The CALL Blog

A lesson every business leader could learn from talking to a Peace Corps volunteer

Paula Caligiuri
| Oct 25, 2016

In 2011, the United States celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps. The original volunteers in 1951 were in their twenties when they answered President Kennedy’s call for young Americans to serve their country to perpetuate peace through living and working in developing nations.

First Peace Corps VolunteersAt the reception to honor a group of the original volunteers, the President of the National Peace Corps Association described three certainties: “death, taxes, and the fact that the Peace Corps will change your life for the better. Hearing those words, the original volunteers, now in their seventies, roared in applause. It was as though he had shared their treasured secret, a secret they had waited 50 years to pass on – they had changed because of their international volunteerism experience.

Since 1989, I have been researching what makes people successful in their global careers. One thing I know for sure is that significant international experiences can be highly developmental, greatly increasing the competencies needed to be effective in global organizations. This is probably not surprising to you. What may be surprising, however, is that those “international experiences” need not be within formal business organizations. Some of the richest international experiences happen as the result of study abroad and international volunteerism experiences.

There are two conditions which make international experiences highly developmental:

  1. significant peer-to-peer interactions that allow for social learning, and
  2. opportunities to question and test your assumptions and understand the limits of your knowledge through a stretch challenge in a novel environment.

Dr. Ibraiz Tarique and I conducted a large academic research study through support of the SHRM Foundation examining the predictors of global leadership success.  One interesting finding was that global business leaders’ cumulative non-work international experiences (such as studying abroad and international volunteerism) were related to global leadership competencies -- increased cultural flexibility, greater tolerance of ambiguity, and lower ethnocentrism.  These competencies, in turn, were related to supervisors’ ratings of global leadership success.

The original group of Peace Corps volunteers did not need our study to draw the same conclusion. They had described opportunities to work shoulder-to-shoulder with host nationals and the fact that they needed to learn how to be effective in country. Many of the former volunteers shared stories of professional business and military successes after their Peace Corps experiences.

The mandate outlined in The Peace Corps Act has not changed in over 50 years. The overarching goal is to "promote world peace and friendship" with three specific goals. The first is “to help the people of interested countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained men and women”. The second and third goals are “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” – and vice versa, for Americans to better understand people from different nations.

Even though the Peace Corps has fallen far short of the one hundred thousand volunteers John F. Kennedy originally envisioned sending abroad annually, the goals of the Peace Corps are continually met – one positive interaction and powerful international experience at a time.

The CALL program, a collaboration between the National Peace Corps Association and Northeastern University, sends skilled professionals to non-profit organizations in developing countries to serve as pro bono advisors.  In the CALL program, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) serve as cultural coaches with the business professionals. 

Contact us to learn how your organization can become involved in CALL.