Harris Ginsberg Shares Insights on the Importance of Service in Global Talent Development

As a practice, pro bono engagements are continuing to gain traction as a mechanism for employee development. However, it is only recently that opportunities to integrate these types of experiences into leadership programs for the most senior level executives have become available. To explore how pro bono can enhance executive development programs, we sat down with Harris Ginsberg, PhD, a leader in designing innovative and impactful talent development programs for a number of multinational companies, most recently leading global talent development at Pfizer, over a 30 year career.

Amanda MacArthur, PYXERA Global (AM): You’ve designed leadership development programs for a number of major multinational corporations – what are the most important things to keep in mind?

Harris Ginsberg, HRG Consulting (HG): No matter what the leadership development initiative, an experience for senior leaders must be relevant and connected to the global business’ growth agenda. It must also incorporate a commitment to social responsibility which engages their minds and their hearts to create further impact. The time commitment and activities must be concise and serve a clear purpose in the context of the business and their future leadership positions. For senior executives, the learning must be personal and applicable to their domain, and discussing their business-specific insights with their manager is essential to capitalize on the investment. If the design is a team experience, they must have time to discuss their experiences as a group and understand how their collective perspectives differ and complement each other. Also key is designing a senior leadership experience to meet the needs of the organization in the future rather than leadership skills required for the current enterprise.

AM: How has leadership development for senior executives changed in recent years? What skills or competencies do they need now more than previously?

HG: Over the last 30 years, corporations invested heavily in individual development experiences; sending a developing executive to an Executive Education program at a prestigious US or European university; engaging with a mentor or coach, taking a short-term sabbatical at a not-for-profit organization or taking on a three-year assignment in a different country. These initiatives certainly yield results for the executives back on their jobs. However, the cost of coaching, mentoring or university-based programs can be steep. And the cost of an ex-pat assignment can run into millions of dollars over multiple years.

Now more than ever, organizations have become increasingly complex, regulated, and global. The markets are more uncertain and challenging. Competition can appear on multiple global horizons. Consumers and governments play more active roles. The price of innovation continues to climb and the expectation for shorter “to market” cycles increases. So, the success profile of a future leader in most industries places greater emphasis on balancing strategic thinking and agile execution; customer-centricity and global market literacy.

Developing leaders for the future is no longer based on a “read about it and discuss a case” or “figure it out on the job” mindset. The research shows that experiential development occurs most effectively in job-related assignments where executives are held accountable for reflecting on and discussing their experiences—both successes and struggles-with their manager or HR support. Intentional development for senior executives must be relevant, visceral, immediate, externally-focused and actively endorsed by the CEO in order to get serious attention and achieve business results.

 AM: From a leadership development perspective, why should senior executives have experience in emerging markets that aren’t the typical business trip?

HG: The typical business trip often mirrors the life of a tourist on a safari; traveling in the comfort of a well-appointed van and escorted to well-orchestrated conversations cannot replace the grit of doing business in a bustling metropolitan area of an emerging market, where an executive gains first-hand experience in the sights, smells and reality of a marketplace, a clinic, or a neighborhood. Seeing the world through the senses of the ultimate customer can ground executives in the reality of an emerging market and influence a meaningful business plan.

AM: Why is it important to have a pro bono or skills engagement piece to a leadership development program for senior executives?

HG: I have seen senior leaders learn in so many ways over the years and it always strikes me that behavior change emanates from a visceral experience, not just a cognitive one. Whether teaching in an inner-city school in the Bronx or working on a Habitat for Humanity project in Central America, a pro bono experience inherently places the executive in an unfamiliar environment; she is confronted by multiple sources of uncertainty and complexity in which her daily routines don’t work and her language of business is incomprehensible. She has to adapt, confront bias and preconceived notions, and find a way to connect and make a difference.

A pro bono experience exposes an executive to the eco-system within which an NGO operates, often paralleling the corporate challenge but sufficiently different enough to enable an executive to step back and understand the nuance of interdependent stakeholder relationships, the impact of political power, and the realities of bringing an idea to fruition. The duality of distance and familiarity offer a great context for self-reflection and self-awareness.

AM: How does a strong coaching program improve a leadership development program targeting senior executives?

HG: To be most effective, learning must be intentional and internalized. From my earliest days as a high school teacher at Choate, we followed the rule: tell them what they will learn (the syllabus); create an environment for learning in the classroom; and then find out how much they learned and/or retained (testing). Those principles of adult learning still pertain, although they are more complex in the “just-in-time”, on-line, and gamified learning technology era of today.  For an executive, embedding a coach in the experience allows for an immediate debrief, a form of after-action discussion that brings the learning to life. A coach asks a tough question and enables executives to recognize and articulate an “aha” moment. These “aha” moments can be woven together over a period of time to facilitate application of the learning to the business.

 AM: What do participants most commonly report as having learned from these experiences?

HG: On a recent pro bono engagement, senior leaders described their experience as transformational. Coming into close personal contact with the local population in emerging countries deepened their appreciation of poverty, hunger, disease, and disenfranchisement as well as their intense ambition and positivism to improve the standards of health and education of the people they encountered. These experiences touched the executives on several levels: emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. They saw the world through a vastly different lens that departed significantly from their own Western perspectives. Commonly, executives sharpen their personal empathy and their innovativeness as they explore ways to impact the living conditions in these emerging economies.  They also gain a strong appreciation for the role that developed countries and global business can play in the larger global ecosystem.

AM: What do you see as the future in leadership development?

HG: We hear a lot about the “70-20-10 rule” of leadership development; that learning is achieved in three ways: through experience “on the job”, through interactions with key relationships and through education via classroom activities and reading. While current research suggests a revised distribution, the trend in leadership development will continue to accentuate planned experiential learning in which executives partner with colleagues and their managers to make explicit their learning goals and outcomes. Central to success is reflection, so key to learning, which is often regarded as a luxury that many executives often ignore.

The trend for the future includes planned conversations in which executives actively extract their learning from their experience so that they can reflect and explicitly apply what they acquired through experience. Companies will rely more on sabbaticals, “executive-on-loan” programs, and mentoring to invest in their executives. These investments are generally short in duration (e.g., a week to three months long) to accelerate the learning process and its application back home. In that way, companies can uniquely and visibly ensure that future executives have the vision, the skill, and the fortitude to lead in the upcoming decade.

To learn more about designing executive leadership programs, read Three Ways Companies Build Better Leaders with Global Pro Bono

About Harris Ginsberg

Harris has more than 30 years of experience in Learning and Development. He has consulted with companies in multiple industries to build the capability of leaders at all levels and accelerate high potential development through programs, development processes, coaching and mentoring, including the NFL, Bunge, Benjamin Moore, IBM, and MEAG-NY and most recently spearheading global talent development at Pfizer, before establishing his consulting practice.  Prior to Pfizer, he was VP of Learning at ADP, supporting Talent Management initiatives.  His high potential program “Leaders in Action” at ADP was identified as a best practice by Training Magazine.  He has also led Talent Management and Development at UST, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Colgate-Palmolive, Citibank and Siemens.  Harris earned a B.S. in Psychology at Union College, M.Ed. at the University of Hartford, and Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania with a minor in Organizational Behavior at Wharton.  He is a licensed psychologist in NY State.  He serves on the Conference Board’s Advisory Board on Executive Coaching.  He has taught at the Choate Rosemary Hall School, University of Delaware, Pace University and New York University.  He contributed to Executive Coaching for Results: the Definitive Guide to Developing Organizational Leaders (2007).

Amanda MacArthur

Amanda MacArthur

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.

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