Helping Others Builds Leadership, Teamwork

Charity Work Brings More Than Satisfaction to Tech Companies

Organizers Katie French and Noel Tagliaferre were some of the 140 Sprint workers who helped fix up an Alexandria, Va., apartment building Sept. 8.

Sprint Corp. recently made life a little brighter for the elderly and disabled residents of an Alexandria, Va., apartment building. The building's common areas hadn't been painted in eight years, and its nonprofit management firm didn't have adequate funds to fix it up.

Sprint, working with Washington nonprofit Rebuilding Together, stepped in to help. On Sept. 8, 140 Sprint employees laid drop cloths, picked up paintbrushes and went to work painting the interior hallways and making minor repairs on all 11 floors of the apartment building. Five hours and 75 gallons of light pink and off-white paint later, their work was done.

Companies such as Westwood, Kan.-based Sprint view their charity work as an important contribution to the communities where their employees work and live. But officials also recognize that lending a helping hand gives employees much more than personal satisfaction.

"It's a great team-building opportunity. If you can get the CEO swinging a hammer with line people, there's a great sense of camaraderie during the day," said John White, vice president of programs for Rebuilding Together, formerly known as Christmas in April. This year, more than 245,000 volunteers will donate 2.5 million hours of time to rehabilitate more than 7,800 houses and nonprofit facilities for Rebuilding Together, the nation's largest volunteer home rehabilitation organization.

Community service can also help employees observe and learn different work styles, increase cooperation between management and staff, raise awareness of cultural differences, enhance decision-making abilities and build problem-solving skills, said Sybil Carter. Carter coordinates corporate partnerships for Habitat for Humanity International, the world's largest nonprofit home builder. In fiscal 2000, the Americus, Ga., charity built 17,208 affordable homes with the help of thousands of volunteers.

The work and planning that goes into service projects also helps younger employees develop project management, leadership and teamwork skills, according to volunteers and community service coordinators. Recruiting and organizing volunteers, assessing the job and purchasing supplies can be complicated tasks.

Katie French, a team leader on Sprint's Alexandria project, said she's learned how to organize bigger projects than the ones she'd usually get on the job, and she's learned firsthand how to roll with the punches when things don't go as planned.

Last year French, a technology analyst working in Reston, Va., was in charge of a Rebuilding Together home improvement project in Washington. The scope of the home's underlying structural damage wasn't fully understood until the project was well under way.

"Every hour something kept cropping up," French said. "It was a quick lesson in how easily things that you're not expecting can blindside you. You have to regroup and try to fix them as best you can, and hope for the best."

Often, members of Sprint's community relations teams, who organize charitable endeavors, are entry-level analysts or lower-level program managers, not executives, said Tracey Padian, a Sprint regional manager for community relations.

"It's really interesting to see the leadership roles they play in recruiting individuals, and at the work site they're telling those who usually give them direction what their responsibilities are," she said.

At management and IT consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc., charitable projects reinforce the teamwork the company relies on every workday.

"Since we work on teams in the consulting business, we've always focused on [team development], but in the past couple of years we have been trying to find different ways to do it inside and outside the workplace," said Michael Fields, the McLean, Va., company's community relations manager.

"We've been really pushing ... to have people get involved as a team with people they work with, to get them out of the work environment and do something fun," Fields said.

Like Sprint, Booz-Allen's project leaders aren't usually managers by day. Rather, they are junior employees who want to take on additional responsibilities.

"The chances of them managing 50 people and starting the planning process four months prior ? they probably wouldn't have that experience" on the job, Fields said. "That's huge for young people."

Amy Noonberg, a Booz-Allen administrative assistant who led a Rebuilding Together project last year, learned how to delegate and became more organized. She also learned how to motivate others.

"It was an amazing challenge. The sense of satisfaction outweighed any of the stress," said Noonberg, who oversaw work that included replacing part of a wooden fence, painting and caulking windows and repairing a toilet.

Firms such as Sprint also realize community service projects can build relationships across internal business lines. Instead of spreading staff around several home projects like last year, this fall Sprint brought all its Rebuilding Together volunteers in the Washington area together at the Alexandria apartment building.

"Many of the [Sprint] organizations would stick together [in the past], and they worked with people they already knew. We thought it would be good this year to get to know and meet other people within the company," said Noel Tagliaferre, a service delivery supervisor working in Reston who coordinated the renovation with French.

"I got to ... see glimpses into what other people in the company do," French said. "And it gave me a chance to see people outside the work environment, and build some friendships outside the cube."

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