The Cultural Agility Leadership Lab: A Turnkey Provider of International Corporate Volunteerism Programs
In November 2014, John Staines, the human resources officer for global information technology at Cigna, had a problem. Cigna, one of the biggest health insurers in the U.S., was shifting its strategy, moving from a company that did some business overseas to one focused on international markets. Many of its managers, however, were ill prepared for the change.
“Supervisors who were used to dealing only with domestic colleagues were suddenly leading teams across countries and time zones,” he recalls. “They were not accustomed to working with people from different cultures and different parts of the world—they were used to a U.S. framework. Many of them didn’t even have a current passport,” said Staines.
Staines needed to upgrade his managers’ cultural agility, but expatriate assignments—the usual way companies developed global leadership skills—were not possible. These assignments are logistically complex, rare, and expensive; in fact, the typical expatriate assignment costs more than three times an employee’s annual compensation.
Conducting over 25 years of research on how professionals gain cross-cultural competencies through international experiences, I have interviewed hundreds of executives in need of an efficient, cost-effective way to foster “cultural agility”—the ability to quickly, comfortably, and effectively work in different countries and with people from different cultures.
Addressing the need to develop professionals’ cultural agility is one of the reasons I founded the Cultural Agility Leadership Lab (CALL).
CALL is the exclusive collaboration between Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business and the National Peace Corps Association, providing turnkey solutions for corporate-sponsored international volunteer programs and pro bono advisor programs. CALL leverages the Northeastern University’s expertise in global experiential education and the National Peace Corps experience with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), spanning 53 years and 140 countries. Together through CALL, the National Peace Corps Association and Northeastern University maximize the value and impact of forms’ international corporate volunteerism initiatives by addressing and navigating every detail of the program from start to finish.
CALL gives every private sector firm an opportunity to have their own international corporate volunteerism program, one that will satisfy their corporate social responsibility goals and, for participating firms, their commitments to the United Nations Global Compact—all while developing their employees’ cultural agility, engagement, and retention.
Through a CALL assignment lasting between one week and a few months in duration, corporate “volunteers” provide NGOs with technical expertise in areas from strategic planning to supply chain logistics to project management. Projects are community-driven, requested by the partner NGO in developing countries.
During the volunteer assignment, employees work side-by-side with NGO leaders in the host country, collaborating, receiving feedback, and discovering how things are done in that country. Along the way, they complete the projects requested by NGOs while developing a nuanced understanding of local markets, a greater awareness of cultural differences, and an appreciation for how those differences can drive effectiveness.
Adding to the developmental focus and fostering success on the project, CALL volunteers are coached in-country by returned Peace Corps volunteers who have previously served in the NGO host country. Having a Peace Corps cultural coach to provide linguistic, cultural, and instrumental support has been key to the success of CALL.
Participants in CALL learn, for instance, that having resources is an important, but not essential, element to advancing a strategy. “Working at a Fortune 50 company, you get used to having a very large budget,” says Rajesh Singh, director of information technology at Cigna and a CALL participant. “If I want to get something done or start a new initiative, I go and ask someone for a large amount of money. But [working in Indonesia] was a reminder that many people around the world don’t have that luxury. They don’t have a lot of resources. They need to find innovative ways to solve problems. I now factor that into my team’s thinking back at home.”
And CALL participants learn humility. “I realized that I sometimes had a tendency to lose sight of what matters,” says Maureen Mellett, IT helpdesk director at Cigna. “As a leader, I now try to help my team step back and realize it’s not about trying to get your own way or your need to be recognized. It’s about our values and our belief system. Let’s focus on those and leave our egos out of it.”
Our data tell the same story: the CALL program works. International volunteerism programs, when well designed, align with corporate social responsibility goals (build NGO capacity and create shared value); accelerate strategic growth and innovation (build knowledge of emerging markets and organizational reputation); and attract, engage, and develop talent (build cultural agility, social responsibility, and the like). Through these short-term volunteer assignments, CALL volunteers build capacity for NGOs while developing their own cultural agility—a true “win-win.”