How ERGs serve as a testing ground for potential leaders

Employee resource groups generally aim to make the workplace more diverse and inclusive, but they can also help build leadership skills and competencies in an individual?

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The concept of ERG, short for employee resource group, is a well-known one. These are groups of like-minded people who represent the under-represented and marginal communities of the society in an organisation. These are often employee-led initiatives, which work towards sensitising the work environment, ensuring more inclusivity and diversity at the workplace.

The members of such groups lead activities and workshops to sensitise the workforce, including the leadership team and managers. What is not known to many is that such ERGs can also serve as great tools to build leadership skills and competencies in individuals! As a leader of such a group, one needs to have multi-disciplinary skills to collaborate with different departments to drive initiatives within the company. In fact, it can be a great tool for people who have never been exposed to leading teams in the past. Companies can check the leadership potential of individuals and further develop them into future leaders.

For instance, Oath, a Verizon media company operates 9 ERGs and it believes that these ERGs drive cultural awareness and competency across its workplace.

Leading an ERG group is a bit more complicated than leading a normal project team, because the work ERG members do is not part of their deliverables. Therefore, the long-term sustainability of the group becomes a challenge.

Leadership skills

Sudipto Pal, senior data scientist at Uber, was chairperson of one such ERG when he was part of Walmart IDC. Pal was one of the founding members of the ERG, which represented the LGBTQ community. Though no longer part of Walmart IDC, Pal was the chairperson of the ERG for two years.

“ERG can really be a great tool to assess the leadership potential in individuals, testing their skills and putting them into use for further organisational growth”

Sushil Barkur, AVP-L&D, talent management & organisational development

Talking to HRKatha, he shares that leading a 12-member ERG was a great experience for him. It helped him acquire leadership skills, such as using influence without authority, leading people out of their comfort zone and storytelling abilities, which he feels are very important skills as a leader.

“It required collaborating with different departments, so it helped me to acquire collaboration skills. Moreover, when one is leading, it is more about the people aspect. Naturally, it helps develop leadership qualities. Rather, in my case, as I already possessed the experience of leading teams in the past, this experience helped to further enhance my leadership qualities,” tells Pal.

Confidence and Prioritisation

Another example is of Steven Rybicki, who is now a tech lead at Asana, a computer software firm. In one of his blogs featured on the Company’s website, Rybicki mentions that he was just a software engineer in the Android team with no experience in leading teams when he became the co-lead of the Rainbow Team, an ERG group which was the voice of the LGBTQ community at the workplace.

Rybicki admits that it was the experience of leading an ERG group that gave him the confidence to lead teams in his future roles. He went on to successfully lead an intern programme and the android team, before eventually becoming a manager.

“ERG somewhat works as a cross-functional assignment as one is driving initiatives with people coming from various functions. Also, as a leader, one is co-ordinating with various departments”

A group organisational development head from the financial services industry

From his stint as an ERG leader, Rybicki learnt to define a mission for the team and then execute it. The second lesson he learnt was how to recruit the right kind of people. As mentioned earlier, the activities carried out by the members of such groups are not their day-to-day mandate. As an ERG leader, one has to assign exciting roles and define the purpose so as to engage the members. Third, he learnt to balance priorities. He managed to strike a balance between prioritising ERG responsibilities and his routine work.

100% on-the-job training

According to Sushil Barkur, AVP-L&D, talent management & organisational development, Alkem Laboratories, leading an ERG, gives a 100 per cent on-the-job training to a person. Other management training programmes follow the 70:20:10 model for building leadership skills in an individual, where 70 per cent is on-the-job learning. “ERG can really be a great tool to assess the leadership potential in individuals, testing their skills and putting them into use for further organisational growth,” says Barkur.

“ERG somewhat works as a cross-functional assignment as one is driving initiatives with people coming from various functions. Also, as a leader, one is co-ordinating with various departments,” shares a group organisational development head from the financial services industry.

“I believe ERGs can help people develop meta-skills, which act as catalysts to learning other skills faster. These can help build foundational leadership competencies”

Anil Santhapuri, director – L&D, CGI

Anil Santhapuri, director – L&D, CGI, shares that sometimes managers are unable to find the right opportunities or projects for their subordinates to hone their leadership skills. In such cases, they can be made part of the ERG and given a chance to lead it, to hone and practise their leadership skills.

Santhapuri shares an example from his own company, where recently some ERGs were created, with Santhapuri himself being part of one. “We have a women’s ERG, which drives initiatives to empower women. As of now, senior leaders, such as myself, are supporting the group, but slowly we will recede backstage and let the members take over and lead the group and its activities,” asserts Santhapuri.

Though all L&D and HR leaders agree that an experience in leading an ERG can have a positive impact on the succession of an individual, very few consider ERG as a leadership- development tool. In a survey, it was found that only 40 per cent of the respondents were likely to evaluate a person’s ERG leadership skills. While it does have a positive impact in succession planning, and the survey reveals that organisations are three times more likely to assess or review the effectiveness of ERGs as a leadership development vehicle, only 14 per cent of the respondents actually do so.

“Leading ERG requires collaborating with different departments, so it helped me to acquire collaboration skills. Moreover, when one is leading, it is more about the people aspect. Naturally, it helps develop leadership qualities”

Sudipto Pal, senior data scientist, Uber

Why do companies not see ERGs as a tool to develop, practise and hone early leadership competencies? Most often they take it as an extracurricular activity for employees.

“The issue can be short sightedness of organisations. I believe ERGs can help people develop meta-skills, which act as catalysts to learning other skills faster. These can help build foundational leadership competencies. However, I think companies will start realising the importance of ERGs as a strong leadership development tool in the coming years,” opines Santhapuri.

“Ever since the pandemic struck, many ERGs were created in the form of task forces. In another two to three years, the relevance of ERGs will increase amongst Indian businesses,” asserts Barkur.

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