Future leaders discover life outside the boardroom

| June 13, 2004

Brian P. McCann ventured outside his comfort zone last summer.

McCann, 37, a partner in the Boston office of consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, was nominated to be the only US participant in an eight-week global leadership development program. But instead of shuffling off to a management training conference in a luxury hotel or an executive education program at a business school, McCann was dispatched — with three other PwC partners, from Germany, Sweden, and Malaysia — to formulate an economic development plan for Punta Gorda, a small town in Belize.

By Robert Weisman, Globe Staff

”We were out in a Third World country living in a guest house," McCann recalled. ”We were working in a one-room office with no air conditioning. It was like a little cement dorm on a dirt road."

Such was his initiation into the Ulysses program, which could become a model for 21st century leadership development. Starting in 2001, the consulting giant has been sending teams of up-and-coming executives to the far-flung corners of the globe, from Ecuador to Uganda to Eritrea, to work with locals and nongovernmental organizations on building economies and improving people’s lives. ”We’ve moved the paradigm with this program," said Ralf Schneider, a Frankfurt-based PwC partner and leader of the firm’s global talent development efforts.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has scattered about two dozen partners around the world over the past three years through the Ulysses program, designed to be a ”journey of discovery," in McCann’s words. Other multinationals that sponsor overseas leadership journeys, or give time off to do pro bono work in developing countries, include Unilever and Royal Dutch Shell Group.

Schneider said the PwC goal is to develop future leaders comfortable with cultural diversity and working internationally on sustainable businesses. ”We’ve started thinking less about what competencies they need, and more about what value base they need to build relationships and trust in a global environment," he said.

McCann and his three colleagues, who had never met before they assembled for the program, had to learn to work with one another and with the Ya’axche Conservation Trust, a nongovernmental organization in southern Belize. They also had to acclimate to roaches, lizards, barking dogs, and thunderstorms. By the end of the summer, they had written a grant proposal that would enable the trust to manage a program designed to help fund 100 new and existing small businesses.

The four PwC partners also set up a business training workshop for members of a Mayan women’s craft center, developed a business plan for the Ya’axche trust and its woodworking center, helped the trust implement an accounting software system, and explored revenue-generating opportunities for the Belize forestry department.

Virginia author and speaker Mary E. Foley, a former corporate training executive who created America Online’s ”cultural infrastructure" in the 1990s, said the PwC program is rare in the business world. ”What you’re seeing at Pricewaterhouse is really leading-edge," Foley said. ”It’s really a great new angle, and a smart one."

During her years at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, Foley was part of a group of 30 students who did work-flow studies for a microchip manufacturing plant in Mexicali, Mexico. ”We were taking our American understanding of corporate development, and trying to help them in a very specific way," she recalled. ”And we could see the substandard housing right from our bus, and how much that manufacturing plant meant to the people there."

For McCann, the journey was an eye-opener. A client service partner specializing in mergers and acquisitions, he lives in a colonial home with a pool on an acre of land on the North Shore. Living in a developing country was an adjustment, as was working with three other partners — all of them leaders — in a situation where none had been designated the leader. Different partners stepped up to take ownership of different parts of their project, McCann said. As an American, he said, his instinct often was to push forward quickly while some of his colleagues wanted to take more time to consider a course of action.

At one point, frustrated by their slow progress and the conditions in which they worked, McCann recalled snapping, ”In the real world, we’d have the resources we need to make this happen."

He remembers Emma Caddy, director of the Ya’axche trust, retorting, ”Did you ever think this is the real world, not the world you live in?" And that may be the real lesson of the Ulysses program.

Robert Weisman can be reached at [email protected].
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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