Citi Pioneers the Skills Marathon

07/30/2012 02:40 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2012
  • Aaron Hurst CEO - Imperative & Author - The Purpose Economy

Too short to be a stewardess, Pam Flaherty has become a giant in corporate philanthropy at Citi, where she has spent most of her career.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a stewardess, though I was really concerned that I wasn't going to be tall enough because in those days they had height restrictions. Then I discovered an even better job. My life's ambition from 7th Grade on was to be an ambassador.

What was the best career advice you ever received?

John Reed, who eventually became Citi's chairman, sat me down after I'd worked on a project on scoping out our international consumer business and he said "Pam, you've got to get a real job." I looked at him, and I said "well, I think I have a real job." He disagreed, and I went down and became a Citibank branch manager at 55 Wall Street.

It was the best thing I ever did. There is nothing like dealing with customers. It is humbling, and you learn what really works and you have a tremendous ability to impact the results. It was really great and it did two things for me: one, I really understood the business from the bottom-up, but secondly it gave me enormous internal credibility.

How did working on the front lines impact your philanthropy work today?

That experience gave me a great understanding of a bank's impact on its local community, and the fact that there is tremendous potential that a global company with a diverse workforce can offer to improve cities and neighborhoods.

We have tried to make a difference by combining some of our business and foundation priorities. In that instance, we focused on entrepreneurship, enterprise development, financial education, capacity building and asset building, and microfinance. We tend to concentrate on areas where we think our people can add value and I think that's one of the great advantages to a corporate foundation; they have all the resources of this huge company to bring to the table which is why we always say we're "more than philanthropy."

I'll give my favorite example of a project where we combined philanthropy, Citi's focus on environmental sustainability, and our ability to offer strategic business advice. I had the opportunity to visit China two years ago and one of our partnerships is with Inbar, the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan, which is kind of a quasi NGO that seeks to promote the sustainable use of bamboo and rattan. It turns out that bamboo grows in the wild and it's highly sustainable, it reproduces rapidly. We helped create a training center in Tswana Province, in the aftermath of the earthquake, because this particular area was rich in bamboo. That training center is now giving young women the opportunity to process this bamboo in commercially viable and sustainable ways.

Prior to leading the foundation, you served as the global head of HR for Citi. How did that influence your point of view as a philanthropic leader?

I think what it really provides is an understanding of how the place works, what your core business is and, in terms of corporate responsibility, the key to leveraging the resources of the whole place to help make a difference.

Working in HR helped me appreciate the value of board service and skilled volunteering. It also has a big professional development impact. You learn to perfect your ability to influence, because of the need to get things done without telling people what to do. But I also think that people learn to feel comfortable speaking in public. I used to tell my people in human resources that while you may not see yourselves as sales people, let me tell you, you are. Because, for example, you can have the best comp program in the whole world, but if you don't convince people that it is the best comp program in the whole world, then we haven't done our jobs.

What do you see as the future of Citi's employee engagement efforts?

A core piece is actually this skills-marathon model that we developed with Taproot. We engaged in the Skills Marathon because we wanted a way to engage our employees using their skills and we wanted to do it in a way that supported the organizations with which we already have relationships. So we saw it as a way to do two things: one, engage people and use their skills, but second to enhance the relationship with organizations that we already work with. Everybody was deeply engaged in problem-solving. I mean they went at it right away. It was great.

If you created your own foundation with a Gates sized endowment, where would you invest?

I would definitely seek to provide more support to my alma matter, not just because it's my alma matter but also because it deals with these incredibly complicated issues of global interconnectedness. But I also have this personal passion for environmental sustainability, and I deeply believe in the approach of the Citi Foundation and what we're able to do as a corporate foundation in terms of financial inclusion and economic empowerment. I think these two beliefs would drive my funding priorities toward efforts that combine entrepreneurship and environmental impact. I think looking at business in this way is a powerful idea whose time has come. We need to figure out a way that people can successfully build economic lives but do so in a sustainable way.