International Corporate Volunteering: The New Training Ground for Corporate Leaders

In the past five years, a number of Fortune 500 corporations sent their HR professionals, Marketing Directors, Chiefs Technology Officers and other highly skilled employees to lend their skills to communities in developing areas of India, Africa, Brazil and other locations around the world. Why are companies such as PepsiCo, SAP and Dow Corning choosing to do this? And why is it important for Human Resource professionals?

Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s 15th Annual Global CEO Survey found that "not having the right talent in the right place is a leading threat to growth for many CEOs. One in four CEOs said they were unable to pursue a market opportunity or have had to cancel or delay a strategic initiative because of talent constraints." For Human Resource professionals seeking out talented employees who can act as domestic leaders and navigate international markets, International Corporate Volunteer (ICV) programs offer an approach to developing these employees and innovators from within. Employee teams, often comprised of high-potential leaders, travel into emerging markets, where they work together intensely on pre-scoped projects, volunteering their corporate expertise for a nonprofit, small to medium size business or government agency for up to four weeks. According to CDC Development Solutions’ 2012 ICV Benchmarking Study, leadership development is the primary reason for this.

You Don’t Have to be Labeled a Leader to Lead
In 2011, PepsiCo sent their first eight person PepsiCorps team to rural Ghana, where employee volunteers came together from the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Spain for the first time to work on clean water and sanitation projects to the benefit of the local community. The positive outcomes abroad and after returning to work led PepsiCo to deploy two more PepsiCorps projects in 2012 to India and the Southwestern United States.

One PepsiCorps volunteer perhaps said it best – most ICV participants are known as strong workers who can be counted on to get the job done, but their current job titles or direct lines of responsibility don’t necessarily put them in the highest echelons of their company’s leadership. ICV programs such as PepsiCorps provide the opportunity for a variety of people to take a leadership role – whether it’s because of a specific skill set that’s needed or the ability to navigate a complex cultural dynamic. The flip side is also true: These experiences often teach the "alphas" of the group the power of observation and asking questions before making decisions. It teaches the importance of listening to their colleagues and clients, taking a moment to observe their surroundings and make decisions based on the local context.

Action Learning at its Best
ICV programs require employees to constantly re-evaluate how they are contributing to their team’s assignment in order to reach their goals in a short timeframe. For the global, cross-functional PepsiCorps team, this meant that employees with logistics, sales or R&D expertise had to determine how to apply their skill sets to various tasks that would improve communication between community water boards and the district government and ultimately provide improved access to clean water. Skills like adaptability and creativity in a resource-strained environment became critical.

Many Different Ways to Attack the Same Problem
Earlier this year, the global technology firm, SAP, sent its first employee team to volunteer in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Global Communications Director, Evan Welsh, was part of a three-person team tasked with designing a new communications plan for a nonprofit – in a country, culture and sector that were new for all three volunteers. "We didn’t have much time on the ground to work. When called for, each of us needed to take a leadership position to get things done – to make sure we were delivering in a very short amount of time. I realized there are many different ways to attack the same problem. Learning from people on the ground in Brazil, as well as my SAP colleagues – I’ve come to recognize how to approach a problem from various angles."

A recent George Washington University Capstone project, International Corporate Volunteerism: Measuring Value, mapped ICV alongside executive training programs at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Wharton, Northwestern and London Business School and found that the benefits of skills-based volunteering abroad is comparable to these leadership curriculums. ICV possessed the highest number of human resources related benefits, including company loyalty, leadership skills, resilience, adaptability, team building and cultural competence. It was also ranked the most cost-effective.

Recruiting Ground for High Potentials and Millennials
International Corporate Volunteering also raises the profile of companies such as Dow Corning Corporation when it comes to recruiting new talent. Dow Corning is investigating sending its next teams into China, Brazil and India through its Citizen Service Corps.The promise of this opportunity is appealing to high potential talent and millennials looking to work for a company with purpose.As Ed Colbert, Director of Talent Management pointed out, "International Corporate Volunteering is not just an employee development tool. It attracts new recruits because it’s proof that people can come to Dow Corning and do great things. It raises our profile among prospective employees and makes us distinct. When we’re in the news or in the field or on campus, we get calls from college students saying, ‘How can I come work for you?’ "

Business leaders of tomorrow need to be culturally savvy in ways that transcend what was required of previous generations and in a manner that can’t be learned sitting in a classroom – no matter how many countries are represented in the curriculum. Learning to work with different cultural styles, while navigating the curves of a new business environment is a huge learning experience for most participants and one they take back into their professional lives.