Sabbaticals help cultivate the stars of the future
By Sarah Murray
When Andrew Clark swapped his job as a Washington-based fraud investigation manager at Ernst & Young to work in Argentina for Progen, the country's only distributor of generic medicines, he found himself working from the company's conference room and having to run down to the local market to make photocopies. For Mr Clark, this was not a step backwards in his career but an opportunity offered by Ernst & Young's Corporate Responsibility Fellows programme.
The unfamiliarity of his new role was exhilarating. "This is the best executive leadership programme imaginable," Mr Clark says. "All the stuff that makes life easy in my day-to-day job was taken away from me and I had to work with what I had."
The scheme - which sends Ernst & Young's most valued staff to work as consultants for three months at small enterprises in emerging markets - benefits employees and the companies they work with. But it also enhances the profile of the global professional services firm as well as helping to develop and retain staff. Companies offering similar programmes include Accenture, IBM, PwC, Pfizer and Cisco.
The programmes come at a high price. Companies must match the right staff to positions and logistics, either internally or via external partners, as well as pay for transport and accommodation. The highest cost accrues from diverting top-performing executives away from their desks for several months.
However, the benefits outweigh the costs, particularly by establishing a presence in new markets, according to Elmira Bayrasli, head of partnership policy and outreach at Endeavor, a non-profit organisation that helps firms to place their executives.
"When a partner comes in and restructures a company's human resources department and [it is] then able to hire 40 people per month within a community, that community is going to be grateful," says Ms Bayrasli. "That's the type of PR money can't buy."
And as more employees seek careers that allow them to tackle social and environmental problems, overseas volunteering programmes are also proving to be an effective way to recruit and retain employees.
"We think IBM's Corporate Service Corps will be a huge draw at university campuses and recruiting events," says Stanley Litow, head of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs at IBM, whose new programme will send employees to work on projects in Romania, Turkey, Vietnam, the Philippines, Ghana and Tanzania.
Some 5,000 employees applied for the 100 places in IBM's scheme. "We have tapped into an extraordinary amount of interest and excitement among our employees," Mr Litow says. "There is a real hunger among our emerging leaders to take the skills and abilities honed in the private sector and apply them against society's toughest challenges."
This also means that companies can use sabbaticals as incentives to reward individuals they want to groom for senior positions. This is the case with Ernst & Young's programme, says Greg Hills, director of FSG Social Impact Advisors and co-author of the firm's recent report Volunteering for Impact*. "They are being selected out of a larger group of people," he says. "It's an interesting carrot for people to look forward to once they get to middle management level."
Companies also benefit from the skills their employees acquire. "They will learn how to function in unique cultural situations," says Mr Litow.
For Mr Clark, one of the lasting lessons was learning to cut through corporate jargon. "When you're in an environment where you're coping with culture and language challenges, you learn to speak succinctly," he says. "I now tend to get the point a lot quicker."
* Volunteering for Impact: Best Practices in International Corporate Volunteering, by Greg Hills and Adeeb Mahmud, FSG Social Impact Advisors, September 2007
A helping hand on the front line
IBM Corporate Service Corps
This year, 100 employees will be sent overseas to work on projects combining economic development with information technology.
Pfizer Global Health Fellows
Executives are sent to developing countries to help combat disease.
Accenture Development Partnerships
Consultants work for non-profit groups in developing countries.
Ernst & Young Corporate Responsibility Fellows
Staff assist entrepreneurs in South America.
Cisco Leadership Fellows Programme
Senior managers work in non-governmental organisationsclose to home rather than abroad.
The programme sends small teams overseas to provide skills-based services to NGOs.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008