Matthew Farmer, the founder and MD of leadership development consultancy, Emerging World, which specialises in immersive learning, has just returned from Nairobi where he was running a program for a multinational shipping business. Sixty-three young executives, all recent MBA-level hires, were spending a week in Kenya as part of their four-year development program.
The first two years are spent on short rotation jobs, to learn the ropes and better understand the overall business, followed by a two-year international assignment. Throughout this period, they are also engaged in formal learning modules. Emerging World have been engaged for this week to design and deliver a module that focuses on their client company’s purpose and impact on the world. The module uses Emerging World’s particular brand of immersive learning, in which participants work with partner organizations related to their business in some way but in a new and unfamiliar environment, and bring their knowledge and expertise to help with challenges the partner orgs are facing.
Matthew reflects that when they first started to do run this type of initiative companies wanted Emerging World to independently source the appropriate organizations for the participants to work with during their programs. “Over time, I think, we have come to appreciate that there’s more strategic value for the client if the partners we identify come from within their own business eco-systems and so we work more collaboratively. What you are doing then is not just providing an opportunity to build the capacity of some partner organizations in different parts of the world, but you’re actually building a broader ecosystem for your organization…and the support becomes more sustainable. The relationships become longer-term and less transactional.”
Emerging World plays multiple roles in this process. For the Nairobi module, their full-time Kenyan staff member, Doreen works with their clients on the ground setting-up the program days, and assisting in engaging the partner organizations to work with... Matthew explains that “Doreen makes sure that the partner organizations we’re working with understand what we’re trying to achieve. That they have the appetite for this, and the right kind of problems and challenges for the kind of intervention and support we can provide.”
“Some organizations do say ‘look, this is just not right for us at this time’ or ‘this is not the kind of relationship we are looking for with commercial corporations’, which can happen when we are looking to work with more politically sensitive organizations. Others say ‘of course, we’d love to do this’, but we discover they do not have the kind of challenges we are needing the participants to work on. I met with some entrepreneurs recently who were looking for help with their financing strategy, but the cohort we were bringing then did not have that specialization, so the experience needs to work for both sides.”
From a leadership and development point of view, these immersive experiences can be shaped to enhance and enforce many different learning outcomes, “it could be about building international exposure, it might be about purpose, or it might be about taking people out of their comfort zones, developing in them some comfort with ambiguity. There are all sorts of different ways you can use these experiences that differentiate them from other kinds of learning experiences,” says Matthew.
Some clients, such as Microsoft, use these programs as part of market development. “Yes, absolutely it is supported by the learning function, and absolutely it brings all sorts of employee engagement benefits, but it’s also about supporting their business system within Africa, bringing valuable skills to the partners in their ecosystem and growing their business. A company that really brings its people to connect with partner organizations in different parts of the world, really connects to who they are as a company, what they stand for and why they exist, becomes incredibly powerful, especially for an employee who’s otherwise maybe quite detached from that, sitting with spreadsheets and administrative stuff all day. This can bring the day job to life for them. If they can learn some valuable new skills in the process and build capacity it becomes a truly virtuous circle of value that you can create.”
Matthew sees the need for organizations to build a sense of purpose for employees to focus around as being ever more vital. “A lot of people think this is just about millennials but my view is that it’s actually even more important when you are more senior. In your career, I think, purpose becomes more and more important as you get older. You see lots of 50-year-olds desperate to ‘give back’, because they realise they need to find some purpose beyond just doing the job to make ends meet.”
Matthew tracks a progression in his own understanding of how these interventions create value for society. Initially he thought the greatest social impact came from the benefits the partner organizations received from having executives share their skills with them. But as the experience of running the programs increased, he sees that “there’s a change in mentality and mindset amongst powerful people in corporations that our experiences create and that is just as, if not more, powerful. If we can open people’s minds by providing these experiences that shift their perspectives and help them to shift the way their business works, to shape better futures, really that’s what we are looking for.”