Pro Bono Work Boosts Leadership Development

By Pamela Babcock Oct 21, 2013

NEW YORK—Companies looking to succeed in emerging markets need engaged employees and a globally fluent workforce. Increasingly, some organizations are finding that international pro bono programs are better than traditional executive education for building and retaining a cadre of future leaders.

“If you look at the skills people acquire, they are the skills the company values—teaming skills, cultural adaptability skills, the ability to listen to people who have different cultural values or language issues,” said Stanley S. Litow, IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs and president of IBM’s Foundation.

“And it’s an opportunity for the company to engage in and actually open new markets.”

Litow noted that traditional development programs often cost more, but with pro bono ones, “you have a lot more control over the program, as opposed to just buying seats in an existing executive education program.” These programs often deploy teams to help nonprofits, governmental agencies or educational institutions solve business or organizational challenges.

“I always call it a triple-benefit program,” he said. “For the individual participant, it’s the best leadership program of their lives. For the people on the ground, they’re getting access to things that they might never be able to get if you were involved in checkbook philanthropy. [And it’s] building continued value to the company, which makes it a sustainable program.”

But while the programs may be valuable professional development and retention tools, they aren’t for every employee.

Speaking Oct. 8, 2013, at the Commit Forum conference, representatives from SAP, IBM and PepsiCo discussed program design, tips for making the most of global pro bono programs, and what they look for in candidates.

Some Say ‘Best Experience in Our Career’

SAP’s social sabbatical program, started in 2012, sends small teams to India, Brazil, South Africa and China. Saswato Das, head of thought leadership content at SAP and a former sabbatical participant, said employees wanted “to do something different but also meaningful for their education.”

It’s open to high potentials—HR and managers work to identify candidates. Das said feedback has been “wonderful,” with some participants calling it “the best experience in our career.”

Last year, Das worked in Pretoria, South Africa, with Employment Solutions for People With Disabilities, which provides meaningful work for the area’s disabled.

Das said the nonprofit was started by a social worker with “a big heart” who was charging less for goods and services than they cost to produce. His team did a cost/benefit analysis to try to get the operation back on track.

SAP employees learned “a valuable lesson on motivation [and] how you motivate people in tough times in a depressed economy,” he observed.

Marriage Between Strategy and Citizenship

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps began in 2008. Since its inception, the program and IBM’s Executive Service Corps have sent more than 2,400 employees on global assignments, Litow said.

“This program is not about corporate philanthropy and it’s not about corporate citizenship alone,” Litow explained. “It’s a marriage between the important business strategy in the company and the corporate citizenship programs in an integrated way.”

To date, about 800 teams have worked in more than 35 countries. Among the projects, the company designed a financial-, health care- and literacy-assistance program for women and children in the Cross River province of Nigeria. In Vietnam, IBM helped a travel agency increase its business and offer more services.

Typical teams have a mix of strengths: a strong researcher, a talented consultant and people with legal, finance, marketing or communications expertise. In evaluations, participants have said it’s “the most successful executive education or leadership development program that they’ve experienced, not only at IBM but in their lives,” Litow said.

When asked to what degree the program improved the likelihood they’d stay at IBM, 100 percent said it would “significantly increase the likelihood,” Litow noted.

Discovering New Skills in Ghana

In 2011, PepsiCo’s skill-based volunteer program, PepsiCorps, sent a team from the U.S., Canada, Saudi Arabia, Spain and Vietnam to Ghana for a month to help improve citizens’ access to safe water and to promote eco-tourism.

Charlene Denizard, director of community engagement and corporate volunteering at PepsiCo, said participant Michael C. Russell, currently the Frito-Lay national account manager covering the Costco account, had an important moment of self-realization. Denizard said that Russell always considered himself a “great listener and a sensitive guy.”

While working on a clean-water project team in Denu, Ghana, Russell and others met with the village chief to discuss the village’s needs. They returned from the visit and discovered they had all heard different things. Russell quickly realized he had jumped to a conclusion, Denizard said.

He recently took that lesson to heart in a meeting with Costco executives. The retailer was looking for a more artisanal bread product. By keeping an open mind, Russell went back to Pepsi’s research and development department, which created a product that will launch by the end of October 2013.

Denizard said the experience helped Russell “deliver success for the business” and discover new skills to use in his job.


Want the biggest return on a global program? Along with getting senior management buy-in, panelists recommend:

Mix things up. IBM looks for a mix of people geographically and skillwise to max out problem-solving so participants have the expertise “not only to meet needs of the project but also to take it to the next level,” Litow said.

Do preparation and prework. IBM does prework to refine objectives so participants “hit the ground running,” Litow said. PepsiCo does advance training on everything from social media to potential medical issues.

Take people out of their comfort zone. PepsiCorps’ programs are all rural because the company likes to get workers out of their comfort zone. But it’s careful about whom it selects. To maximize productivity, Denizard said it looks for employees who can “flex their style” and who won’t be “miserable” being out of their country for a month.

Maximize learning. SAP houses participants together to maximize brainstorming and debriefings. That way, they can engage and learn from one another, Das said.

Use it as a recruitment tool. Das said candidates, particularly Millennials, often ask about SAP’s corporate social-responsibility efforts. “People’s eyes light up when they hear [about the program].”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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