Building Leaders Through International Development

Matthew Farmer

Matthew Farmer is founder and managing director of Emerging World, a provider of international development experiences, inclusive business strategies and corporate volunteering programmes. Email: matthew@emergingworld.com

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Matthew Farmer sheds new insights on how skills-based volunteering overseas can help build tomorrow’s global leaders.

“Tell me and I will forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I will learn” Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin’s words have never resonated more truthfully.

The growth of experiential learning and frameworks such as 70:20:10 are formalising the way that learning and development (L&D) departments think about how employees learn and how to structure their learning interventions and processes. However, when it comes to global leadership development, what kinds of experiences are most relevant?

In the past, rotational assignments were used but many companies are phasing these out due to their expense and high risk of failure. So what kinds of experiences are relevant to build the capabilities of employees to tackle the global volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of tomorrow? Enter Corporate International Service Learning (CISL).

CISL involves initiatives in which employees of corporations travel internationally to use their business skills in the service of third-party organisations, usually addressing a social need in some form or another, and learn as an outcome.

It was coined to encapsulate two kinds of experiences offered by companies – those driven by CSR/Corporate Citizenship as a structured form of corporate volunteering and those offered by L&D functions as a way of stretching and challenging leaders.

Over time, more companies have embraced these kinds of programmes. Early movers in the late 1990s included Zurich Financial Services, Accenture and PwC, sometimes supported by a facilitating NGO such as VSO.

Case studies of these programmes and the companies that initiated them highlight the quality of interventions and their innovative nature. After all, they were a good story to tell – executives out in developing countries helping people, lots of interesting pictures, the potential of doing good/saving lives – it all looks fantastic.

However, as more companies have got on board such as IBM with its Corporate Service Corps programme, which sends hundreds of people each year on CISL assignments, or Microsoft’s Front Lines programme in which experienced senior leaders in the organisation work with strategic partners using action learning, the stakes have increased.

It has become more important to understand in greater detail what impact the programmes have on participants. What empirical data is there? And while the inspiration and immediate impact of these programmes seems intuitive, what about the long-term impact?

These are questions that we have been asking for some time at our company Emerging World, which operates in this field, and we decided to use the celebration of our 10th anniversary in 2014 to look for the answers. The findings were compelling.

The impact of CISL programmes is multi-dimensional. They have an impact on the projects, people and organisations operating in the developing/emerging world as well as an impact on the participants in the programmes and the organisations that employ them.

For the full article, you can view the PDF or listen to the podcast.

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