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Socially Responsible Business

Social Sabbaticals and the New Face of Leadership

A look at SAP’s corporate initiatives to develop new talent for work in emerging markets.

It’s apparent that finding tomorrow’s leaders is one of the biggest challenges facing global CEOs today. According to a recent survey, 93 percent of CEOs acknowledge that they need to change their strategies to attract and retain new talent (previous surveys have indicated the same realization), but less than a third have acted on these plans. Moreover, CEOs are concerned about finding employees who can adapt to new, fast-developing markets in Africa and Asia. Over the next year, 74 percent of CEOs expect to pursue opportunities in Africa.

Meanwhile, another recent survey found that 84 percent of Millennials care more about making a positive difference in the world than workplace recognition. This has come a long way from earlier generations that often prioritized career advancement.

Clearly, these trends indicate it’s time to fundamentally rethink the established approach to talent strategies.

Shifting culture

In an effort to meet these challenges, the technology and software solutions company SAP started what it calls a Social Sabbatical program, which sends high-performing employees into emerging economies such as South Africa, India, Brazil, and China. During these pro bono assignments, employees support entrepreneurs, NGOs, and government agencies, with the aim of positively impacting the regions economically and socially; they also gain a better understanding of how to effectively operate in these geographies.

Developed in partnership with PYXERA Global, the program strives to solve business challenges, specifically for the education and entrepreneurial sectors in emerging markets, while strengthening the participants’ leadership competencies, cross industry sector know-how, and intercultural sensitivity. Employees leave the daily routine of their jobs to spend a month with a host client. We’ve seen this experiential learning foster a cultural shift toward next-generation thinking—it infuses future executives with the type of creativity they need to problem-solve in an entrepreneurial setting. It also fortifies the capacity of organizations in emerging markets, by introducing new skillsets and approaches to their business and operational challenges.

Last year, for example, Endeavor, which pairs entrepreneurs with top-notch business development services, hosted a team of SAP employees in South Africa to create an improved model for the organization’s mentor network and to do investment research for the organization. Endeavor received an unbiased, independent opinion on long-standing challenges, and at the same time, volunteers were forced to approach traditional business problems differently. SAP volunteer, Hemang Desai, noted: “We had to learn how to think simpler. Building sustainable solutions is essential. We had to ask how can we build templates and process maps that Endeavor can use after we leave?”

Using the Lean Startup method

Entrepreneur and author Eric Ries’ phrase, “build, measure, learn” articulates a new approach to innovation in the start-up context and his Lean Startup method has proved useful to SAP and PYXERA Global’s work in emerging markets. The concept suggests that entrepreneurs build out an idea, measure how customers respond, and from there, learn whether to pivot or preserve. It has provided a roadmap to thousands of entrepreneurs who operate in an environment of uncertainty.

This is not dissimilar to the design-thinking principals that SAP uses as the foundation for an approach to innovation. Employees’ method for problem-solving includes failing early and working in small teams. The sabbatical takes these approaches to innovation—along with employees’ expertise—and puts them in a new context, where the rules of engagement around business and culture are different.

A social sabbatical team’s first week in-country is dedicated to immersion—observing the business, social, and cultural climate of the new organization. Despite months of preparation and pre-defined project parameters and scope, the team may drop their initial ideas and change direction based on their experiences during the first week. As they better understand in-country realties—which may include weak electrical grids or limited infrastructure and transportation systems, or, conversely, more-sophisticated capabilities than they originally envisioned—employees learn to “build, measure, and learn.”

At Endeavor, for example, the SAP team quickly determined that the project outcomes it originally set were unachievable within four weeks. In the first few days, the team interviewed mentors and investors throughout South Africa to better understand the situation, then redefined their deliverables and focused on two critical needs.

This kind of experiential learning is critical to building a next generation of business leaders who know how to operate across regions and cultures. It also allows Millennials to bring their values to work with them. Now in its third year, the program has evolved and the company is focusing its efforts on maximizing impact by sending new teams to the same host clients repeatedly. By sending multiple teams to the same organizations, individuals are learning more about them from collective experience, and in turn, having a deeper impact on those organizations.

Doing more with less

To drive innovation, Ries emphasizes failing fast to gain product and service insights and iterating, rather than fulfilling pre-determined requirements. Just three or four people, who each have three or four jobs and limited budgets, often run local organizations. In the day-to-day, these organizations must adopt an innovative frugal mentality that is completely different from that required to process information and solve problems with large teams and multi-million dollar budgets.

Experiential learning teaches participants how to take risks with limited resources and fewer established business processes. It meets the increasing expectation of the next generation, enabling them to bring their values into the workplace. As the business landscape evolves at an even faster pace, having a talent bench of future executives with this type of experience is invaluable.

SAP and other corporations will present at the Catalyzing Growth in Emerging Markets conference April 7 – 8, 2014.

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