Corner-office volunteers

Executives gain leadership lessons from charitable projects

Eight high-level managers from UPS fan out for the day to a range of social-service sites in New York City. They read stories to homeless children, visit senior citizens, conduct mock interviews with teens. For four weeks, the clock-bound atmosphere of package delivery is replaced by the rhythms of a community's needs - and glimpses of how they might do things differently back at their own jobs in Iowa, Germany, and elsewhere.

While many firms encourage volunteering and even pay their employees to support philanthropic efforts, UPS and others such as Xerox and Cisco have gone a step further, structuring longer-term projects to hone leadership skills. It's a kind of win-win outreach gaining ground in the corporate world.

"One of the most developmental experiences people can have is working with types of people they haven't dealt with before," says Patricia Ohlott, senior research associate at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. "They have to learn how to communicate in different ways ... [and] develop new ways of solving problems. That's pretty powerful."

More companies have used job assignments systematically as a leadership-development tool in the past 10 to 20 years, Ms. Ohlott says. But assignments in the nonprofit context add an interesting twist: "They're so focused on their goal of helping people - it's a different perspective from the one that people in corporations can fall into, where you're driven by the bottom line."

Each year, UPS chooses 40 to 50 managers for its Community Internship Program - matching them with urban or rural sites, whichever will most take them out of their comfort zone. And it has amassed hundreds of examples of "results" since it started its program in 1968.

One manager often came down hard on an employee for running a few minutes late. But after spending his internship helping people who were wheelchair bound, he found out that the employee's wife was in a similar situation - and he finally understood what a challenge that could be. Another was inspired to knock on doors in a blighted neighborhood he had never really spent time in to ask residents how well his drivers were serving them. And a manager from Kentucky gained some insight during his internship in San Francisco's Chinatown, where, for the first time in his life, he found himself the only white man in a room.

"We're not retreating to the mountains and having someone lecture to us about sensitivity," says Malcolm Berkley, a spokesman for UPS who also served in San Francisco last year.

Each summer, two successive groups of UPS interns live at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In its 101 years, the nonprofit has played a part in virtually every social-improvement and civil rights achievement in New York. It operates everything from domestic abuse shelters to arts programs.

On this day, UPS managers Ed Burnett and Ginger Golobish are acting out job interviews at Henry Street's Workforce-Development Center. They've already been coaching this group of young adults on work-appropriate dress (some needed to learn how to tie a tie), posture, and common interview questions.

Student Michael Pinder approaches Ms. Golobish with an outstretched hand, as if meeting her for the first time. When she asks, "Why should I hire you," he responds with a well-rehearsed list: "I have experience. I'm a people person.... I'm a hard worker.... I always try to be the best at what I'm doing." When the interview ends, the class breaks into applause. Then there's a critique. Everyone agrees Mr. Pinder has come a long way, but Reynel Santiago, a graduate of the program and now the trainer, offers a comment on posture: "It seemed like he was in a lounge talking with a lady!" Sit up straight and don't cock your head to the side, he orders.

The class has tangible benefits for UPS, since many of the graduates apply for entry-level jobs with the shipping company. Mr. Burnett and Golobish say it's eye-opening to see what hurdles these young men and women have to clear on their way to job readiness. The students are required to wear professional clothes every day, but at least one brings his clothes in a bag for fear of being beaten up on his way to class.

"I deal with about 335 employees, and [it's important] to spend an extra minute or ask the right questions to understand their point of view," says Golobish, a district manager in Indiana. "We get our work done through our people, and people come from neighborhoods like this. The training that it's providing me is just immeasurable."

Another pair of UPS interns are shadowing social workers as they visit elderly clients who receive housekeeping help from Henry Street. And over at a bicycle recycling shop and job- training center in Brooklyn, UPS managers are working on plans to keep track of inventory by putting bar codes on the donated bike parts that crowd the walls all the way up to the ceiling.

At a shelter for homeless families and abused women, two of the interns spend their days helping out with the children in day care. One is Mike Whitlatch, who is surrounded by nine rapt toddlers as he reads a story. A girl nestles into the crook of his arm, and when the story is done, she stays nearby and laughs as he tickles her.

"You see how they are all over Mike?" says the center's director, Rebecca Roman, later. "They never see a man. When he left [the other day], they said, 'He isn't coming back, is he?' When he came back, they just stared," she says, mimicking their look of awe.

Some interns are so deeply touched that they return to volunteer again. Four years ago, Annie Van Tilburg served at another Henry Street day-care center, where most of the children are from nearby Chinatown. She carried home a personal understanding that "differences don't have to be threatening," she says in a phone interview from Atlanta. She's been coming back on vacation ever since. On the job, she says, she feels better equipped to train new supervisors about diversity. And to teach about teamwork, she takes them to the food bank for a day of sorting.

Other companies are also seeking to connect with the nonprofit sector. Since 1971, Xerox has granted paid social-service leaves to about 450 employees. At Cisco Systems, sending people to work in nonprofit jobs for reduced pay was originally a way to keep employees connected during a round of layoffs. Later, most of them returned to Cisco. But the experience proved so valuable that now the company has turned it into a fully paid executive-development program. When employees return from their 3- to 12-month projects, "they bring a broader range of thinking when it comes to problem-solving ... and a newfound respect for how to manage money frugally," says Cisco Foundation executive director Michael Yutrzenka.

To get the most out of such experiences, a structure for setting goals and measuring progress is key, Ohlott says.

For the UPS interns, that includes journal writing and discussions at the end of the day or after key events such as a visit to Sing Sing prison.

"You really have that opportunity to drop your guard and get to know people for who they are," says Don Wofford, an Atlanta-based coordinator for the internship program. "Those kinds of discussions rarely happen in corporate America; you just don't have the energy to sit at the lunch table every day and tackle the problems of the world.... But for these four weeks, we agree to disagree agreeably.... Through that open discourse, people learn and grow."

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