Building Successful Employee Resource Groups – Tools for Leader & Executive Sponsors

Laura McCann

Human Resources Director at Dreyers Grand Ice Cream

Learning Objectives

Over 90% of Fortune 500 companies have Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), yet how many of them truly gain traction within their organizations? We will review how Leader & Executive Sponsors play three (3) Key Roles in building successful ERGs while reviewing a business case study. Effective ERGs are a critical part of any Diversity and Inclusion strategy. Join us to learn more about how to make them successful at your organization!

Key Takeaways:

  • 3 Keys to Employee Resource Group Success

  • 3 Roles Leader & Executive Sponsors Need to Play

  • Roles in Action-View of Success

"They were so shocked that I would say yes, and they didn't have to justify and do all this work."

Laura McCann

Human Resources Director at Dreyers Grand Ice Cream


Hi there, this is Laura McCann. I am an HR Director, currently with Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream. I’m here today to talk to you about building employee resource groups, more specifically about sponsorship.

So just to level set us all, what is an employee resource group? An employee resource group are voluntary employee led groups. Their goal is really to foster an inclusive, diverse workplace. It really aligned with the company’s where they’re at. Over 90% of all Fortune 500 companies have some sort of ERG. The level of effectiveness really varies based on the group and based on the company. Chances are, your company has one.

In terms of strategies to drive engagement, I want to talk today about three keys of employee resource group success, and then really dig into one of those keys, which is executive, leadership, and sponsorship. I’m going to go through a case study of a woman in engineering group. Then, again, talk about those three roles for your executive and leadership sponsor.

So in terms of the three keys, let’s start there. The first one is engaged, passionate employees who are really excited about the group that they’re in. It could be they’re excited about getting more women into STEM roles. It could be really amplified around the Latino culture, and how do we get more Latinos in the workspace. Whatever it is, you want employees who are passionate about the group’s message.

The second key is organizational support. I like to say this is where the money comes from. What is the support and resources that your organization, and more specifically, you, are interested in giving to this group? So they absolutely need organizational support, what is that going to look like?

The third key, and what we’ll spend most of our time on today, is highly engaged leadership and executive sponsors. We’re gonna go through a real life example. I want to chat about the Women in Engineering group. This group had been around for a little bit of time. In 2018, their structure, they had one person who led the group who worked kind of in a little bit of an offshoot organization. They had an executive sponsor. He was the VP of Engineering, white male. They had an HR Generalist as a team member, and really did not have a board or a leadership. The executive sponsor was definitely more ceremonial. He is very supportive, but really couldn’t engage. Very busy, just really couldn’t dedicate the time.

The company had other ERGs in place. Like this ERG, they had events about one to two events per year, no presence on any social channels internally, limited membership. This is a key here, there are 26 factories in the organization, and there were little to no representation from these 26 factories. When you think of Women in Engineering, there’s certainly a lot of talent in the factories. The fact that they weren’t really hearing too much about this group was a concern, really entirely focused on networking, not really in the development space, or any type of kind of outreach or recruitment.

So if we apply the three keys to the current state in 2018 from an engaged employee standpoint, we had a few changes happen. We had our factory rotational program. Some of the graduates who came out of that program in 2018 are highly interested in networking opportunities and advancement. We had several women who volunteer to take on more responsibility within the ERG. From an org support standpoint, we had a key chance to the talent strategy, which was our technical leadership team took over talent placement for all the factories. So we had, on that leadership team, our Vice President of Manufacturing, Vice President of HR, me as the HR Director as well as my counterpart HR director. We really discussed where we were going to place people in different factory roles.


Our focus really was getting on more women in underrepresented groups on to factory leadership. We also had our first promotion of a woman into a factory engineering manager role in about 10 years. So from an org support standpoint, a huge move forward. Then, if we look at the third key, which was the highly engaged sponsor, that was me. I’ll talk a little bit more about that. But, again, we hit on all three keys was our big change in 2018.


