Radius' Fiona Jackson explores what good sponsorship looks like.
Why senior engagement matters
Whilst employee networks can be a strong voice for influencing change, long lasting and embedded change comes through the actions of everyone, and in particular those with positional power in organisations. With the CEO and Senior Leadership team onside, the chances of success in implementing your network strategy multiply.
Senior leaders can be the enablers or blockers of change. They can veto events, budgets and even employees engaging in network activity during working hours. Having them supportive, engaged and aligned to the moral and business case for employee networks is essential.
How to engage senior leaders for impact
The obvious place to start with engagement is a clear, simple and “real” business case for the role that the network plays in the organisation. And by “real” we don’t mean high level statements about “the value that diversity brings”, but the tangible, problem solving, detailed version that is meaningful to your organisation.
For example, in an organisation that is struggling to recruit, building communities where people are seen, supported and valued means they are more likely to stay and this will reduce the avoidable cost of recruitment in a talent squeeze. Working with the Talent Acquisition Team to put numbers around this is essential!
Employee networks can also have a tangible impact on services and products. An ethnicity network’s understanding of Afro-Caribbean hair, when built into training for the product development teams, might deliver a better customer experience for a hair product manufacturer. Or having an ability network test out a new product in the care sector can iron out any problems before it goes to market.
Of course for many senior leaders, the moral case is strong. At Radius, we meet lots of execs who say that supporting ERGs is just the right thing to do. But if you can back this up with a business case, you’ll have a stronger message for when times get tough.
When we work with senior leaders we find that many are supportive of ERGs, but uncertain on what role they can play personally, especially if they don’t come from a minoritized group themselves or have had little lived experience of different cultures and lifestyles. They can be worried about getting it wrong, saying the wrong thing, or putting their foot in it. Many want to be given options on what action they can take to show their support. To walk the talk and not just talk it. So it’s really important to come up with tangible actions for them to do, which can be presented succinctly.
One example might be to suggest that they invite the network along to their next “all team” meeting to boost visibility and membership. Or perhaps they might visibly attend an engagement event and encourage their teams to do the same. Anything they can integrate into normal business, so it doesn’t feel like more to do on top, is usually well accepted. So think about encouraging senior leaders to frame this as how they do things differently, so it doesn’t feel like an additional workload.
Of course, not all senior leaders are like this, and the leaders who are already championing Networks, can take their support further by becoming Network Sponsors
What is network sponsorship?
So what is network sponsorship and how does it work? The role varies according to the maturity of the network, the experience of its leadership team and the strategies being put into play. However there are some common themes that can add impact to every employee network.
The first of these is the role of a mentor or coach. When we speak with existing sponsors this is a commonly understood role. Supporting a network leader with advice on how to land an influencing conversation, navigate organisational governance or approach an action is a common role. We also find advocating for the network, for example opening events or writing an article in an internal blog, is also well understood.
Less frequently, we find the Sponsor acting as a critical friend to challenge the network leadership (and vice versa). The slight disassociation from the day to day running of the network means the sponsor finds it easier to keep a high level view of network activity. Many senior leaders have experience in strategy development too and so are well placed to help networks bring purpose and vision to their strategy development. This can be impactful in changing the organisation in the longer term.
One area often forgotten by sponsors is how they can use their own personal network to elevate ERGs. They might connect network leaders with their peers, or even introduce them to other external networks to share ideas and support.
A little considered role is that execs can share opportunities that they have. For example a senior leader may have been asked to speak at a prestigious external event. They can invite a network leader to join them on that stage and give them some of their airtime to help build their profile.
What does good look like?
At Radius, we work with thousands of network leaders all over the world. And we hear differing views on sponsor effectiveness. Network leaders often talk about their sponsors with passion and enthusiasm and can’t praise them enough.
In our experience, the most successful sponsors take on actions and carry them out. They do, they don’t just talk. They unblock barriers and offer honest advice and challenge, so that their networks are impactful and effective.
Most importantly of all, effective sponsors make time. In doing so, they authentically show network leaders and members – as well as the whole organisation- that employee networks matter.