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Companies Send Employees on Volunteer Projects Abroad to Cultivate Leadership Skills

December 2, 2005
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Related Topics: Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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Two years have passed since his stay in Namibia, but Tahir Ayub can still see the faces of orphans he met. Their parents had died of AIDS, and their poverty was profound. "In some of the villages, there were eight to 10 people living in huts that were no more than six to eight feet wide," he says.

    Ayub, a private-company services leader and partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, was in Namibia as part of his firm’s Project Ulysses, a global leadership development program. For two and a half months, Ayub was assigned to work with two other PwC partners, Klaas van den Berg from the Netherlands and Humberto Pacheco of Mexico City, to help local villages draft funding proposals for AIDS/HIV projects. None of the men had ever met and none had been to Namibia.

    For Ayub, who had gone to school in the U.K. before moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, the experience was humbling.

    "When you live in a place like Vancouver, you work with people from different backgrounds and you think that you are pretty culturally aware," he says. But after being in Namibia for a couple months "with a guy from Mexico City and a guy from the Netherlands, each of whom have a completely different way of looking at things," Ayub wasn’t so sure about his open-mindedness. "You realize that perhaps the way you see things isn’t necessarily the best way," he says.

    Such realizations are what make PwC’s Ulysses program so valuable for the company, says Ralf Schneider, partner, global talent management, and one of the founders of the program.

    "In 1998, when Price Waterhouse merged with Coopers & Lybrand, we recognized that we were creating a new kind of global professional services organization," he says. The organization asked itself what leadership meant in a global work environment.

    One result was Ulysses, which launched in 2001, and which PricewaterhouseCoopers sees as one step of its leadership development program. Each year, the company sends about 17 partners, selected by their office heads, to work in three- to four-person teams on a project in a developing country for two and a half months.

    "We take away all of their comforts and really put them at the edge of civilization and we give them a project task," Schneider says. Teams are chosen based on their diversity, and participants are evaluated not only on how they perform as a team, but as individuals.

Global talent development
    Companies are discovering that leadership doesn’t come ready-made. And leadership can’t be developed only through reading or study. Hands-on experience has proved crucial for companies, including PwC, Pfizer and Cisco, which have put employees into volunteer programs that test their teamwork and skill and groom them for future leadership roles.

    "Training companies like mine have come up with workshops to help leaders learn cognitive skills, but we all realize that being able to apply those leadership and teamwork skills in a real-life situation can only happen when you put people in those situations that stretch their comfort zones," says Susan Wehrley, president of Susan K. Wehrley & Associates, a consulting firm in Brookfield, Wisconsin, that specializes in workforce planning.

    PwC measures the success of Ulysses by how its participants fare in meeting their leadership goals through a two-and-a-half-year period before and after the actual project.

    "We see people who have come back and issues that had been trouble areas for them have been fixed," Schneider says. "For example, one partner we had was too competitively focused and couldn’t work well in a team, but when he came back, he was much better at working with people."

    PwC has also seen some positive results in global networking. Schneider recalls one instance where a company in South Africa wanted to set up a joint venture in Thailand and sought PwC’s help.

    "We were able to set it up quickly and we won that company as a client because one of our partners in South Africa had participated in a Ulysses project with a partner in Thailand," he says. "I know of at least two or three similar cases where that has happened."

    As a recruitment and retention tool, international volunteer programs can be extremely effective, says Atiya Ali, program manager for Pfizer’s Global Health Fellowship Program. Pfizer launched the program in 2003 primarily as a philanthropic initiative, but quickly realized how effective it was as a leadership development tool.

    "We are getting back people who have a wealth of experience," Ali says. "We recognize that it won’t affect our bottom line tomorrow, but we are creating a better workforce for the long term."

    Employees must have been with the company for five years and have some experience abroad in order to apply. Pfizer works with a number of nongovernmental organizations that post job descriptions for fellowship positions on an internal Web site. Jobs range from posts for human resources professionals to ones for accountants and doctors. Assignments range from four to six months.

    Pfizer is conducting a review to gather hard evidence of how the company’s program has increased retention rates. Anecdotally, managers report it has done just that, Ali says. Metrics that the company is looking at include productivity rates and motivational results of the program.

    "We want to know if these people are more likely to get promoted," Ali says. Pfizer also wants to learn more about the tangible leadership benefits the program gives employees, she says.

    But Ali believes that the effects of the program on recruitment and retention are more widespread than numbers would show. A recent study conducted by Cone, a Boston-based marketing and communications consulting firm, found that 75 percent of Americans consider a company’s commitment to social issues when deciding where to work and that six in 10 employees wish their companies would do more.

    "We hope that even though we only send 40 people a year, that we are touching more than that because people are just excited to be part of an organization that offers a program like this," Ali says.

    Ultimately, Pfizer wants to develop a leadership track of the program for managers and top executives, which is what makes the analysis of the present program’s ability to affect productivity and motivation so critical. The company is also developing a tool kit to help private-sector companies develop similar programs.

    "We want to provide companies with forms and contracts that will make this easy to set up," Ali says.

Setting up metrics
    One of the biggest challenges for companies is determining how these kinds of programs affect their bottom lines. For PwC, the results are not immediately measurable.

    "Leadership does not happen automatically," Schneider says. "We anticipate that our program will really show its value within 10 years because it will be part of our culture and brand."

    In the meantime, PwC is establishing specific goals and metrics for participants in the Ulysses program. That includes the project goal, the team goal and the individuals’ goals, Schneider says.

    To ensure that those goals stay on track, the company often flies coaches into the field to work with participants. And after their projects are completed, PwC brings all of the teams together for a review week to discuss how they fared. Then, a year later, participants are reviewed again to see how they have progressed in terms of their leadership skills.

    Creating objectives at the outset is crucial to monitoring the success of such programs, says Michael Yutrzenka, executive director of the Cisco Systems Foundation. Cisco formally launched its Leadership Fellows Program in 2003. It had evolved from a 2001 initiative that placed 81 employees who had been laid off into volunteer programs at nonprofit groups, allowing them to earn one-third of their old salaries.

    "We saw that a lot of those employees were able to use the skills and relationships they had developed as a result of those programs," Yutrzenka says.

    Until recently, Cisco’s program had primarily been domestic, but it sent its first international participant, Bill Souders, to Africa this past summer for a two-year project. He is working with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development to do information technology and human resources management.

    Cisco works with the nongovernmental organizations to set objectives for the participants in the fellows program—and makes those goals "a reach," Yutrzenka says. Then Cisco tracks the fellows’ individual progress.

    Similarly, Pfizer’s Global Health Fellows are evaluated by the NGOs for whom they’re working, and those evaluations are incorporated into their annual reviews, Ali says.

    While it might take time for bottom-line impact of their leadership lessons to be realized, the participants themselves see almost immediately that the experience has changed their leadership style.

    PwC’s Ayub says that the experience helped him understand the importance of keeping an open mind.

    "Before, when I came across an issue that I thought I knew how to deal with, I would say that I didn’t have a lot of time to listen to everyone involved to make sure it was the right way to go," he says. "Now I am much more open to listening and to other people’s viewpoints."

Workforce Management, November 21, 2005, pp. 50-51 -- Subscribe Now!

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