So let’s look at the three keys and roles of an Executive Leader Sponsor. Architect, connector, and boundary breaker. I want to talk a little bit more about each one of those just to give you a better idea of what we did and how we approach the situation. So when we talk about the sponsor as an architect, it really goes into how are they building the blueprint of what they want their organization to look like? One of the things that the prior group didn’t have was an idea what they wanted to be. Did they want to do networking? Did they want to do development? Did they want to do outreach to local schools? Did they want to get involved in campus recruiting? There was really not that idea of how they wanted to connect.


One of the first things that I did as the sponsor was help the team to decide what they wanted to do. We had a lot of discussions about this, a lot of dialogue around really, where do they want to fit in the bigger diversity and inclusion. What the team decided they wanted to really get in more involved in the inclusion piece. So how are people who are here working at the organization feeling? How can we better connect them to each other? How can we develop their skills? How can we really provide them with options in terms of growing their career? Along the way, so part of my role as a sponsor was to provide them with different ideas, thoughts, alternatives. We had a lot of dialogue around outreach within the organization. How do we get our message across? How do we connect with people?


A great dialogue we had was, they wanted to do outreach, but really had nothing to draw people into. So yes, we could reach out to people, are you interested in joining the organization? But what’s the key activity that we’re bringing them back to? So it was my job to have those conversations with them. Then, which leads us right into the next one drilling into the details. Again, what is it you want to do? Keep going back to their blueprint. If you don’t want to connect with people and offer development opportunities, then what is that going to look like? How do we make those things happen? The group that was in place, super passionate, which was great. Again, how do we kind of take that passion and channel it into the right spaces where they wanted to have success?


The last thing here, double the budget and get the money. This, to me, was a critical part of my role, as the sponsor, was how do I get them the resources that they need? Sometimes, the resources are money. More often than not, they are. How am I going about doing that? How am I getting them the resources? But also, how am I getting them support for what they need?


Next role, connector. This one, for me, was kind of inherent in the role that I held, but really connecting with senior level leaders and talking about the organization. How am I connecting this organization with different leaders within the company? How am I building relationships outside of the factory and technical and production? One of the events we did was have the president of one of the businesses come in and talk to us about her experience as a female leader within the organization. It was great. She didn’t come from a factory background. She wasn’t an engineer, but her insights in terms of life balance, how do you work with things, how do you have kids at the same time have a very blue booming career? Great insight and exactly what we needed. That was my job as a connector to get them these different connections with people.


Also, bringing people together. I say here for advocacy. How do we get this group looked at as a thought leader? How do we get them looked at as championing women within the STEM field? That was my job, connecting them with the right people, getting them mentors, getting them different connections within the organization that they might not have had before.


The last one is one of my favorites, boundary breaker. I like to refer to this as Demo Day. So the idea is what are the barriers that are standing in the way of the organization’s success? And within the groups in front of them? What are the barriers that they’re hitting? Some of those barriers are very visible. They need money, they need resources. Other barriers are not—they’re invisible. They might be their own imposter syndrome. They may not think they can do what they want to do.


Great example was exploring corporate partnerships. We had a team who looked at a couple of different organizations outside the company. The group decided they wanted to partner with Society of Women Engineers, and enter into a corporate partner. They did all this research, they put together a very large deck, they presented it to me. At the end, they said, “We need x amount of dollars.” I said, “Okay. Alright, let’s do it.” They were so shocked that I would say yes, and they didn’t have to justify and do all this work. Not that I didn’t review the work, but part of it was, what is the barrier, you need resources, let’s knock down the barrier, and let’s enter into this corporate partner.


That was one of the best decisions we made. We’re into the second year of the partnership, and it’s going very well. We’ve had our members who were selected to present a national conference. We’ve had members selected to present at local conferences. We’ve really continued to work on that relationship. It’s going to figure into our strategy as we go forward. But, again, a lot of it was they didn’t think they could get those things, they didn’t think those things happen. My job is to break down those invisible barriers, even if it’s only in their own mind, of what they can do, because they can pretty much do anything.


