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The Path to Leadership: PepsiCo Associates Volunteer in Ghana

by Amanda MacArthur, VP, CDC Development Solutions

International Corporate Volunteer (ICV) programs are often highlighted for their potential as leadership development programs. We don’t spend a lot of time, however, discussing exactly why these programs are so influential in bringing out the best in already top performing employees. Using PepsiCo’s PepsiCorps program as an example, I thought I’d break it down.

As a quick background on PepsiCorps, a team of eight PepsiCo employees – selected through an application process – traveled to Ghana for four weeks in October of 2011. While living and working together in Denu, in the Volta Region of the country, the team was divided into two and worked four days a week on two projects: supporting the district water boards to improve management of clean water resources and working with local communities to promote eco-tourism as a means of generating additional resources for clean water and sanitation. On Fridays, the PepsiCorps team visited local primary and junior high schools to support hygiene education. So how do these projects develop leaders?

  • ICV programs are action learning on steroids: ICV programs require participants to constantly re-evaluate how they are contributing to their team’s assignment in order to reach their goals in a short timeframe. For the PepsiCo team, this meant that a participant with logistics expertise had to determine how his skill set could improve communication between community water boards and the district government tasked to provide access to clean water – not something he would do in his daily job, but a task to which his knowledge of resource allocation became critical.

  • Culture matters: Business leaders of tomorrow need to be culturally savvy in ways that transcend what was required of previous generations and in a manner that can’t be learned sitting in a classroom – no matter how many countries are represented on the roster. Learning to work with different cultural styles while navigating the curves of a new business environment is a huge learning experience for most participants and one they take back to their daily lives. For PepsiCorps, the inaugural team came from the US, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Spain in addition to being from diverse business units. This diversity of cultures is consistently one of the highlights of most participants’ experiences.

  • “You don’t have to be labeled a leader to lead”:  One PepsiCorps volunteer perhaps said it best – most ICV participants are known as strong workers who can be counted on to get the job done, but their current job titles or direct lines of responsibility don’t necessarily put them in the highest echelons of their company’s leadership. ICV programs provide the opportunity for a variety of people to take a leadership role – whether it’s because of a specific skill set that’s needed or their ability to navigate a complex cultural dynamic. The flip side is also true: These experiences often teach the “alphas” of the group the power of observation and asking questions before making decisions and the importance of listening, listening, listening.

  • The power of immersion: It’s often cited in learning a language, but the importance of immersion in leadership training should not be overlooked. Immersing people in an environment, even if just for a month, provides them with a perspective that is critical for companies looking to expand their operations in emerging and frontier markets. By placing participants in the environment, working with local organizations, understanding their challenges, gaining insights at the ground level – as opposed to the more rarefied air of a traditional business trip – opens participants’ eyes to the opportunities available in the local market and how the company should modify its approach or customize its products to meet those needs effectively. With PepsiCorps, the experience also enabled team members to gain new insights on how PepsiCo can deliver Performance with Purpose, the company’s commitment to do right for the business by doing right for people and the planet.

  • Eyes Wide Open: ICV programs open the eyes of participants not just to business opportunities, but also to social issues as well. Business leaders need to be in touch with their communities more so than ever before, and “community” is no longer defined by your immediate environment. Just as business is global, business leaders must be citizens of the world.

No matter what you watch on the evening news, it is truly eye opening to witness how lack of access to clean water and sanitation impacts not just health, but also economic and educational opportunity. As a result of his experience in Ghana, a PepsiCorps team member is establishing a sister school relationship between the school his team worked with and his daughters’ school back in Canada – introducing a whole new generation to cross-cultural engagement.

A recent George Washington University Capstone project, International Corporate Volunteerism: Measuring Value, mapped ICV alongside traditional leadership programs at Harvard, Stanford, and London Business School, and found the experience of skills-based volunteering abroad is not only comparable to these leadership curriculums, but also is more cost effective. For this reason, it is no wonder that PepsiCo and the other companies that pursue ICV programs do so not for the novelty, but for the real value gained by the organization, participants and communities.

PepsiCo has just selected applicants for its two next PepsiCorps programs, which will take place in India and the U.S. The teams will be deployed in October and will build on the success of the pilot program in Ghana.

What qualities are critical to lead in today’s marketplace?  How do you think these can they be gained by volunteering abroad?


Amanda MacArthur Vice President, CDC Development Solutions 

As vice president of CDC Development Solutions, Ms. MacArthur leads the Global Citizenship and Volunteerism practice area, including responsibility for the International Corporate Volunteer programs and MBAs Without Borders. Ms. MacArthur designs and implements corporate social responsibility programs for the public and private sectors focused on skills-based volunteerism in emerging markets, leadership development, and sustainable economic impact.
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