At 3M, Strong Leaders Rise from Heat Experiences

Pro Bono Experiences Catalyze Vertical Talent Development
At 3M, Strong Leaders Rise from Heat Experiences

Heat forms, forges, and strengthens that which it does not burn—it’s the ultimate metaphor for an effective form of leadership development. Similarly, manufactured heat experiences that draw employees out of their comfort zone can increase their ability to absorb information, react quickly and decisively, and thrive in increasingly complex global environments.

The laws of thermodynamics are certainly not lost on 3M, the Fortune 500 corporation with a long-standing reputation of commitment to improving lives through innovation and science. 3M even applies science-backed approaches to its leadership development with a program that emphasizes the vertical development of executives.

This methodology was developed by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), which has been ranked by the Financial Times as the top global provider of executive education. According to CCL, horizontal development relates to the acquisition of skills, competencies, and knowledge, while vertical development seeks to transform a person’s worldview for greater empathy and adaptability in three phases: heat experiences, colliding perspectives, and elevated sense-making.

Through 3M’s pinnacle leadership development program, Catalyst, participants undergo a year-long, externally-focused development journey. Catalyst invites senior managers to step away from their immediate responsibilities for a 10-day immersion as pro bono consultants in community-based projects designed to provide a series of heat experiences, putting their leadership abilities to the test in conditions outside their comfort zone.

Also known as Global Pro Bono consulting, these assignments call on corporate employees to use their expertise and professional skills to strengthen mission-driven organizations that are unfamiliar—in every sense of the word. It’s a crash course in adaptation to a rapidly changing environment through the application of hard skills and soft skills in new contexts.

Since the program launched in 2014, more than 70 percent of participants report stronger abilities in communication and innovative problem solving. Of 26 companies surveyed in PYXERA Global’s 8th Global Pro Bono State of the Practice report, leadership development is among the top reasons companies invest in Global Pro Bono. According to one Catalyst participant, “the focus on developing our talent is a key pillar for 3M and I feel that the definition of development is not only specific to professional exposure but also personal enrichment. To me, this program delivers on both of those aspects.”

The Heat Experience. The heat experience relates to the challenge of operating in a new environment, serving on a pro bono consulting team of fellow 3Mers from across the company and around the world, and working in issue areas in which the participants may have little to no experience. Participants have worked with host organizations focused on issues such as waste management in India, air quality in China, and refugee integration in Costa Rica. In each case, the engagement demanded a quick and thorough contextual understanding of their local client’s challenges. Participants learn first-hand to listen—and hear—the key stakeholders, such as the host client’s board of directors, local government officials, and direct beneficiaries. These encounters result in proposed solutions that often challenge notions of how to drive change.

Colliding Perspectives. Working on a team comprised of different worldviews, opinions, backgrounds, and training naturally exposes participants to radically different perspectives, which often ‘collide’ in this accelerated development approach. The program intentionally disrupts participants’ habitual way of thinking, engendering curiosity, clarity, compassion, choice, and courage among the participating leaders. Eighty percent of Global Pro Bono participants report improved collaboration and cultural agility, as well as a new appreciation for systems thinking.

Elevated Sense Making. To make the most of the immersive 10-day experience, 3M also deploys on-site coaches to promote elevated sense-making, not only enabling the participants to be effective in new environments, but also creating an important space to process the experience for long-term learning. Coaching guides leaders to view a situation more fully, leading to the acceptance that there are often multiple paths to a problem’s resolution.

3M’s on-site coaching component is new ground in the Global Pro Bono space, an ingredient that deepens the participant experience, as expressed by one program alumnus who notes, “I’m very grateful for the large investment 3M Company has made in developing its high potential employees. This mind-expanding, life-enhancing experience will lead to very positive outcomes as we are energized to perform at a higher level for both our company and the larger community.”

Like all Global Pro Bono experiences, 3M Catalyst pushes leaders out of their comfort zone and into the ‘heat’ zone—shaking loose preconceived notions and awakening skills to lead in complex environments. Participants return to their companies with a deeper sense of purpose, empathy, and agility and with a renewed capacity to collaborate, innovate, and lead strategically. At the same time, they leave their host organizations with new capabilities—a combination of requested deliverables and strategic recommendations. Both participants and hosts use the experience to move to their ‘next level,’ a crucible experience that is a win-win for all.

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