Corner-Office Volunteers ; Executives Gain Leadership Lessons from Charitable Projects

Article excerpt

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. …