When John Gould, a senior manager at UPS (UPS ), landed in a tough Manhattan neighborhood for a month this summer, the well-traveled executive got more than a change of scenery. He got a whole new mindset.
"I saw a side of life I've never seen before," says Gould, a New Zealand native who resides in Milan and manages operations in Africa and the Middle East.
Gould was one of 50 executives chosen to participate in the company's Community Internship Program (CIP). During the month-long training course, managers perform services in one of four CIP sites -- McAllen, Tex., Chattanooga, Tenn., New York, or San Francisco -- run by local nonprofit agencies.
BEHIND THE UNIFORM.
The program is designed to help executives strengthen their management skills and develop a greater sensitivity toward staffers. Gould says the experience opened his eyes to the kinds of hardships UPS employees from disadvantaged areas may be facing without their bosses even knowing.
During his stint in New York's Lower East Side, Gould fed the homeless, coached the unemployed, and tutored inmates. At UPS many managers start at entry-level positions and work their way up. The internship program helps ensure that at least a few of them are reminded of what things look like from the bottom up.
"You see them in their nice uniforms working hard, but often you don't see what's behind that," Gould says. As a manager he believes it's important to help workers stay happy and productive, and having a broader understanding of their environment is the key. "It's about building relationships," he says.
HARDLY A VACATION.
Long considered a leader in corporate-service fellowships, which provide opportunities to staffers for developing relevant business skills through full-time community service, UPS has pursued its program for almost 40 years.
To date, the delivery giant has spent $14 million on this initiative, graduating some 1,300 interns from all over the country. Gould was the first international participant.
In an effort to meet the increasingly complex needs of a diverse workforce, CIP builds understanding between managers, who are mostly white, and entry-level employees, who are often minorities from urban poverty zones like the one Gould worked in.
Home to millions of impoverished immigrants since the late 1800s, Manhattan's Lower East Side includes several massive housing projects rife with crime and unemployment. It was here that in 1968, UPS founder Jim Casey developed a way to teach managers to "work effectively in environments of tremendous change."
Though participants leave their work duties for a month, the getaway is hardly a vacation. For example, the New York-based interns visited Sing Sing prison, rode in police cars, and assisted at abuse shelters and drug-rehab clinics.
NO PRICE TAG.
While CIP coordinators admit they have no quantitative way to measure the program's success, they point to retention numbers and personal contributions as proof that the system works. Even though it costs the company $10,000 per intern plus salary, UPS has never scaled back funding for CIP.
"Our graduates have come to us and said: 'I'm not only a better employee. I'm a better father, and I'm a better member of the community,'" says CIP coordinator Don Wofford. "You can't put a price tag on that relationship."
Wofford, a native of Kansas City, Mo., filled an internship in Oakland, Calif., where he helped feed the homeless and mentor the unemployed. "We weren't as well known back in 1976," he says. "But people saw what we were doing and realized we're more than just someone driving by in a truck every day delivering a package."
MAKING THE CONNECTION.
He says the internship's cornerstones -- awareness, understanding, sensitivity, and involvement -- helped him connect with neighbors and co-workers in a meaningful way. Wofford, who is black, says the experience helped him learn to deal with prejudice.
He continues to support company outreach initiatives for minorities and encourages CIP graduates to continue contributing to the community after their internship.
Businesses looking to offer a change of scenery to their own management ranks, as well as build community relations, have patterned their own programs after CIP, with a few notable changes.
"THIS IS POSSIBLE."
After last December's tsunami in Asia, one of Cisco's (CSCO ) seven interns helped nonprofit Nethope set up wireless communications across the region. And last year, 14 interns from Pfizer (PFE ) helped establish an infectious disease institute in Uganda.
Unlike CIP, these internship programs run much longer than a month and whisk participants off to far corners of the globe.
According to Building Blocks International, a San Francisco nonprofit that pairs multinationals with community-based organizations, the number of corporate-service fellowships is on the rise. After years of examining the risks and poring over statistics, these companies are finally beginning to say: "This is possible," says BBI CEO Jennifer Anastasoff.
"You need to be able to make the argument that it will make a positive social impact and, above that, improve the ability to retain workers -- not just any workers, but the type that want to change the world," she says.
By brandishing hard-hitting statistics, BBI hopes to get companies to see that corporate-service fellowships are sustainable. A study cited by the nonprofit shows that 73% of employees involved in service through their work were more committed afterward to their jobs.
According to other surveys, increasing employee satisfaction leads to better control of business costs, and there's a link between employee satisfaction and long-term shareholder return.
ROUGH AND READY.
Not everyone is a fan of the CIP model, however. Noel M. Tichy, a business professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on global corporate initiatives, says there are ways to develop leadership and citizenship closer to home. Programs should be a kick-off, not an end-all, he says.
Executives should develop initiatives within the business model, not "go off to camp for a month," he says. "Take an executive off the line, and you've got some missed business opportunities."
But on the "rough-and-ready Lower East Side," David Garza, head of the Henry Street Settlement workforce development center, is grateful for the help that UPS interns offer.
Since the passage of a welfare-to-work reform law in 1996,, UPS has helped moved tens of thousands of people on government support into the U.S. workforce, partly through centers like the Henry Street Settlement, where Garza enlists CIP participants to critique résumés and give advice to clients.
He says the partnership has allowed UPS to bridge a gap, both in its staff and in the communities where it operates, as well as create job opportunities. Some 1,200 people visit Henry Street every year, according to John Powell, who works with Garza.
"Our job is to make things new, open their eyes, and help them see new possibilities," says Powell. One could say the same thing about UPS and its CIP initiative.
By Bremen Leak in New York