What Higher Education Can Learn from Corporations About Using ERGs to Develop Diverse Leaders

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In 2014, Deloitte University Press published results from a survey of global organizations, revealing that 86 percent of the companies rated having more effective leaders at all levels as their number one business issue. According to that same study, participating organizations invested $14 billion in leadership development, yet only 8 percent of them, despite all their focus and investments, felt they had a good leadership development process. This low percentage represents a huge gap in an area where organizations are spending so much money and focusing so much energy.

Today, the need for leaders at all levels has continued to increase as the business ecosystem has become even more complicated — due in part to globalization and emerging technologies. At the same time that this need for leaders is growing, an increasing number of baby boomers who are corporate leaders are contemplating leaving their companies to pursue other, non-corporate business or personal interests. This trend will undoubtedly affect higher education as well, as many older workers are set to retire in the coming years. There is, however, a ray of hope.

This hope stems from employee resource groups (ERGs) or, as some institutions prefer to call them, business resource groups or affinity groups. According to some estimates, over 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies had ERGs as far back as 2011. In 2015, a study led by the i4cp Chief Diversity Officer Board revealed that the highest-performing organizations — relative to revenue, profitability, market share, and customer and employee satisfaction in their industries — were outpacing lesser-performing firms in leveraging these ERGs to develop leaders. These companies are getting ahead by using these groups to provide a platform for powerful experiential learning — and institutions of higher education have something to learn from this as well.

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 how companies employ their ERGs as part of a leadership development solution. Participating organizations were MUFG Union Bank, Associated Bank, Wells Fargo, and Sony Pictures Entertainment. Here is a summary of the five-step approach that emerged from discussions of the various activities at these organizations:

First, identify the leadership skills needed by the person being targeted for development. One way to do this is to have the chief diversity officer (CDO), someone else from the office of diversity and inclusion, or the ERG executive sponsor meet with the supervisor of the person being targeted. The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the opportunities for learning various skills, such as presenting, project management, or influencing, and to focus on a specific area of developmental need. Say for example you want to develop a new ERG chair named Christine; your first step should be to meet with Christine’s supervisor to talk about leadership-skills learning opportunities through the ERG and ask her what she thinks would be most valuable for Christine and the overall department. In this meeting, let’s say the supervisor tells you that “influencing” is the skill she thinks would be most valuable for Christine to learn.

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 exhibits the target skill. Let the learner see what good execution looks like. Continuing with my previous example, ask Christine to observe Mary — another ERG leader 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 them, you should meet with Mary and let her know the purpose of their partnership. Assuming Mary is OK with the arrangement, make the introductions and move on to the next step.

Let the person being developed role-play the skill he or she is 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 Christine has observed for an adequate time, Mary should ask her to begin playing a larger role in influencing the other ERG leaders to support the cross-ERG project.

During role-play, provide the learner with performance feedback. Either the person whom the learner observed when developing the skill or another capable leader should step in and act as a coach at this stage. In the example, Mary can provide corrective and supportive feedback to Christine, carefully building on Christine’s expanding skills and eventually letting her take a stronger lead in the project.

Finally, help transfer the new skill to the learner’s workplace. In this final step, the CDO, the person from the office of diversity and inclusion, or the ERG executive sponsor mentioned in step one should circle back to the supervisor. The purpose of this meeting is to highlight what has been learned and to look for opportunities to transfer the newly acquired skills into the person’s job duties and workplace environment. Perhaps some additional coaching may be offered to complete the process at this point. For instance, Mary might coach Christine through a project in her department that requires the use of Christine’s newly acquired and tested “influencing” skills.

The power of this approach is huge because you are actually building the leadership skills of two people: Christine, of course, but also Mary as a coach and a developer of other leaders. You are also reaping many other benefits; for example, you are increasing employee engagement, which is especially important among millennials. A recent Gallup Poll indicates that six in 10 millennials say opportunities to grow and learn are extremely important to them, but only four in 10 say they are satisfied with their current opportunities for advancement. Helping them develop key leadership skills can go a long way toward increasing this group’s engagement. And the beauty of it all is that you are doing it using an existing resource.

The ERGs in almost every organization today offer their companies and institutions the tools they need to develop their own future leaders.

In my writing and speeches, I have often shared a story titled “Field of Diamonds.” The story is about a man who sold his farm and home to unsuccessfully search for diamonds in a far-off land. What the man in this story never realized was that the land he once owned and sold, which was littered with a bounty of almost colorless, transparent stones, was indeed a rich field of diamonds. The ERGs in almost every organization today offer their companies and institutions the tools they need to develop their own future leaders. Furthermore, hidden in plain sight in all of these places are people stepping up to lead ERGs and ERG projects. These people are your uncut diamonds. I invite institutions of higher education to follow the steps of high-performing companies and start leveraging their ERGs to shape and polish their own administrative and leadership treasures.●

Joseph Santana is chairman of the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) Chief Diversity Officer Board and president of Joseph Santana, LLC. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. For more information, visit joesantana.com.