PR’s Top Pros Talk… Employee Action Groups
Tracey Cassidy, Partner & General Manager, Allison+Partners, New York
and Jill Feldman, Partner & Managing Director, Allison+Partners
Why should companies invest in employee action groups? Tracey Cassidy, Partner & General Manager of Allison+Partners, New York and Jill Feldman, Partner & Managing Director of Allison+Partners, discuss their journey of growing a successful Women’s Leadership Program. Tracey and Jill also explain how leaders can advance female representation through visibility and conversation.
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GUEST: TRACEY CASSIDY
GUEST: JILL FELDMAN
HOST: DOUG SIMON
DOUG: Keeping a team, working cohesively together has never been more challenging and more important, and our two guests today are really going to talk about how to go beyond maybe just affinity groups, if you will, to groups that can take action. Thanks so much for joining us.
TRACEY: Great to be here. Thanks, Doug.
DOUG: So, first off, maybe you can give us some of the distinction between sort of an affinity group and an action group similar to what you started at Allison+Partners.
JILL: Yeah, an Affinity Group is really a group of individuals within a company that share a certain interest, a shared interest, and they create a community around that. You might think about a group where everyone is very passionate about their pets, and they want to come together to talk about that. An employee action group is really focused more on action and advocacy within an organization. That’s really what the Women’s Leadership Program is at Allison+Partners.
DOUG: Right, and how did you come up with that program? How did you get the idea to start it?
JILL: Tracey and I have worked together for a long time now, and also talking with other colleagues at the agency as well, that there was an appetite for a group like this. We started the program in 2018, and it was at a time when we saw, not only within our agency, but within corporations at large, a large and significant percentage of female employees, but not the same percentage reflected in the leadership. So, you still see that today. Even last year, I think it was only 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women. Our goal really was to empower and connect our team members across the network. We currently have about 150 members in the Women’s Leadership Program, and they really come together to get more access, more exposure to the female leaders at the company. And they also learn about new topics and other experiences and have training in specific areas that can help them reach their full potential.
DOUG: Yeah, and Tracey, I’m sure there have been a lot of lessons learned in the nearly four years you’ve put this together. Can you maybe share how an organization should model creating a successful action group based on what you’ve learned?
TRACEY: It’s grounded in shared experiences. So, all the things that we talk about are very universal. So, we did look outside before creating this Women’s Leadership Program, and we looked to the Fortune 500 companies that have employee action groups. We also looked at the broader PR communications landscape, and what were some of the best practices, and what really rose to the top, and what solicited the most engagement. Because we’re all busy, we know it’s really hard to fit in any, what I would call, extracurricular activities, and to make it meaningful, and to have it drive value in the day-to-day was really the goal that we set out to achieve. And the program we created is hinged on three core principles, and we have quarterly speakers that come in. So, outside experts that come in and talk to us about a variety of topics. We also have a mentor group which is immensely popular around the globe. And then lastly, content discussion groups where we might talk about, for example, the McKinsey and LeanIn report, which touches on burnout and touches on some of the challenges that female leaders have faced during the pandemic. So, it’s really based on best practices, and gleaning from what others have done before us, and improving upon them, and making it universal because we are a global program. So, also understanding female leadership, what that means in APAC might be quite different than what it means in North America, and being sensitive and inclusive in our approach.
DOUG: That’s really interesting, and how can an organization actually use an action group to try and contribute to company growth? Can that play a key role?
TRACEY: It’s a great question, and I think at the core it’s about relationships. So, we never set out to have this as a vehicle to drive new business, but in many ways it has. And I think part of it is tapping our relationship and tapping our networks, and the topics we talk about, a lot of the senior leaders we work with are passionate about it as well. So, for example, the GM of our San Francisco office had a relationship with the CEO of Stasher, and she heard about our Women’s Leadership Program and said, I would love the opportunity to come and talk to your colleagues and engage in this process, and she did. And as she got to know us, she also realized that we have a center of excellence in thought leadership and work with female leaders, and female CEOs, and some of the only 43 out of the Fortune 500 female CEOs. So, naturally, now she is a client. We’re happy to say that, and she is involved in the program. So, it wasn’t our intent or goal at the onset, but it has been what I would call a bonus. And I think it goes back to the universal topics that we address.
