The Important Role of Executive Sponsors in Driving ERG Success

Effective employee resource groups (ERGs) are driving forces for organizational change and help promote a sense of belonging among employees. However, for ERGs to be successful, leadership support and involvement are essential.

The lack of alignment between company leadership and ERGs is challenge for many employee resource groups. Executive sponsors — senior leaders who mentor and advocate for ERG groups — help bridge the gap, drive the group’s efficacy, and connect its mission to company goals. 

Studies have shown that these leaders are not always on the same page regarding the challenges ERGs face, including the benefits of participation. For instance, a recent Great Place to Work survey found that 100% of executive sponsors said company leadership encouraged participation in ERGs. However, only 52% of ERG leaders agreed. Similarly, 78% of executive sponsors believe involvement in ERGs supports career advancement, compared to 40% of ERG leaders. 

Establishing a good working relationship between the sponsor and group leaders empowers the ERG to make an impact within the organization. To be effective, both ERG leaders and executive sponsors must align on the needs and expectations of the group from the beginning. Below are key considerations to help set the foundation for executive sponsors to drive ERG success.

1. Understand the ERG’s needs.

According to Elfi Martinez, Senior Director at Jennifer Brown Consulting, at a recent Kindred Assembly, ambiguity around an executive sponsor’s role often leads to a breakdown in their relationship with the ERG. As such, ERG leaders must first outline their group’s short- and long-term needs and the skills that would be most beneficial to helping them meet their goals.

For instance, a new ERG may need help outlining its mission and aligning that to the company’s overall goals. On the other hand, a more established ERG may be more immediately concerned with getting senior leadership buy-in or funding for a specific initiative. 

For executive sponsors, understanding these needs will help them identify how their existing skills, experiences, and connections can inform how the group is structured, its initiatives, and overall success within the organization. 

2. Identify key roles.

Depending on the ERG’s goals, the executive sponsor can perform several different functions for the group. Martinez outlined five key roles that executive sponsors can play to help the ERG achieve its objectives:

  • Strategists: Strategists help the group articulate its mission, vision, and goals, and ensure they align with overall business objectives. They are also critical to informing the group’s structure and governance to ensure its initiatives are impactful.
  • Evangelists: Evangelists are passionate leaders who advocate for the ERG on issues and promote the ERG and its initiatives to executives and middle managers.
  • Innovators: Innovators are well-positioned to help procure much-needed resources for the group and often push leaders and members to approach obstacles in new ways.
  • Brokers: Brokers help push the ERG forward by making connections within and outside the organization, ensuring group leaders understand the company’s priorities, and helping to procure funding for the group.
  • Mentors: Mentors teach professional and leadership skills and provide career advice to ERG leaders and members.

The function that the executive sponsor performs depends on the needs of the group and the organization as a whole. “One of the most important things you can do in the early stages of this conversation is to make sure you have the right sponsors linked up with the right ERG based on what they need and where they are in their development,” Martinez  said.

3. Set expectations upfront.

To maximize the relationship with the executive sponsor, Martinez encourages ERG leaders to set clear and specific expectations upfront about how they can best support the group. Identifying short and long-term goals can provide a framework for the sponsor to help meet the needs of the ERG.

This clarity is particularly important when the executive sponsor is not of the same group or demographic as the ERG.

“There’s a lot of anxiety that exists for executive sponsors that are not part of that particular demographic. And if you don’t speak to it, if you don’t deal with it head-on, if you don’t make it very clear how folks can help you and make sure that they’re involved early, then that relationship is not doing to develop because that can really undercut the relationship from the beginning,” he notes. 

For inclusive organizations invested in the growth of their employee resource groups, empowering ERG leaders through executive sponsors is crucial to bridging the gap between employees and leadership. An effective sponsor drives the ERG forward, supports its goals in the broader organization, and facilitates the personal and professional growth of leaders and members. Understanding how executive sponsors can best support the ERG and articulating expectations upfront will help lay the foundation for a successful relationship.

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Urey Onuoha

Published on December 10, 2021