG, Maceo used the analogy of running a small business. She explained:

"ERG leadership is like being a really good cake baker. Just because you're good at baking cakes doesn't mean you know how to run a cake baking business."

In other words, passion for a topic or community does not automatically translate to the capabilities required to lead an impactful ERG program. Key skills like strategic planning, project management, communication, and stakeholder engagement must be developed.

Macio went on to explain that small businesses often struggle to scale because they lack strong systems and strategy. The same is true of ERGs. To thrive, ERGs need to have the three P's in place:

  • People - Getting alignment amongst stakeholders
  • Process - Creating systems for governance, measurement, etc.
  • Product - Developing programming and initiatives

Without establishing the first two foundations, the "products" of an ERG will have limited impact.

Confidence in your ERG vision

When asked for her #1 piece of advice for ERG leaders, Maceo emphasized the importance of having confidence in your program vision and strategy, especially when others question your approach.

As an ERG leader, you will likely encounter skeptics and receive plenty of unsolicited ideas from across the business.

By grounding yourself in an understanding of best practices, you'll have the resolve to stay the course rather than allowing your ERG program to be pulled in too many directions.

Bringing Maceo's insights together, the key ingredients for ERG success seem to be:

  1. Strategic clarity and alignment
  2. Strong systems and governance
  3. Confidence rooted in expertise

With these fundamentals in place, ERG leaders can devote their energy towards community-building, programming, and driving impact rather than getting bogged down in decision paralysis or questioning the purpose of their ERG.

For more expert perspectives on leading high-impact ERGs that transform organizations, be sure to check out The ERG Movement and their free community for ERG leaders.