IBM goes global with innovative leadership development program
By Dan Zehr
Sunday, July 27, 2008
IBM Corp. started shipping some of its most promising up-and-coming leaders out of the country this summer.
The company asked them to drop everything for a month to go help businesses in some of the world's smallest technology markets. They are the vanguard of IBM's new Corporate Service Corps.
"We're giving away the thing the company values the most," said Stanley Litow, vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs. "What's more valuable than the time and talent of your best young performers?"
The answer: What IBM might get in return.
IBM also created the program to strengthen the leadership skills of employees throughout the company and lay the groundwork for future sales in the countries where they will work.
Hundreds of companies have employed elements of IBM's initiative. But experts say Big Blue is charting new territory by combining the international, community-service and leadership-development pieces in a single program.
The company has selected 100 rising stars. Each team will spend a month in one of six developing countries, living and working with local companies, governments and organizations.
"We're not going to go back and sit in the hotel and eat cheeseburgers at the end of the day," said Heather Hinton, a senior technical staff member at IBM-Tivoli Systems and one of two Austin employeesselected for the program. "We're going to be living much more the way people who are in our position would live if they're there the whole time."
Over the next three years, the company expects to send 600 rising stars to Vietnam, Ghana, Romania, Tanzania, Turkey and the Philippines. The first teams already have hit the ground in Romania and Ghana.
IBM "already is an international business, but there's even more focus on emerging markets," said Marc Dickenson, a firmware developer in Austin who heads to Vietnam next month. "They're looking for people who have that experience working with other cultures. They're making an investment in some people to give them more of that international experience."
Hinton and her team will go to Vietnam in October.
"When I come back, I believe I will point to something and say, 'This was the piece that was the most valuable to me,' " Hinton said. "And I haven't got a clue what it's going to be. ... That's what makes it such an amazing adventure."
IBM designed the program to create sustainable projects in the targeted countries. Because the projects are ongoing, more employees will get a chance to participate. More than 5,000 employees worldwide applied for the program.
Over the life of the program, IBM will give away as much as $250 million worth of its employees' time, services and expertise, Litow said. By putting employees who are relatively early in their careers through the program, however, Litow and the company expect to get much more in return.
"At the end of the three-year period," he said, "our hope is not only to have a fairly significant number of high-performing leaders in the company trained in a new and different way, but to have people who will be a lot more aware and savvy about business opportunities in markets that have potential for the company."
Many corporate leadership development programs include community service, and IBM isn't treading new ground by sending employees to emerging markets. But Big Blue appears to be the first major corporation to wrap all of those elements into one program.
"My first sense is that this (monthlong assignment) is longer than I can recall ever having seen," said Michael Useem, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of business and director of its Center for Leadership and Change Management.
"Two, it's service, which is not unknown but is not common. And three, it's international. I'm hard-pressed to think of another company that does that," he said.
The program aims to put employees in environments that will challenge them to adapt in new ways. Useem said that can bring to light strengths and shortcomings they didn't know they had.
"It's not just to have the experience of solving some problem or addressing some community need," he said, "but to help yourself better understand what it takes" to accomplish the task at hand.
That can be a huge confidence-builder for participants, said James Frederickson, a University of Texas management professor.
"It's packaged as an opportunity to help develop leaders for this emerging economy, but for me, it's much more in that it's going to develop managers irrespective of the environment they find themselves in," Frederickson said. "There's a lot to be said for that."
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