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Big Secrets to Building Your Transformative Affinity Network

By Melissa J. Anderson

Recently, motivation expert Jullien Gordon told Evolved Employer that one key to attracting and retaining high performing employees is building employee resource groups that go beyond identification (gender, ethnicity, parenthood, sexual orientation) and reach into passions.

Do you love tennis? Volunteer work? Ultimate Frisbee? Jane Austen? According to Gordon, the next generation of affinity networks will be about connecting with colleagues who share personal interests – and employers would be smart to get on board with “passion networks” now.

He explained, “When more of your life and dreams are connected to your employer, it makes it harder to leave. It increases the switching costs,” he said.

Recently, the New York Times’ Eilene Zimmerman interviewed several experts on employee resource groups – here’s how to use the best of their advice for building your own transformative passion network.

Underscore Your Group’s Strategic Importance

According to Lisa Rubens, chief of staff for diversity and inclusion at Deloitte Consulting in Chicago, the key to getting support from the top for your passion network is showing what the business can gain from the group. Zimmerman wrote:

‘Whatever you do — whether starting a task force or organizing multiethnic potluck lunches — the effort should be aimed at helping the business. “If it’s all about making you look good, people will see through that very quickly,” said Ms. Rubens.’

While it may seem more difficult to establish the strategic importance of a group based on outside interests, that’s not necessarily true. Whether you’re a Scotch aficionado or a NASCAR fan at heart, you likely have clients with similar interests. Create a detailed plan for your leadership on how your passion network’s events might draw in new and existing clients.

Not only can passion networks attract clients who want to be part of events that appeal to their interests, they can also provide keen insight into their personal motivations.

Zimmerman advises potential ERG-founders to treat affinity networks as focus groups. She wrote:

“Steer yourself toward groups that have executive sponsors and a strategic intent to help the business with issues like recruiting, product development and marketing, said Peter J. Aranda III, chief executive of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, which helps universities identify and recruit underrepresented minorities for M.B.A. programs.

‘Affinity groups can operate like focus groups,’ Mr. Aranda said, ‘advising the company how to communicate with and market their products to different populations and what mistakes they may be making.’”

By attending a fun or informative event dedicated to their passions, potential clients are put at ease – meanwhile you’ll have the opportunity to learn more about what they want, and how you can provide it.

Build Membership through Openness and Networking

Passion networks are a new idea – and they could be subject to slow growth or even push-back from people who don’t quite get the concept. That’s no reason to abandon your project. Aranda told Zimmerman, “What you need to be careful about with affinity groups is that you aren’t creating segregation by being exclusive.”

Make sure to invite people from outside your passion group so they can see the strategic value of your network too. It’s a lot easier to gain acceptance and support when others feel you’re open to their feedback. They might even get inspired to build their own passion network.

Finally, Zimmerman wrote, one big way people make the most of affinity groups is by connecting with colleagues and executives they might not normally meet or interact with. According to Laura S. Hertzog, director of diversity and inclusion programs at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations of Cornell University, she writes, “It also gives you the opportunity to spend less structured and more collegial time with senior members of the organization, including those in other departments.”

It’s important that your passion network provide these same opportunities. Invite senior people at the company and keep the network open to a wide range of staff. The point of a networking group is to network! Provide your passionate members with the opportunity to do so with new and interesting people will help your group continue to grow.

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