A recent conversation with colleagues at Taproot Foundation was a welcome opportunity for me to once again explore the leader development opportunities in people’s lives outside the workplace.
The Taproot Foundation’s mission is to drive social change by leading, mobilizing, and engaging professionals in pro bono service. They work to match skilled volunteers with pro bono opportunities. But here is what I was most interested in: They also work with forward-thinking organizations to design pro bono programs that go beyond employee engagement to capitalize on the leader development and team building opportunities embedded in volunteer work.
Although many of us are prone to compartmentalize our lives into work, family, community, and leisure domains, effective leaders have long been applying leadership skills and insights developed in one setting to the challenges encountered in other settings. I worked once with an executive who was focusing on working with his direct reports in more of what he called a teaching mode rather than a telling mode. He drew from his experience as a volunteer coach for his daughter’s soccer team to articulate what teaching entailed and adapted skills developed in that setting to the workplace.
In their research on the relationship between multiple life roles and effective performance at work, Marian Ruderman and Patricia Ohlott found evidence that experiences outside of work can provide the practical skills and psychological support that enhances leadership effectiveness on the job (Academy of Management Journal, 2002). Experiences as a volunteer, parent, neighbor, traveler, or hobbyist can enhance a wide range of skills, from selling a concept and planning events to resolving conflict and handling ambiguity.
Corporate Social Responsibility and Learning & Development functions in organizations are now collaborating to more intentionally leverage the leadership development potential in employee volunteer programs. What does leveraging this potential entail?
- Recognizing the kind of stretch experiences that a volunteer will likely encounter—and the competencies such experiences develop. For example, these employees will be in unfamiliar settings with limited knowledge of how things work. To be successful in these settings, they will have to expand their network, be an agile learner, and develop comfort with ambiguity. Volunteers will also likely be working in a more resource-constrained environment—a challenge that can spark creativity and force the re-examination of assumptions. If volunteers go into the assignment knowing not only what talents they have to offer, but also what they can gain from the experience, then efforts to learn and grow can be more deliberate.
- Designing pro bono experiences to target specific competencies that the organization needs to realize its strategic goals. For a number of organizations, the aim is more leaders adept at working in a global environment. Global pro bono programs are a way to give more employees a global leadership experience. These programs typically deploy multi-cultural teams to emerging-market countries to help organizations or government agencies solve problems. These short-term assignment expose participants to different worldviews, require collaboration across cultural boundaries, and deliver on-the-ground lessons in adaptation to local context.
- Making pro bono work the centerpiece of a broader learning experience. IBM’s global pro bono program (Corporate Service Corps) starts with three months of preparation, including self-reflection and personal goal-setting, an intense structured learning curriculum, and virtual teambuilding. A CSC alumnus serves as the team’s facilitator. And after the one-month in-country pro bono work, participants have two months to reflect on and harvest key insights, and then share the experience and those insights with back-home colleagues. These elements of the program serve to maximize the learning gained from the pro bono experience.
Taproot Foundation has put together a useful Program Design Roadmap to help you start imagining and planning how you can integrate pro bono work and talent development in your own organization.
Most organizations find that they don’t have enough of the right kind of stretch experiences within the boundaries of their organization to meet their growing need to develop leaders. Pro bono work is one way of getting outside the constraints of those boundaries—in ways that energize employees and fulfill organizational aspirations to make the world a better place.
This post first appeared in November 2016 on The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange blog.