Global Sabbaticals Give Professionals New Lease on Careers

stock_studentNow, more than ever, appreciation for the world’s diversity and the ability to be effective in diverse environments and to learn from various cultural perspectives is what defines a good manager. What’s more, the opportunity to use hard skills and bring professional discipline to help others in developing countries stand on their own two feet is something that professionals in the U.S. find incredibly rewarding and eye-opening.

Today, forward-looking companies in greater and greater numbers are offering their best employees the chance to do both—gain international exposure and feel good about helping others—by developing sabbatical programs that send them to far-flung locations. We profile two Forté member companies whose programs are returning solid benefits to employees and the firms.

E&Y Program Attracts Women for Life-Changing Global Experiences

Just two years old, Ernst & Young’s Corporate Social Responsibility Fellows Program deploys high-performing managers on three-month assignments within the U.S., Canada, and Central/South America. Their projects are specifically designed to improve the integrity and effectiveness of local entrepreneurs’ key business processes. “The CSR Fellows Program gives our people the opportunity to apply their workplace skills to help promising entrepreneurs who are generating real economic value in their communities,” says Maria Peña, CSR Fellows Program Manager. “By helping these entrepreneurs, our Fellows are creating positive change in communities close to home and around the world.”

Participants in the program, who have so far almost all been women, tell Pena that they have been looking for a way to feel more fulfilled in their professional life. “We have identified what appears to be a need of our high-performing women,” she says. “They want to demonstrate that what they do matters, both through their daily work and through unique service opportunities like the CSR Fellows Program. ”

For professional services firms in general, retention, especially among women, is a priority. The CSR Fellows Program aims to help induce employees to stay, particularly in the critical early-manager years when so many decide to make other career choices. “If we think of how much we as a firm lose when somebody walks out the door, something like the Corporate Social Responsibility Fellows Program is a differentiator; it makes us realize this is why we stay at Ernst & Young,” says SanDee Priser, one of Ernst & Young’s 2005 CSR Fellows. Aside from this retention benefit, the program fulfills a host of other company objectives like developing problem-solving leaders, reinforcing E&Y as a socially responsible corporate citizen, and improving integration with E&Y practices in the Americas.

Program alumni return from communities in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina with deeper respect for other cultures, increased resourcefulness, and a greater appreciation of the value their skills can bring to other people and organizations.

For example, one of the first CSR Fellows, Debbie Sobczak, went to El Salvador to lend her accounting and finance skills to a union of coffee cooperatives. By showing managers the best ways to structure coffee purchase contracts, she was able to help the small coffee growers—mostly poor, rural farmers —get more money for their crop. “When I was helping out the coffee cooperative, I really drew on the skills that I developed at Ernst & Young more than any other skills I developed outside of the firm, certainly from a technical standpoint. It just makes sense,” says Sobcak.

Goldman Sachs Encourages Star Performers to Leave for a Year

Goldman Sachs’ Public Service Program is even more ambitious, granting high-level employees up to a year’s sabbatical to participate in a non-profit project of their choice anywhere in the world. Like E&Y, consideration is given to how the employees’ skills can add value to the project.

“The Public Service Program, like many other initiatives at Goldman Sachs, encourages our people to expand their world view, to be broad thinkers and to move outside their comfort zones,” says Eileen White, Managing Director at Goldman Sachs. “Participants bring our culture of teamwork and excellence to the nonprofit sector and return with the invaluable experience of seeing things in a different way. It has a real impact on them as individuals and strengthens who we are as a firm.”

Jovi Zalamea is in Goldman’s corporate coverage group with responsibility for its Southeast Asian clients. A naturalized U.S. citizen, he grew up in the Philippines and wanted to put his skills to use in his home country. Working with a Filipino non-profit called the Ayala Foundation, Zalamea helped launch a start-up project to provide computer labs and Internet access to all of the Philippines’ more than 5,000 public high schools. “I was excited at the prospect of helping the foundation set up this ambitious project that attempts to set a template for public sector-private sector partnership in order to address social needs,” he says.

It was an incredible opportunity for him to use his commercial skills to make an impact in the community, and he gained a sense of empowerment about how he could impact an emerging and economically challenged economy like the Philippines. “Coming back to work, I have the opportunity to see how Goldman Sachs as a firm can help the companies in the Philippines through their commercial challenges.”

With offices in 23 countries around the world, Goldman Sachs knows well the value of achieving a workforce with a broad worldview—benefits accrue to both the company and its employees.

As emerging economies play catch-up and developed countries both seek to support them and to discover the unique strengths they have to offer the global marketplace, it’s likely that only through immersion in international programs like these will the next generation of the world’s business leaders be forged. Participants both transfer their own knowledge and pick up new insights that they can integrate into their work at home; while recipients gain expertise and become leaders themselves, helping to transform their communities and economies.

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