Thursday, July 7, 2011

Affinity Groups: To Join or Not to Join

To join or not to join. To get involved or not.  The New York Times Sunday posed the query to Consortium CEO Peter Aranda in its July 3 edition:  Should members of under-represented groups join the "affinity groups" that exist in certain business settings?  They are special-purpose groups within a company that attract a membership of women, Hispanics, or Asian- or African-Americans. Or they may be groups that attract others with shared interests or backgrounds:  LGBTs, Native Americans,  Arab-Americans, or South Asians.

They may include--within the institution--groups of African-American investment bankers, an Asian society of traders, researchers and analysts, or women in risk management. They could include Latinos in private banking or financial consulting.

The Times posed a challenging question, one that many within these groups grapple with from time to time. Is there an advantage or disadvantage if you choose to affiliate with affinity groups while you are ambitiously trying to advance within the company? Is there a negative stigma in the eyes of those who appraise and promote you? (See

Aranda suggested affinity-group involvement is beneficial if the primary purpose is not social. "Affinity groups can operate like focus groups," he told the Times.  The affinity group should have a purpose consistent with the business objectives of the company. Aranda suggested you should join  groups that have senior-executive sponsors and that are directly tied to business functions like recruiting, marketing, or product development.

Or you should join if the group has a mentor program.  "From a minority perspective, you should have mentors, so if you are a Hispanic junior executive and you hope to rise through the ranks, you can talk to someone who has been down that path ahead of you," Aranda said. "What you need to be careful about with affinity groups is that you aren't creating segregation by being exclusive."

Many major financial institutions, such as Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and BofA endorse the formation of affinity groups and support them in many ways.  Most such groups were formed to help in professional recruiting and evolved into networks that assist in retention and career development. They work with recruiting units to top identify candidates and escort prospects through the recruiting process. 

It's not unusual, however, for a woman, African-American or Asian-American to assess whether being associated with such groups slow down progress to get promoted or win an opportunity to transfer overseas. In financial services, performance, commitment and productivity count during appraisals. But impressions do, too, whether or not they are conveyed fairly. So inevitably, women and minorities ask themselves about the possible stigma of being associated with groups that might be regarded by outsiders as separate or exclusive.

Often, however, affinity groups offer broad advantages and institutional assistance. Big banks, firms and institutions in recent years have not shunned their formation and have not frowned on them.

How then can affinity groups be formed "without guilt" and with pride and enthusiasm, while conforming to overall business objectives?

1.  Affinity groups can assist in recruiting. They can participate by visiting campuses and identifying candidates. They can help institutions formulate firm-wide recruiting strategy, establish relationships with diversity pipelines (such as the Consortium, of course), improve relationships with professors and career advisers at colleges and business schools, and assist recruiters as they comb through long lists of candidates.

Members of affinity groups are usually committed, experienced business professionals. They will know better than corporate recruiters the special talents and strengths necessary to excel on the job. They will be able to pinpoint outstanding women and minority candidates more quickly. They will, also, be more familiar with the sources, pipelines and places to find that talent. They will know HBCUs, understand the value of such groups as National Black MBA Association, the Consortium, or Toigo, or have ties to social and professional organizations within these communities.

2.  Affinity groups can assist in the institution's efforts to hire experienced or lateral talent.  How often have we heard banks, funds or companies say they want desperately to hire experienced vice presidents from under-represented groups, but "can't find them"?  Affinity groups usually know who they are, where they can be found, and whether they might be interested in a lateral move.

3.  Affinity groups can assist in the development of entry-level professionals, including recent MBA graduates.  And they can do this in formal or informal ways.  Most large institutions have structured professional tracks (for analysts, associates, etc.) and care about the development of all who join. Often, however, some junior professionals get more attention and support than others. Others are deserving of support and encouragement, but get lost among the throngs of new people. 

Affinity groups, therefore, can step in to ensure that everybody is advised, guided and encouraged to progress. They can do this via mentor programs, special seminars or career-development sessions. Or they can encourage senior managers, bankers and traders (including those who are part of the affinity groups) to reach out to junior professionals.

4.  In finance, topics, markets, and business can be complex and always changing. The learning curve is always upward. Keeping up can be difficult. Affinity groups can (and should do more to) be a source for members to reach out to each other for information, knowledge and understanding.  The affinity group may act as a "clearinghouse" for questions about products, markets, clients, and technical analysis.

For example, a junior banker may need a refresher on equity derivatives or foreign currencies.  The affinity group can match the banker with another member who is an expert on the topic and will gladly take the time to explain the product.  A recent MBA graduate may want more information about tax-related accounting, financial models, or corporate valuations.  The affinity group can find a member expert who will gladly help.

Once formed, how can affinity groups be effective and self-sustaining? How can they exist long beyond the initial enthusiasm of the early days of formation?

1.  As mentioned above, they should have business-related purposes and specific objectives aligned with the business objectives of the institution, the sector, or business unit. If so, the group will likely provide ongoing institutional support.

As Aranda said, affinity groups should have senior-management presence or senior sponsors.  A senior manager should agree to be more than an in-name-only sponsor and should agree to be involved and act as a champion for the group in business-unit meetings, corporate strategy sessions or even board meetings.

2.  To ensure it transcends being a social outfit, the group should define objectives and strategies clearly, should share them with the broad corporate population, and should meet routinely.  The group should show that it is serious about its intentions and it plans to be around.

3.  The group should reach out early to new professionals, solicit their ideas, absorb their energy and accept them as equals in the group.

What then makes affinity groups vulnerable and ineffective or perceived negatively?

1.  Petty issues and politics suffocate affinity groups.  Sometimes they get bogged down in non-essential issues or caught up in broad corporate politics. The groups sometimes risk spending too much time on the wrong issues. Members lose interest, when they think the time is better spent going back to the office to tackle the in-box.

Affinity groups should, therefore, be attentive to and conscious of how members use their time.  Most members must weigh the time involved vs. the time involved in daily job responsibility. But most are willing to take the time, because they see the long-term benefits. Affinity groups must strive to avoid unnecessary work or projects.

2.  Sometimes they smother themselves with power struggles within the groups. Sometimes members become more impressed by their being heads of their organization than by the mission at hand.  Members risk wasting time figuring out what the titles or name of the group should be or who will represent the group in its meeting with the CEO.

3.  Vague and inconsistent communication sometimes hampers such groups. A group's steering committee might fail to inform all members about what the objectives, programs, strategies and updates are.  Members then feel isolated or disillusioned and become less interested to support the overall cause.

Affinity groups are effective when they are inclusive and are fierce in their efforts to keep everybody informed.

4.  Sometimes affinity groups trip when their objectives are vague, confusing or cumbersome because of corporate-speak.  Some outsiders are already not sure why they have been formed or why they exist; hence, members shouldn't be confused about the real purpose.

The objectives should be crisp, simple, straightforward.

5.  Affinity groups shouldn't be exclusive. They shouldn't try to define membership qualifications and should, in fact, encourage those of different ethnic backgrounds or sex to join and participate. Sometimes groups have stumbled over themselves trying to stipulate who can join or not or who can become leaders or not.

To join or not to join?

If the objective is proper, if the ultimate aim is consistent with institutional mission, if the passion is there, and if the time involved is productive, then why not? There will be long-term benefits for members--and for the institution.

Tracy Williams

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