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A Leader Learns by Listening

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

By Karen Branding, Senior Vice President

Employee resource groups (or employee affinity groups or network groups) have been around for decades. I remember being in a women’s ERG in the 1990s, though we didn’t call it that. It was sanctioned by the company I worked for at the time—with good intention, I’m sure. But I think our group and its motives were perceived as a little suspect.

It was, after all, a different time: The idea of underrepresented staff banding together ran counter to the top-down corporate culture of most 1990s organizations. Back then, the issues, discourse and decisions were typically set by senior management, not by employee-led interest groups. After a few meetings, the group stopped convening.

Thankfully, corporate culture evolves.

Embracing Open Dialogue

Fast forward to today. Here at the St. Louis Fed, ERGs are flourishing:

  • AACTIVE (African American)
  • Asian ERG
  • Central Pride (LGBTQ+)
  • SERVE (veterans)
  • VIEW (women)

They are open to all staff and led by staff. Unique perspectives, difficult conversations and learning about each other are embraced.

As a member of the Bank’s senior management, I am an executive sponsor to one of the ERGs: last year the Asian ERG, this year Central Pride. Technically, our role as executive sponsors is to ensure that the ERGs have the support of, and a direct line of communication to, senior management. Actually, though, I’ve realized that one of our most important responsibilities to the ERGs is to learn and understand.

While on the Asian ERG, I learned about the bamboo ceiling, the term popularized in the 2005 book by the same name about the barriers to leadership positions that many Asian Americans face across a variety of industries, despite their qualifications. The glass ceiling is something I’ve been aware of for decades. But learning about the bamboo ceiling was new to me and important for all of us in leadership today to better understand.

I listened to open and brave discussions among my Asian ERG colleagues about the travel ban executive order and their concerns that people of Indian and any Middle Eastern lineage might be treated differently or detained when they travel because of their name or how they looked. This is something, as a person of Western European descent, I don’t have to think about when I travel. The discussion was another real reminder that fellow employees are dealing with these kinds of concerns when traveling for work or otherwise.

Championing Inclusion

In June, the St. Louis Fed’s Central Pride ERG marched for the first time in the annual St. Louis PrideFest Parade.

In June, the St. Louis Fed’s Central Pride ERG marched for the first time in the annual St. Louis PrideFest Parade. As the Management Committee liaison to the ERG, I signed up. When the day arrived, I felt a little nervous walking to the parade site: I’d never been to a pride parade, I didn’t know what to expect, and what would my participation signify?

But, then, there we were marching proudly together down Market Street behind our St. Louis Fed banner—a connected, caring community of work colleagues. My doubts evaporated.

It occurred to me driving home that day that although I’d taken the Bank’s ally training last year, it was marching in the parade with my colleagues that made me really start feeling like an ally (i.e., someone who supports, seeks to understand and advocates for others).

Creating a Top Workplace

The same weekend as the parade, the St. Louis Fed was ranked the No. 2 Top Workplace among large employers in the St. Louis region by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, based on a third-party quantitative survey of area employees. The results were telling and really captured our corporate culture.

The St. Louis Fed:

  • Scored 20 percent higher than its industry peers on “encourages different points of view.”
  • Scored 19 percent higher on “senior managers understand what is really happening here.”
  • Scored 27 percent higher on “I feel well-informed about important Bank decisions.”

And, in that same survey, St. Louis Fed President Jim Bullard received the Post-Dispatch’s Top Workplace Leader award, based on employees’ responses to the question: “I have confidence in the leader of my organization.”

It all fit and made me proud to work for an organization that not only champions open dialogue, new ideas, and diversity and inclusion, but also inspires all of us to keep learning and seeking to understand.

Additional Resources

Karen Branding 

Karen Branding is senior vice president for Public Affairs at the St. Louis Fed.

Tagged karen brandingjames bullardemployee resource groupsergsculturediversity and inclusionlgbtq+st. louis pridetop workplacecareers