You might think one of the world’s largest chemical and specialty manufacturing companies might not have the appropriate expertise to support a university working to encourage soilless agriculture, a non-profit improving quality of life in urban slums or a municipal agency enhancing neighborhood trash collection in Ghana. If you modify your perspective just a bit, companies like Dow actually have a great deal to contribute to these types of initiatives—providing insights into product/service adoption, creating appropriate financial systems to ensure transparent and accurate reporting and creating monitoring and evaluation systems are right in their wheelhouse.
The next question then becomes, why Ghana? Ghana is one of the world’s most rapidly growing economies and due to its political and social stability it’s a prime location for launching a new business strategy in West Africa that could, in turn, provide a jumping off point for the entire continent. The challenge is learning how best to operate in such a complex and sometimes challenging environment.
Enter 36 Dow employees, who took on these assignments and four more through the Dow Sustainability Corps, the company’s skills-based employee engagement program.
The projects, selected and facilitated by PYXERA Global, aligned with Dow’s interests in serving market needs while supporting the country’s future growth.
The team’s seven months of work was significant, and made even more so by one week spent on-the-ground in Accra. Typical international pro bono engagements can last up to 6 months. But not everyone can leave their responsibilities for quite that long. The Dow employees were able to dedicate this length of time by combining their on-the-ground assignment with longer-term virtual consulting.
The projects concluded when the local organizations implemented the teams’ recommendations, receiving remote support from the Dow employee teams.
Virtual consulting is not as easy as it might seem. It requires extreme patience, careful listening, clear speaking, and an unrelenting perseverance to understand, find common ground, and work together for a solution. There is no room for impatience, irritation, or a lack of respect. In this case, the presence of a PYXERA Global facilitator in Accra helped ensure that the cultural and technological challenges were bridged, especially at the beginning of the project, when it was most foreign to all participants.
Though many of today’s global employees commonly work virtually, it is far from the norm in Ghana, where personal interactions are critical and trust is built over a period of time through face-to-face meetings.
The Ghanaian clients often connected via mobile phones and a network that experienced interference, feedback and other interruptions. I remember one particular call where the team in Ghana all sat in the same room—but each on his or her own cell phone, causing even more interference. Eventually, we had to tell everyone to go to different rooms in order to move the call forward. Aside from the infrastructure challenges, just ensuring the right people were on the call was at times a challenge. English was the common language, but was spoken in accents that often confounded people on both ends of the line.
Further complications were created because of the often limited internet connectivity of the local clients and the need to send large amounts of data for the Dow teams to review. Simply getting emails to go through often required a significant time and resource commitment. It required hard work and commitment on the part of all parties to listen through the noise to find a common ground and to work collaboratively for a shared goal—the best kind of leadership development.
As it turns out, the virtual element was one of the most important learning experiences. “For many members of the teams, this was the first time they worked on a longer-term project as a virtual team. Members of the Dow teams represented every area of the globe, so it was a real opportunity for them to learn and develop skills that will propel them further in their careers. Virtual teams are a reality in our business. The opportunity to facilitate, manage, and participate on these virtual teams was a key learning experience, especially in the face of technological challenges and cultural differences,” said John Kolmer, manager of Global Leadership Development at Dow.
The coupling of the virtual experience with an opportunity to meet and work face-to-face with their host clients was equally important for the teams—it made the goals more tangible and the anticipation of meeting their virtual colleagues inspired people to keep going when frustrations inevitably mounted.
The opportunities for learning didn’t stop when the team hit the ground in Accra. Because of the limited time available for the in-person meetings, there was a real need to be as efficient as possible—challenging when the internet at the hotel was not able to handle the influx of people all trying to get online at the same time. Furthermore, the ability to experience and observe first-hand—even for a brief time—the opportunities and challenges inherent to operating in a dynamic location such as Accra proved to be invaluable to adapting the proposed solutions to the reality.
All teams made progress with their scopes of work, uncovering more challenges as they progressed. Most positively, Accra Polytechnic estimated that they saved a year in curriculum design, because of the first-hand, real-world view of what students would need. That information and validation would help to propel the entire project forward.
Working on common ground for a mutually beneficial objective results in a first-hand understanding of realities, priorities, and pressures in the region. Beyond awareness, such experiences also build empathy. And of course, all of the challenges experienced first-hand also open participants’ eyes to new business opportunities.
“One of the learnings that came out of this is what can constitute new business opportunities in emerging markets,” said Ross McLean, president of Dow Sub-Saharan Africa. “Working with the local staff, our participants identified business opportunities as a result of the engagement. More importantly, these projects enabled our employees to appreciate and better manage some of the unexpected challenges of doing business in Africa—such as the lack of infrastructure, the interruption of communications, the criticality of relationships (instead of time)—and realize that it’s worth it. The projects, and the connections made because of them, became great ‘door openers’ for us to further build relationships which will be important to the success of our long-term business.”
Michelle Langley, program leader, Dow Sustainability Corps, is quick to add, “We didn’t engage only for the immediate business opportunities. If we’re going to be operating in-country, it’s our role to contribute to the success of the community. We just opened an office in Accra and we are committed to that region. Our work with Dow Sustainability Corps helps demonstrate how serious we are about that commitment.”
Amanda MacArthur is the Vice President of Global Pro Bono and Engagement at PYXERA Global where she leads the organization’s Global Pro Bono and MBAs Without Borders programs, as well as the Center for Citizen Diplomacy. In this capacity, Amanda designs and implements corporate social responsibility programs for the public and private sector focused on skills-based volunteerism in emerging markets, leadership development, and sustainable economic impact. Most recently, Amanda played a key role in designing IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, while overseeing Global Pro Bono programs for PepsiCo, Pfizer, FedEx, and several others.