A conversation with Cindy McCauley, Senior Fellow at Center for Creative Leadership
Think of a time when you were pushed–we mean really pushed–in your work. How did that experience help you grow? How did it shape and develop your professional perspective? These career moments have an incredible impact. And, according to from Center for Creative Leadership–a top-ranked global provider of leadership development–they are deeply influential in our development as leaders. When we venture outside our comfort zones, we define and enhance our abilities as leaders. We not only develop critical skills, but we also learn more about our own strengths and weaknesses and expand our understanding of new and complex problems and situations.
At Taproot, we think a lot about “stretch experiences” because we believe that pro bono service is exactly the stretch that many professionals need and want. And now more than ever companies are recognizing the benefits of engaging their talent in pro bono service. Pro bono is not just good for society, it benefits business too. Rising to the top of the business benefits for many companies is the clear correlation between pro bono service and leadership development. Pro bono has emerged as an innovative, high-impact approach to action learning that helps leaders develop skills they’ll need to thrive in the complexity and ambiguity of today’s work environment.
As record numbers of companies are diving into pro bono and more and more consider its application as a leadership development strategy, sat down with Cindy to explore the business benefits of this approach. If you are looking for ways to boost the leadership development benefits of pro bono at your company, read on.
Taproot: Let’s dive straight into it. Why do you think companies should care about leadership development?
Cindy: Most companies know that effective leadership is critical for their success and that leadership talent is honed and developed over time. If I were talking to skeptics who are less sold on leadership development, I’d mention a few key benefits.
- Financial Performance. One study correlated stock prices and leadership development, showing that human capital investment directly linked to companies outperforming competitors who were not investing in developing employees.
- Employee Retention. Additionally, companies that spent 60% more time on leadership development experienced employee retention 20 times greater than companies without the same leadership development time allocation.
- Strategic Alignment. Leadership development creates the alignment in an organization that is key to executing a broader organizational strategy. Not to mention that leadership development also helps organizations effectively face unpredictable external environments and navigate unfamiliar challenges.
Taproot: Wow, those are some pretty strong arguments. And they’re definitely consistent with what we’ve observed in our work. So the business case is clear, how do we put leadership development into action? What types of experiences do people need to develop as leaders?
Cindy: Leadership development experiences fall into three big categories: challenging assignments, developmental relationships (coaching and mentoring), and formal programs. When I think about pro bono, it’s most relevant to talk about that first category – challenging assignments. CCL has done substantial research in this area, and there are essentially five broad types of challenges that most effectively drive leadership development:
- Unfamiliar responsibility: having to deal with things that are very new or different from your usual task
- Creating change in the organization: whether that’s starting something new or turning around something that’s not performing well
- High levels of responsibility: when your work or performance is more visible, there’s more at stake
- Working across boundaries: working both internally across departments or externally, for example with vendors, customers, or regulatory agencies.
- Working with diverse people: diversity at all levels, including social identity, personality, and culture.
Taproot: And how do you see pro bono fitting into these five categories?
Cindy: Pro bono is relevant to all of them. Even though individuals work on projects related to their expertise, they must apply it in a very different context. Pro bono helps individuals learn how to learn; they have to go into an unknown situation, figure out what has to be done, connect with the right people who can help, make decisions with incomplete information, and gradually get comfortable moving forward rapidly in unfamiliar contexts. Nowadays, employers especially talk about how important it is for their employees to be adaptable and effectively navigate ambiguity, and pro bono requires the individual to do both of those things.
You’re also likely to encounter a diverse set of people through pro bono. That kind of diversity not only broadens your perspective, but it helps you understand other perspectives. It develops empathy, which is very important in leadership roles.
The other thing that interests me about pro bono is the opportunity it provides to become more aware of your own expertise. We all know that having to teach our expertise to someone else really deepens that expertise. There are a lot of things that are tacit, and teaching forces you to be explicit and clear about your knowledge. I think it’s important that companies realize that by providing these kinds of experiences to their employees, they are signaling that they want to invest in their development.
Taproot: Absolutely. We hear so many people who participate in pro bono say how much the experience pushes them and helps them learn about their communities and themselves in really extraordinary ways.
Now, when it comes to leadership development, we have heard some say that companies should focus on internal development projects because they directly help the business. In your work, you’re looked at the benefits of external development experiences. What, if any, are the benefits of going outside the company rather than within it for experiential learning?
Cindy: There are lots of learnings and benefits that come from internal projects, and those shouldn’t be discounted. Like many things, it depends on your goals and objectives for the program. But a key benefit of the pro bono experience is that it takes people completely outside of their organization and the constraints and culture that comes with it. You can’t get that type of experience any other way; it’s the only way to give your employees exposure to working within a different sector or industry while retaining them.
Taproot: People often wonder if pro bono can be effective way to develop even very senior executives. How can pro bono be a value-add for people who not only have decades of experience, but have likely participated in various leadership development programs?
Cindy: My belief is that pro bono is effective at a variety of levels. Higher level executives and managers certainly benefit from work that takes them outside normal contexts, maybe even more so than others. It provides a unique opportunity to see how people react to their work style and leadership. In any company, people’s responses to you are colored and even driven by your position, power, or authority – whether or not it’s intentional. When you have to lead in a context where you don’t have that positional power, you have the opportunity to more regularly practice personal influence strategies.
Taproot: That makes a lot of sense.
So let’s imagine a company is investing in pro bono as a leadership development strategy. What are some of the ways a company can maximize a pro bono experience and really move the needle on professional development?
Cindy: There are so many ways. I think being able to interweave and combine multiple learning tactics can make experience-driven development more powerful. Ongoing feedback is key, especially with team projects. Coaches, guides, and advisors are also helpful. As many employees aren’t necessarily in consulting roles in their full-time positions, training is important – upfront training around both the task and even around team building. Anything that creates a space for assessment, feedback, and support for learning during the pro bono experience will enhance learning from that experience. Another big piece to focus on is opportunities for reflection. It should be part of the expectation of a program that employees will be harvesting their learning and sharing it with others.
Taproot: Speaking of making it meaningful, we’ve been hearing a lot about purpose – that developing leaders is not just about skill development, but it’s also about connecting to people to a sense of purpose. In fact, Taproot’s founder Aaron Hurst explores this very topic in his book, The Purpose Economy. How have you seen this play out and where do you think it’s going?
Cindy: I don’t think the idea of purpose is new. We’v known for a long time that people are more motivated and engaged when doing work they feel is meaningful. For employees, meaningfulness often equates to impact. Does this matter? Is it worthwhile? Do people benefit from it? The exact definition is different for each person, but I think the notion of meaning has always been relevant. Companies have to ask themselves, how can we engage people? And not just their skills, but how do we contribute to the differences our employees want to make in the world so that their work brings them the gratification they desire.
Taproot: We couldn’t put it better than that. Thanks, Cindy.
Cindy McCauley, Senior Fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership
Cindy designs and manages R&D projects, coaches action learning teams, writes for multiple audiences, and is a frequent speaker at professional conferences. As a result of her research and applied work, she is an advocate for using on-the-job experience as a central leader development strategy, for seeing leadership as a product of the collective, and for integrating constructive-developmental theories of human growth into leader development practice. Cindy received her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia. She is a Fellow in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and serves on the editorial boards of Group and Organization Management and Organizational Dynamics.