In September 2013, Dow Chemical sent 35 high-performing employees to Ghana, where they used their leadership skills to help seven local nonprofit organizations and entrepreneurs working to create STEM education, increase access to clean water and provide urban housing.
As Dow Chemical Co. expanded its global presence, it outgrew its high-potential-targeting leadership program. What had been a way to expose employees to emerging geographies became a kind of tour of corporate offices that shared the same characteristics as the Midland, Michigan, headquarters.
It was time to move employees out of an expanding comfort zone. Enter the company’s Leadership in Action program, which combines service with skill-building to develop stronger global leaders, strengthens health and education in foreign communities, and opens up markets for international growth.
“We refer to it as our triple win,” said John Kolmer, global manager for leadership development. “A win for the communities, our employees and a win for Dow, not only in developing strong leaders but also in building and polishing the Dow diamond in this new and emerging geography.”
Originally, high-potential employees attended an academy to participate in a week of leadership development classes at Dow’s Midland headquarters before spending a second week in one of the company’s international locations, such as Sao Paulo, Shanghai or Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “That was fine, but it lacked specific action learning,” said Johanna Söderström, vice president of human resources.
What was missing was a hands-on experience that taught participants how to understand cultural context and complexities. Such leadership development also results in self-reflection, which helps learners recognize their personal coping mechanisms when it comes to the unknown — something that can’t happen when they haven’t been exposed to new cultures.
That’s why Kolmer began experimenting on the existing leadership development program. While visiting three destination sites, he noticed that none differed much from what participants already experienced in the United States.
There were more than 500 employees in SaoPaulo and Shanghai, and Dubai was a regional headquarters with a similar environment to the ones the employees already worked in every day. Limiting them to learning in markets where Dow had already established a foothold deprived them of the ability to discover what the company needed to do toassimilate to new local cultures.
Kolmer worked with Michelle Langley, Dow Sustainability Corps program leader, to create a program that would integrate the two departments and create a learning experience that instilled humility, integrity and leadership skills in participants — key attributes Dow looks for in the next generation of global leaders.
Langley brought her own problems to the table. Whenever a nonprofit organization came to her with a request for help, she had difficulty finding the right employee with the right skills in Dow’s global workforce of 53,000 people. By teaming up with the development group, she could help to develop employees for future global projects.
Providing a Leadership Laboratory
In 2013, Dow piloted the Leadership in Action program with a focus on Accra, Ghana, where it had opened its first commercial office just six months earlier. Selecting the West African country’s capital acted as a way to acquaint future leaders with a new business terrain, introduce the company into a new market and establish a greater presence in the local community.
A group of 36 high-performing employees split into seven teams and were assigned a nongovernmental organizationto assist in a project that matched the community’s needs. One group figured out where to growmedicinal plants that could fight malaria. Another worked with local trade school, Accra Polytechnics, to develop post-secondary education science, technology, engineering and math curriculum.
Participants spent the first five months virtually planning and collaborating from their home offices as consultants. Kolmer said this alone helped them develop their consulting skills, particularly the ability to prioritize what a client needed most to achieve its goals.
Working with someone in a different area also meant learning to adapt when things didn’t go according to plan. Kolmer said participants had to collaborate with people in places where the telephone can go out in a moment’s notice and access to electricity is spotty, which taught them how to overcome technical challenges and still get the job done.
But they didn’t remain virtual for long. After five months of phone and online communication, the group spent a week in Accra to examine the finished product before ending the project with ongoing virtual support once they returned home.
“I’ll admit the first year was more serendipitous than anything else,” Kolmer said. Nonetheless, the program’s success led the Leadership in Action team to continue in Africa for its second class in 2014. This time, 41 participants worked on eight projects, first for five months from home and then during a week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the company didn’t have an office but was considering opening one.
One of the Ethiopian teams worked with IBM Corp.’s Corporate Service Corps to help the International Medical Corps develop marketing to promote hygiene and sanitation practices. Participants improved their collaboration skills with nonprofit humanitarian groups and other commercial entities.
“Pulling together can make a greater impact than going alone,” said Gina Tesla, director of IBM’s corporate citizenship initiatives. “We really do see the value of working with our partners and exchanging best practices. We can learn and continue to grow our program by working with partners around the world.”
The Elements of Leadership
To build leaders who can aid Dow’s expanding global presence, Leadership in Action works to instill future leaders with the skills and the mindset they need to succeed in uncharted territory.
Both groups learned how to understand cultural contexts by working to solve problems within a community that differs drastically from their own, Kolmer said. For example, the marketing campaign in Ethiopia couldn’t rely on what advertising resonates with Americans; they had to focus on the social structures and values of the Ethiopian people to create something meaningful.
It wasn’t just the local audience that Leadership in Action participants had to work with,however. They also acted as Dow’s representatives in news interviews, which gave them media relation skills and a better understanding of how to act as the face of their company.
Post-experience surveys reveal participants have been affected by the program. Langley said some have said they now have a completely different view of the world, which makes them more suitable to lead Dow as it continues to expand its global outreach.
But the real results are visible in their work. Accra Polytechnic’s research development director told Söderström that Dow’s employees helped them create curriculum that would have taken years to put together. She’s not the only one bragging, either — she said employees tell co-workers about what they saw and did during their time in Ghana or Ethiopia. This not only demonstrates their increased engagement at the company, but also it encourages others who haven’t participated to ramp up their performance so they can qualify to have the same experience.
Almost everyone who participated in both Ghana and Ethiopia requested they be allowed to continue working on Dow’s growth in Africa, “which was music to the sub-Saharan leadership team,” Kolmer said.
Chemicals React for Dow’s Business
As much as Leadership in Action has a stake in improving the lives of people in both African villages and Dow’s offices, it also benefits the chemical company’s business by cultivating important relationships with local authorities.
IBM’s Tesla said one of the biggest benefits is that working on foreign soil givesemployees the ability to network with global contacts, enhancing the company’s ability to work with them later in a more commercial capacity.The same goes for governmental contacts. Söderström said Dow’s work in Ghana earned them audiences with government officials that local business leaders failed to engage.
“This has really become the poster child for what” action learning can be, Kolmer said. “We continue to refine Dow’s definition of leadership, and those definitions continue to refine our journey toward developing superior leaders.”