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Spring 2016
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CTDO Magazine
Developing Leaders Offers Triple Win for Dow

A unique twist to talent development at The Dow Chemical Company combines pro bono consulting on sustainability issues with global leadership development.

Global leaders need to hone specific skills: change management, critical thinking, leading cross-cultural teams, strategy development, and execution. Unfortunately, many of today's organizations fail to help their global leaders acquire and leverage the competencies necessary to succeed. In fact, research from the American Management Association and the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that only half of organizations make it a priority to develop leaders' global skills and competencies. Developing Global-Minded Leaders to Drive High-Performance also reveals that only one-third of organizations find that their development efforts are effective.

Faced with this challenge, the Dow Chemical Company sought a new approach to developing its top talent. Enter Leadership in Action, a novel program that joins the Dow Sustainability Corps with human resources on leadership development. Specifically, the Leadership in Action program enables Dow employees to work pro bono with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), nonprofits, and entrepreneurs to address long-standing sustainability challenges and social issues, such as education, public health, and sanitation, in emerging geographies and areas of growth for Dow.

"As part of Dow's 2025 sustainability goals, we have committed to positively impacting the lives of 1 billion people over the next 10 years," says Rob Vallentine, Dow's director of global citizenship and president of the Dow Chemical Company Foundation. "Leadership in Action is helping us accomplish this goal while leaving a lasting impact on both our employees and the strategic communities in which we see growth opportunities."

Pro bono builds leadership pros

Providing pro bono support to address community challenges is growing in popularity as a way for corporations to build future leaders, undertake frugal innovation, and create shared value in emerging markets. PYXERA Global's annual benchmarking study, Corporate Global Pro Bono: State of the Practice, finds that talent development is a primary motivation for 68 percent of organizations pursuing these sorts of programs.

"Providing top employees with an opportunity to work in resource-constrained emerging-market environments and in multicultural, multi-expertise teams under a tight deadline to deliver a quality product to a client has a profound impact on talent development," explains Amanda MacArthur, vice president of Global Pro Bono and Engagement for PYXERA Global.

"Very few professional experiences enable such accelerated growth and applied learning," adds Alicia Bonner Ness, senior manager of communications at PYXERA Global and the editor of the New Global Citizen.

Right partner makes the most impact

A key challenge for Dow is identifying the right host organizations and developing a realistic scope of work that will meet the needs of the local community while also fulfilling its own corporate responsibility and employee development goals. Dow Sustainability Corps turns to PYXERA Global for assistance in matching interested high-potential employees with NGOs that need support for their sustainable development projects.

In other words, Dow works with PYXERA Global to find and shape projects that meet their objectives and have a significant social impact. Then the firm helps Dow Sustainability Corps target geographies, identify optimal program duration and project scope, anddevelop participant selection methods.

With footholds and partnerships in place across the globe, PYXERA Global is well-equipped to manage experiences where participants are safe and secure. More important, it focuses on finding partners and programs that will help participants in the Leaders in Action program feel personally and professionally challenged—and are confident that their work will make a measurable contribution to enhancing lives and livelihoods around the globe.

Programs abroad accelerate leadership at home

To best leverage the expertise and skills of Dow employees on a global scale, the Leadership in Action program couples virtual communication with on-the-ground visits. Employees are separated into groups that focus on a particular issue with a specific partner. After an initial virtual introduction to their partner organization, they typically spend four months consulting with partners online, which is followed by a week in-country to conduct field research and give initial presentations of proposed solutions. Finally, employees work with the organizations virtually for another month to finalize the projects.

Dow launched Leadership in Action in Ghana in 2013 with 35 participants. Split into teams of five, the employees were paired with local organizations in Accra to focus on seven programs that would maximize the employees' distinctive expertise. For instance, one team worked with the University of Ghana College of Agriculture and Consumer Science to develop a training and marketing strategy to build local awareness of how to sustainably harvest traditional medicinal plants.

Another team worked with WaterHealth Ghana to evaluate existing technologies to develop a safer, more sustainable alternative to sachet water. "It's a wonderful way to tackle hands-on problems that are facing this world," says Alysia Diffendal, a Dow employee based in Indianapolis who worked on the Ghana projects.

