Volunteerism 2.0: Local and Global Citizenship through Employee Engagement

Laura Asiala gave this talk at the 2014 Net Impact Conference: Breaking Boundaries, in a panel discussion regarding “Volunteerism 2.0: Local and Global Citizenship through Employee Engagement.”

I am really excited to have the opportunity to talk to you today, because employee engagement is one of my favorite topics and volunteering is one of my passions. But I think it’s important to note that while they can be connected, they aren’t automatically connected. In a way, it’s like a magnet. If you’ve ever held two pieces of a magnet in each of your hands, you know that the closer they get, the stronger the attraction, until you can’t keep them apart.  But hold them far enough apart, and there really isn’t a strong connection.

I think that’s a good metaphor for employee volunteerism and employee engagement. If they are aligned, there is a strong motivation and a powerful force to propel the organization forward, far greater than the force—or energy—required to put them together. And that’s the kind of engagement you want to drive in corporate volunteering programs.

But let’s talk for a minute about what we mean by “employee engagement”.  What does that mean exactly?  One of the more insightful ways I have found to frame it is to consider a combination of employee commitment and employee understanding.

Figure 1.

Take a look figure one. On the X axis (the horizontal line at the bottom), you’ll find “Employee Commitment”; on the Y axis (the vertical line on the left), “Employee Understanding.’ Along the axes you can identify whether or not those are “low” or “high.”

The box in the upper right hand corner represents “high” commitment and “high” understanding—and that is the essence of employee engagement. This is where you have “stars” -not only the knowledge of your business and strategy, but the passion to go with it.  The upper left hand box is high understanding, but low commitment. These people are “by-standers”—how do you build their commitment?  The lower right hand box is low understanding, but high commitment. These people are “loose cannons”—they’re enthusiastic, but their energy could be counter-productive if it’s not employed in the right way. They need more information. Ignore the lower left hand box—those people should just go away.

The great thing about volunteer programs, supported by excellent communications, is that they can be used to drive both intellectual understanding, which is “knowledge”, and emotional intelligence, which is “commitment.”

There are any number of things, essential for any business, which can be tied to an employee engagement strategy built on employee volunteerism, but I’m going to bundle these together and focus on three key points:

  1. Building talent
  2. Spurring growth
  3. Managing risk

All organizations require talent. They need to recruit it, develop it, train it, engage it, and retain in. Engagement starts at the moment of recruitment. What is it that attracts top talent to your company?

Here’s an example of how to use corporate volunteering to address a “talent” issue. About eight years ago, IBM made a decision to move to a more comprehensive, globally operated company, and when they did so, they realized that their leadership “pipeline” would not produce the leadership skills and capabilities in the quantity that would be required, and the traditional methods of classroom education and expat experience would be neither effective nor economical. In response, they started the Corporate Service Corps which places high potential leaders into service-learning engagements, immersing them in underserved communities in markets in Africa, south east Asia, eastern Europe and Latin America.  Participants receive training in advance with regards to the cultures and markets of their placement, but it’s the real-life, on-the-ground experience which accelerates and drives the development of global leadership skills. At the same time, they inject skills and experiences into communities and organizations, which would never have had access to those skills—either geographically or economically—contributing to the ability of those organizations to grow, develop and better serve their own constituencies, sustainably.

Do you see how meeting this talent development need through service learning could drive both intellectual and emotional intelligence? Of course this is true for the people who are involved in the program, but what about the people who are “left at home”? Turns out, it’s good for them too. For one thing, none of this is done in a vacuum. At IBM the individuals are gone from their “day jobs” for about a month, and they are rarely “back-filled” which means it opens up development opportunities for people on the “home site” to support the effort by stepping up, filling in, learning new skills and/or process improvements. It also is a huge example and “proof point” of IBM’s commitment to develop talent from within—which is also strongly correlated with high employee retention.

Let’s turn externally and talk a little bit about another thing that all companies need, and that’s new products, new services, new sales, new revenues, new markets—in a word, growth. There are many ways to gain insight into new markets, but one of the most economical and efficient ways of gaining insight for market expansion and new product/services development is for key players in a firm to immerse themselves in a new market environment, in order to gain a deep understanding of the needs—and capabilities—of the market. Medtronic is an example of this type of approach, in sending skilled employees cross-border to work in underserved markets in order to gain insight for innovation.

Dow Chemical is an example of a company using this type of strategic volunteering effort to gain insight and build their authentic reputation on the ground in new markets. Notably, the Dow Sustainability Corps and their “Leadership in Action” put 35 participants into Ghana last year and 40 into Ethiopia this year. They gain all of the benefits that you would expect—including transformative leadership experiences—but I keep coming back to something that Ross McLean, who is the President of Dow Africa—said after the team returned. He acknowledged the importance of his colleagues in the community as well as the opportunity to build an authentic reputation for the company in this new space based on service. But he also pointed out the benefit of having 35—now 75—colleagues, who now know two things: 1) that doing business in Africa is challenging and 2) that it’s worth it. More importantly, this understanding is now seeded, literally, around the globe within the Dow organization. Every decision to invest a dollar in Accra, Ghana is a decision not to invest a dollar somewhere else, and he now has internal advocates in conference rooms all over the world who can attest to that and help make more informed decisions.

Developing advocacy. That’s the key to engagement, isn’t it? And we’ve talked about the positives in terms of developing talent and directing attention, resources, and insight into new business, but there’s another side that can never be far from sight.  It’s about costs, yes, but specifically about risk reduction. Out of control risks cause crises—they interrupt or prevent business—and they are huge suckers of time, energy, and money.  The more smoothly you can keep operations operating, the lower the risk, the lower the cost. Of course, these are the things that are most difficult to quantify, because it’s difficult to know the value of the accident averted.

“The day you need a license to operate better not be the first day you think about stakeholder engagement.”

I heard Johanna Nesseth Tuttle of Chevron speak at a Shared Value event last week in Washington, D.C., and her quote is one I’ll carry with me for a long time: “The day you need a license to operate better not be the first day you think about stakeholder engagement.” There are social licenses to operate and environmental licenses to operate and legal licenses to operate. Integrating employee volunteers into key stakeholder relationships does several things: it builds authentic relationships which forms the solid foundation on which to have insightful conversations and resolve issues of dispute; it demonstrates commitment of the company to live within a system of the society and the environment—truly integrating itself; and it demonstrates to employees the core values of the organization, educating and building commitment within them that is aligned to the organization. This is as important for a manufacturer in a community as it is for a company engaged in natural resources to assure a sustainable supply chain. Company volunteers engaged in a mutual cause with key stakeholders build deep understanding, lasting relationships and keen insights into greater efficiency and shared value. These experiences, reported back, also serve to educate and inspire fellow employees.

And that’s the essence of employee engagement: education and inspiration which drives knowledge and commitment to moving your organization forward.

Feature photo: IBM Corporate Service Corps participants in Bogotá, Colombia.
Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.

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