GWN and ELN Director, Carin Sundstedt, shares some insights from her work with employee-led networks in public service and key takeaways from her presentation to a Ministry of Justice hui.

In recent months I’ve been working closely with some employee-led networks (ELNs) in public service. In my conversations, I’ve heard some great examples about how ELNs can create connections and help organisations learn and grow.

Some agencies are using these networks – in particular women’s networks – to feed into their organisation’s planning processes (e.g. gender action plans). A great example of collaboration between an agency’s networks is at the Ministry of Justice, where leaders from ELNs are brought together to learn from each other and a range of speakers. I met the group on the 6 May and enjoyed my experience so much I want to share some key takeaways here.

The two-day hui was opened by the CE of MoJ/Te Tahu o te Ture, Andrew Kibblewhite, which reflects the commitment senior leadership has for their networks. I was also encouraged to hear that the Ministry’s organisational development team has a dedicated person supporting the ELNs. It’s a small but important part of their role and they help with deliver events like these. They also regularly meet the ELN chairs to support and problem solve.

At the session I led, I shared some of the themes many networks have in common:

  • The role of the sponsor
  • Building in what you do for your network with your daily role
  • Staying relevant
  • Succession planning

What’s this sponsor thing all about?

What I can see from the support for ELNs at MoJ, they have great support from the top. But your network may need someone (at tier 2 or 3) who you can call on for strategic advice on a more regular basis, to support and champion your activities, and increase your networks’ visibility and impact. The employee-led network site has a useful example of a Role Description for a sponsor in this guide from New South Wales [PDF download, 1.5mb].

At times it’s also important to think broader. If you know, for instance, that the women’s network sponsor goes to specific meetings or joins discussions that another sponsor might not have access to, think about how you can ‘borrow’ that voice. It’s all about opening doors and opportunities for all networks. Similarly, is the person you want as a sponsor hard to get hold of, but another network’s sponsor is more accessible? You may be able to ask them to help contact them–– with the added benefit that they already see the value and know the ropes of being a sponsor.

You may also want to consider co-sponsors. Co-sponsors can be as important as co-chairs and deputy chairs are within networks. When there are too many competing priorities, co-sponsors can help share the load. If your network is struggling to find an ally or representative at the top tiers, consider whether you can combine the skills and influence of someone at the top with the knowledge and lived experience of one of your network members.

Think strategically about what you are learning and contributing

I believe strongly in working deliberately with your manager to build what you do for ELNs – what you’re learning and in turn contributing to your team – into your development plan.

Do you want to develop leadership or facilitation skills? Great, sign up to be the co-chair of an ELN> Do you want to hone your writing/comms skills? You could sign up to be a comms or events lead. Don’t think of it as something ‘different’ from your regular role, think of how it enhances what you bring to your day job.

Sometimes linking to specific skills is not your priority but identifying how it contributes to your wellbeing may be important to you and your manager. We know that being part of ELNs can increase a sense of belonging and create wider connections in the workplace.

By supporting you to participate and work for an ELN, managers are also supporting the organisation’s goals of inclusion, diversity and a positive workplace culture.

Stay relevant

Making sure your network stays relevant starts with the idea that what you do makes a difference to your organisation and your members.

The general advice here is to check in regularly – a survey works or holding regular catch-ups. Your first concern is to stay true to being employee-led. To do this, you need to spend some time listening to the voices in your network and ensuring that the effort and influence you want to have reflect those voices.

Succession planning and avoiding burnout

Many networks are led by small groups that end up doing everything – events, comms, administration… the list goes on.

I strongly encourage adopting co-chair and working group models so that you can share the leadership and workload and problem solve together. Being in a network is about all members contributing their skills, ideas, and passion. A good approach is to make sure there is plenty of room for people to pick up these tasks. Avoid leading by control and encourage contributions, large and small. This helps to create a sense of belonging and opportunity.

Being enough – just as you are

Being part of this hui filled my heart with inspiration and ideas I wanted to share more widely. The talent, drive, and vision in the room was almost palpable and I am convinced these attributes will support MoJ/Te Tahu o te Ture to be an awesome place to work.

My final message to them – and you – is this: you don’t have to wait for permission. You are already enough. You are the leaders of these networks and you are creating value for your members and for your agencies.

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