In 2014, Dow expanded the program to 41 employees and eight projects when it focused on sustainability issues in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. One project partnered with the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology to create a sustainable business model to convert corn into polyethylene; another project helped create and launch a Chamber of Commerce Academy for training and business.

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"This was an amazing program and opportunity. The initial week really opened my eyes to Dow's leadership philosophies, and it was inspiring to discuss leadership and Dow's future with the senior management. Working on projects to help parts of the world much less fortunate than me was personally very rewarding," says program participant David Stenhouse, who partnered with the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research to improve laboratory research processes to produce more nutritional food.

Program Accomplishments

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  • 24,200 volunteer hours
  • 119 future leaders
  • 23 Dow Sustainability Corps projects: water, agriculture, education, housing, public health, and sanitation
  • 15 months virtual consulting
  • 3 weeks in-country
  • 3 countries impacted: Ghana, Ethiopia, and Indonesia
  • Thousands of lives changed

Most recently, the Leadership in Action program focused on Surabaya, Indonesia, with 42 participants working on seven major projects in 2015, including:

  • developed curriculum with Universitas Airlangga that helps students who work with fisheries and the community to teach seaweed farmers skills for income generation
  • worked with Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember to develop a new online application that will enable dialogue between the citizens of Surabaya and government municipalities, as well as support government policy formation and sanctioned project execution
  • conducted a feasibility and market study with the Indonesia International Institute for Life Sciences to see if new and attainable micro-algae market opportunities exist for IndoAlgae, based on current operations
  • with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, researched and developed best practices in training for pest detection and the monitoring and implementation of quarantine tactics for cassava pest outbreaks.

"These projects serve as exceptional development opportunities for our employees, who become visionaries for new business development opportunities while learning first-hand the realities of working in unknown situations that test their leadership, decision-making, and problem-solving skills," says Johanna Söderström, Dow's corporate vice president of human resources.

A true triple win

The "triple bottom line," introduced by John Elkington nearly two decades ago, has helped shape the definition of sustainable business to include social, environmental, and economic efforts. The way corporations embrace this concept has evolved over the years, with some organizations opting to focus on ways to foster sustainability by training future corporate leaders through sustainable development programs.

One way to reap the full benefits of the triple bottom line is for corporations to not only engage in pro bono consulting for sustainability issues, but also incorporate it into their formal leadership development programs. Dow's Leadership in Action program clearly embraces this triple win philosophy.

"When Dow provides not only funds but employees and their experience, it says that 'we want to be in those communities, we want our employees to understand those communities, and it will make our employees better leaders and give them the experiences to take Dow into the future,'" says James Swingle, a Dow employee based in Midland, Michigan, and Leadership in Action program participant in Ghana.

"We are thrilled that Dow employees are being exposed to this kind of leadership development opportunity, and pleased to be able to demonstrate Dow's commitment to the global community by putting some of our brightest minds to work on some of the most important challenges," adds Söderström. "This is truly the triple bottom line at its best. Beyond the benefits to the employees, these programs are a win-win-win for society, the environment, and business."

About Dow Chemical Company

Dow combines the power of science and technology to passionately innovate what is essential to human progress. It is driving innovations that extract value from the intersection of chemical, physical, and biological sciences to help address many of the world's most challenging problems such as the need for clean water, clean energy generation and conservation, and increasing agricultural productivity. References to "Dow" mean the The Dow Chemical Company and its consolidated subsidiaries unless otherwise expressly noted.

About PYXERA Global

PYXERA Global is a nonprofit economic development firm based in Washington, D.C. With a quarter century of experience in more than 90 countries, PYXERA Global strives to create groundbreaking partnerships between the public, private, and social sectors that leverage the innovation in each to create shared value for clients. It achieves this through two practices: Global Pro Bono and Enterprise and Community Development. 

Are You Giving Back?

Giving back to our communities doesn't just mean reaching into our wallets. Many nonprofits and community organizations can use the skill sets of talent development professionals. How do you define "giving back" and how do you think it affects your organization? What are you or your employees and organization doing to give back to the profession or society at large? CTDO would love to share your giving back story.

Contact Ann Parker, manager of the Association for Talent Development's Senior Leaders and Executives Community of Practice, with your ideas and stories.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at rellis@td.org. 

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