Business Plans for Employee-Resource Groups

September 29, 2010 12:00 am

It’s a chicken-versus-egg kind of question: What comes first? An employee-resource group or the business plan?

Most veterans of the process say having a strategic business plan is absolutely critical to the success of any ERG.

“Having a business plan really validates [an ERG’s] existence to the organization,” says Angela Jones, vice president of diversity and inclusion at ConAgra Foods. “It lends credibility to the fact that this is not just a group of people getting together to network and just hang out. Having the discipline to pull together a very structured business plan helps business leaders see that the ERG is serious about the organization’s agenda and is willing to put a stake in the ground to say we are going to improve this process and deliver this result.”

Jones speaks from experience. Three years ago, when the company first began establishing ERGs, members were only required to craft a charter, or mission statement: a short, clear declaration of the team’s purpose and objectives.

Jones says the charter-statement format turned out to be an inadequate  communications tool.

“It didn’t communicate what the project was, why it was important, what the steps were for completing the initiative, or when they are going to have them done,” she says. “When we moved to a business-plan format … it was a great communication tool. It was so much easier for everyone else to understand not only what the ERGs were working on but how it tied back to a larger strategy and what results were expected and the timing involved.”

What Exactly Is a Business Plan?

Essentially, a business plan is a strategic document that lays out the ERG’s vision and objectives. It is the roadmap that helps ERG members decide what to do, how to measure their progress and, just as importantly, what not to do. Ideally, it is also a living, breathing document that should be able to adapt to reflect new insights, unexpected bumps in the road and changes in your business environment, says Chris Crespo, who leads Beyond ERG, the employee-resource group for LGBT employees at Ernst & Young.

Why Is a Business Plan Important?

  • A business plan is a great communication tool

“That may seem very intuitive, but this is one of the traps we fell into when we were first starting out,” Jones says. “When we started our ERGs, they decided what they were going to work on … but when they went to communicate to others and tried to get others involved in helping with the projects, those individuals didn’t really get it because they weren’t part of the process of developing it.”

  • A business plan keeps ERG members focused

“[When we were first working on our business plan], we filled three walls of white board with all the things we thought we could do to make this successful, and after filling up three walls of white board we came to the realization pretty quickly that we can’t do all of this,” Crespo says. “So we had to figure out what are those things we could do with the precious little time we had that would help us be successful and … make a difference. Prior to having this meeting, where we pulled a business plan together, we existed virtually, via telephone, and had monthly calls trying to figure out what we wanted to do. A business plan took us in a whole new direction.”

  • Writing a business plan helps develop critical leadership skills

Business plans are the cornerstone of how work gets done in an organization. Every organization is very familiar with business plans, and if employees are going to grow into a leadership role, their ability to develop a business plan for the organization is important.

“Given that one of the reasons ERGs exist is to allow its members to grow in their skills and abilities, this sometimes is the first opportunity for many of the leaders to ever have a chance to learn how to do a business plan,” Jones says. “It provides a critical skill-building component that individuals can take from their ERG experience and directly translate into their daily roles as they grow to be leaders.”

Best Practices to Help Write a Strategic Business Plan

  • Ensure a senior executive sponsors the ERG and helps with the plan

Both Jones and Crespo say it’s essential to have an executive sponsor or champion, preferably someone at the senior level sitting on the CEO’s team or one of the CEO’s direct reports, who can help ERG members understand some of the critical issues facing the company and which ones they should tackle.

Additionally, when an executive sponsor identifies a need, there is likely to be funding and other resources to support the effort, Jones says.

“We had our group meeting for about a year and a half and we were having trouble getting traction,” Crespo says. “We ended up having one of our top executives at the firm step up and agree to be our executive sponsor. He pulled us into a meeting and said, ‘What can I do for you to make you successful?'”

  • Provide ERG members with a good facilitator and training when needed

Jones says ConAgra provides a coach to help ERG leaders with guidance and the planning tools they need to write a business plan.

Whether it’s virtual or in a room, Crespo says a good facilitator who knows how to do a strategic session and actually write a business plan was key to their success as an ERG. Crespo says with the help of their executive sponsor, they were able to line up a member of the firm’s strategy and branding group who served as a facilitator. Having the support of the firm’s strategy and branding group also helped ERG members come up with strategies that directly tied into the firm’s strategy and values, Crespo says.

Crespo says the business plan helped E&Y’s Beyond ERG grow from 15 people who spoke on the phone monthly to a network of several hundred employees within the first year. Today, the LGBT group, which formed in 2003, has 1,700 members in 90 different locations.