Looking to develop emerging leaders? It may be time to expand your borders.
While long-term international job rotations have been a fixture of executive development for some time, opportunities are limited and require employees to pick up stakes and move halfway across the world. Short-term service projects offer an alternative way to develop leadership bench strength and do some good globally in the process.
Companies like IBM, Pfizer and Dow Corning are sending emerging leaders into emerging markets to do service projects up to a month at a time and building leadership skills, better teams and valuable insight into key emerging markets as a result.
“It’s a very different kind of leadership development from traditional executive education in a classroom,” said Deirdre White, president and CEO of CDC Development Solutions (CDS), a nonprofit organization that works with corporations to match employees with service projects in developing countries.
“Going and touching and doing something with your own hands and your brain are a lot different from the passive learning experience that so many of the leadership development programs offer,” she said.
Working in conjunction with a company, CDS identifies local organizations in emerging markets and assigns skilled professionals to three- to four-week service projects aimed at promoting economic development and job creation. White said one program in Angola with an oil and gas company created $230 million worth of contracts for small- and medium-sized businesses and 2,600 jobs over a five-year period.
IBM sends 500 employees a year on international volunteer assignments in countries identified as emerging markets for IBM services. Last fall, drug maker Pfizer sent a cross-functional team of employees from marketing, research and project management to Peru to work with the National Cancer Institute of Peru and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to raise cancer awareness and develop clean water sources.
White said the country and type of assignment identified depend largely on the corporation’s objective. In some cases, that objective is to gather important intelligence in a key emerging market.
“The participants could report back on some of the particulars of their experience that they thought might affect the future design of the kind of materials that they were making,” she said.
In others, the objective is to provide a challenging learning experience to shape emerging leaders. In many cases, it’s both.
Using a company blog, a group of 10 employees from specialty manufacturer Dow Corning communicated the challenges they faced working with NGOs in Bangalore, India. That link also allowed those local organizations to tap into the expertise of the company’s 10,000 employees back home and served an important business purpose.
“They want the future leadership of the company to understand what it means to operate in those markets, what are the day-to-day challenges that people face,” White said.
International service projects can also help boost teamwork and collaboration among leaders working far apart from one another.
“The more you talk about global corporations, the harder it is to feel like you’re a part of a team,” White said. Creating a sense of cohesion and cooperation among employees that are working in locations as widely spread as New York, India and South Africa is a challenge.
“But when you … put them on a team in Lima, Peru, for a month, they start to understand the different operations of the company, the different types of people that work there, the different types of functions, and they’re all together in a way … they have never felt until they’re a part of this team.”
To maximize this result, IBM mixes people from different disciplines and countries, deliberately bringing together employees from marketing, sales, finance, human resources and IT into one team.
Many companies already engage in service projects back home — from volunteering with local community groups to building houses for Habitat for Humanity — to boost employee engagement and give back to the community. But to fully leverage service for leadership development, White recommended focusing on professional skills-based assignments directly related to an employee’s job role over a three- to four-week period, not just a one-day or one-week project.
“This is service at the heart of it … this is skills-based volunteer work where they’re using their core skill sets to help these organizations,” she said.
Representatives from IBM, Dow Corning and Pfizer are joining CDS at an event this Thursday in Washington, D.C., to share practices and ideas. Two years ago, White said five companies partnered with CDS. Now it’s up to 20.
“It’s still fairly early days in terms of this programming and how they’re going to incorporate it, but I think you’re seeing so many more corporations start to do this kind of work,” she said.
Mike Prokopeak is editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.