Sometimes, though, when we deal with barriers, as much as we’d like to demo them, as much as we want to break them down, you can. Whether it be an organizational constraint, whether it be a resources constraint, sometimes you have to go around it. Part of the role as a sponsor is being able to identify those times, and getting the team to go around it. How do we rethink it? How do we look at it differently? How do we fix this issue, and come up with a new strategy? They are all operators within the organization. They understand that you have to pivot, you have to be agile. So how do you get them to apply those same skills they would apply at work to their ERG? So boundary breaker—critical role.


Let’s talk a little bit about the results. I’m a very results oriented person. When I joined this organization, we talked a lot about how are we going to measure. What are going to be the measures of success for all the work that you’re doing? So this group has seen, in the last year and a half, 326% increase in membership. Let me say that again, 326% increase in membership. This is huge. I’m delighted to also say we’ve also seen an increase in people willing to lead different activities, people willing to get more involved in the organization, people willing to step up. It’s been fabulous. But again, it wouldn’t have come from those three keys we talked about earlier.


I’m going to outline for you here the events and how those are progressed over time. In 2017, 2018, the group had about five events. They had one in person event. In 2019, when we had the new leadership team in place, the three keys in place, we saw our events increased dramatically. We had two factory days, both were coupled with attending a Sweet Society Women Engineers Local Conference. For our other factory day was attending the Society of Women Engineers National Conference. We did a workshop at the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers National Convention, which targeted wn in engineering. If you’re not familiar with their Chef Tina’s program, it’s amazing. That’s seven virtual podcast panel and book club discussions. These are discussions moderated by a member of Women in Engineering, discussing different topics from recognition to how do you get over imposter syndrome to how do you have a balanced family life. You can see some of the topics here. There’s some great work. We did a panel discussion. I facilitated a panel, I also sat on a panel. So some great discussions, and some really good dialogue amongst our members and leaders.


In 2020, as you can see here, more events. The team launched a quarterly newsletter. We entered into the second year of our Society Women Engineers Corporate partnership, submitted three award applications for Society of Women Engineers national awards, submitted one award application for Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers national award, held multiple virtual happy hours entirely focused on personal connection. Certainly with COVID, we’re feeling a little disconnected. How does our group get in there and connect with people? Because if you remember, one of the things the group said they wanted to focus on was, how do we feel included? How do we feel like we are connecting with people and making sure they feel like they belong at the organization? The team established a mentorship toolkit along with a list of mentors. We didn’t really want to get into the concept of matching people, but what we did was find a list of mentors, and then put it upon the member to decide who they wanted to connect with and who they wanted to pursue having mentor mentee relationship.


Eleven virtual discussions. Eleven. Those were based on TED talks, podcast development. As you can see here, a very robust list of topics. We had two presentations by an outside vendor, Dr. Laura Camacho, who’s excellent. Really talking about culture, how do you really have difficult conversations with people, how do you get into that space of of candor and feedback. We talked a lot about really the whole idea of mentorship, as I mentioned. We did hashtag I’m remarkable workshops. This is a resource sponsored by Google. I am a facilitator of that. So I conducted two sessions for the group. It’s really all about how do we recognize ourselves, what we do, and continue to promote ourselves within within our careers and organization. Awesome discussions and really some great development programming.


That being said, I talked about a lot of stuff here. Feel free to reach out to me. I’m on LinkedIn, Lauren McCann. You can also email me Very passionate about this topic. Feel free to reach out to me, tag me, and really continue the dialogue about Employee Resource Groups. They really are critical to the success of an organization. I’ve seen it in action, and how it really can engage people further their development and create that environment of inclusion and belonging that we all are looking for in our organizations. Thanks for your time today. I hope you have a great conference.

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