DOUG: Yeah, and similarly, when we are thinking of introducing a new product or service, we actually try and test it out ourselves. There’s something we’ve actually done with this show because we suggest that obviously our clients put together these thought leadership video series as a way to connect with other people that they have similar views with, want to do business with, etc. Are you finding that some of your clients are looking at you to create action groups within their organization that’s almost become a product and part of your offerings?
TRACEY: I think the workplace has become a prominent focal area for all of our clients and certainly with the Great Resignation and the competition for talent, the impetus and the importance of creating places where people feel they can bring their whole selves to work. So, we do have a workplace offering where we do counsel on these types of things, and we work with multinationals that have some of the largest employee resource and employee advocacy groups, but we also work with smaller start-ups that aspire to create these types of affinity programs where people can feel connected. And in this remote environment it’s proven to be very beneficial to have these types of programs to keep employees engaged beyond just the day-to-day of their daily work and activities.
DOUG: Yeah, I love that you mentioned the smaller companies because I was going to ask, obviously it’s difficult to have a large affinity group or an action group at a small organization, but can some of those same principles be applied? What advice would you have for a smaller boutique agency that’s trying to create that same kind of camaraderie?
JILL: Yeah, I don’t think that any company is really too small to have a group like this, I think it really depends on the employees and what they’re most passionate about and interested in. I think from our perspective, there are a few key things that will make it work. Number one is really thinking through what that structure is, what the purpose of the group is. So, is it really about just the community and sharing experiences or is it some kind of action? And both of those types of groups are excellent and have their place, right? So, thinking through really what the structure is, the purpose, and then making sure whatever your company decides that there’s a leadership element of the group in place that can actually funnel up the communication to the top leaders, so that there is not a disconnect from what the group is discussing to how it affects the company overall. So, those are really two important areas, and that leadership piece is really important. So, it’s really thinking about, will the leadership of this group be consistent, have a consistent program, deliver on what those goals are that the group sets out to do, and then maybe actually changing it up frequently, so it’s not the same person leading it for many, many years, but making sure that there are other people involved from across the agency as well.
TRACEY: There’s a wealth of resources that you can tap with respect to LeanIn.Org, Chief is another great networking organization that does regular speaker sessions and webinars. So, I think there is a greater universe. So, if the numbers are smaller, there’s a way to tap into this greater, what I’d call a collective advocacy that is happening.
DOUG: And speaking of women leadership, how important do you feel it is for women leaders to be out there in the media representing their organizations?
TRACEY: I think it’s critical. I think it’s one of the front-line things we have to do to advance gender equity. I think the onus, and it’s why Jill and I are here today, the onus is on us to make sure that we’re talking about these things, so that when we talk ten years from now, the number of Fortune 500 CEOs is not 43, but maybe it could be 100 by that point. And how do we continue to advance this dialogue, understanding the challenges that female leaders face? But also, I think when you look at the broader spectrum too, it’s about transparency and authenticity and leading with empathy. And the more we’ve talked about in our Women’s Leadership Program, the more we’ve realized it’s rare that any issue is experienced by one individual. There’s a cadre of people that you can call upon that you can work with. And I think it’s important we talk, and it’s important that we get out there. And I think as female leaders, and we counsel our clients the same, it’s about clearing paths for others, so that there is the ability and people see, they see the forward movement, they see hope for a better tomorrow, they see all those things that are inspiring. And I think part of it starts with communicating about the important issue.
DOUG: Jill, do you have any final thoughts to add as this takes place during Women’s History Month?
JILL: Yeah, I think during Women’s History Month, it’s more important than ever just to think about the idea of representation in journalism. It is critical, as Tracy said, and it’s good journalism. To have an accurate representation of the world around us, and how these narratives are created is something that we all do have responsibility for. So, yeah.
DOUG: Well, thanks, both of you for your great insights.
TRACEY: Thanks for having us.
JILL: Thank you.