Leading from the frontline

PricewaterhouseCoopers
has taken the leadership challenge further than most by seconding
high-potential individuals to the UN to help project in countries in extreme
circumstances. Noel O’Reilly reports

A
leadership development scheme which seconds young executives to projects in
some of the world’s most crisis-hit areas could pay dividends for HR as well as
improving the company’s reputation for corporate social responsibility (CSR).

The
Ulysses project at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) demonstrates some
of the reasons why HR practitioners should be willing to take a leading role in
promoting CSR.

The
project was launched by a special think-tank in the US, but involves executives
from around the world taking part in projects for the United Nations and other
organisations in countries hit by war, poverty and disease. 

CSR
raised its profile earlier this month when Business in the Community’s second
Corporate Social Responsibility Index was published, indicating those among the
UK’s top companies who take CSR seriously. The evidence is that CSR is low on
the priorities of most of the 500 who were invited to participate, with only
139 entering.

PricewaterhouseCoopers
was among the participants and finished in 63d place in the top 100, although
KPMG was the highest placed in the accountants and consultants category.

HR
departments in general have been slow to embrace CSR, despite the fact that the
potential HR benefits have been emphasised by the movement’s supporters, with
improved recruitment and retention seen as the biggest bonus as blue chip
companies fight to attract the best talent.

The
Ulysses project shows that involving high-potential staff with leadership
potential can be a way to give participants a trans-cultural and international
perspective on leadership, to develop a range of competences and even to
experience a change of attitude towards some of the world’s biggest problems.

Management
experts often argue that the new generation of potential leaders are looking
for more meaning in their work, with greater challenges and opportunities to
contribute to the greater good. The Ulysses project is a demonstration of one
way to approach this.

The
project is not the traditional CSR secondment where executives paint the local
community centre or help out in a neighborhood school. The four projects which
have taken place since the scheme began in 2003 include work on a United
Nations Development programme in Zambia, where participants worked with
unemployed youths to convert natural resources into economically viable
products.

Another
UN project in Moldova involved rebuilding local governance structures after the
civil war, while a programme in Namibia set about designing a project
management system for local communities to respond to the HIV/Aids virus.

The
final project involved participants assessing the feasibility of eco-tourism as
a source of sustainable development income in Belize.

The
Ulysses project aims to develop competences in independence, mobility and
diversity among those taking part by creating a challenging context for their
development and by linking them to the principle of sustainable development.

The
participants are all executives who have been identified as high-potential
future leaders and are volunteered by sponsoring managers. They spend four
weeks in preparation, followed by a week’s residential course to prepare them
for eight weeks’ field work. On their return from the project they spend a week
reviewing how the programme has gone, and there is follow up and regular
communication with the network of participants when they turn to their
day-to-day jobs.

The
learning and development teams use a range of approaches with a strong emphasis
on experiential learning, including individual coaching, learning maps,
360-degree feedback, an intranet site, and access to a reference site for
academic research on experiential learning at St Gallen University in
Switzerland.

The
feedback from delegates to the course reads more like reactions to a religious
convention than a typical leadership development programme. Words like
adventure, commitment, inspiration and accountability pepper the reports from
those involved, as well as expressions such as ‘oneness’ and ‘connectedness’
more reminiscent of the Glastonbury rock festival.

One
executive described the experience like this: “It has enriched who I am and the
way I have started to look at things with new perspectives, a new openness and
a greater sense of personal confidence. I have learned that leadership is not a
title, it’s a lifelong journey.”

Speaking
at a conference on leadership this month, organised by occupational
psychologists Pearn Kandola, PwC learning and development director Paul Bennett
told delegates that the future success of international brands would depend on
meeting social expectations and being accountable. To achieve this, companies
concerned with CSR will have to look beyond charity walks, human rights and
refusing contracts to corrupt suppliers. As with the Ulysses project, organisations
will have to work at changing the mindset and values of their future leaders.

If
such things are not enough of a carrot, however, the Government may wield a
stick. The DTI has warned that it aims to publish regulations requiring 1,000
of the largest firms to report on social and environmental impacts.

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