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IBM: Tapping Top Talent, For Good

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Stanley Litow serves as IBM's Vice President of Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President of IBM's Foundation, with a career spanning the public and private sector. Bringing this depth of experience to play, he has helped lead and create innovative social responsibility programs, including The Corporate Service Corps, where teams of IBM's top employees train to be future leaders while working pro bono in the community. I was excited to sit down with him and discuss this program and his vision for making a positive impact in the community.

You've worked across government and nonprofits -- what do you see corporations bringing to the table?

The private sector can play more of a leadership role as a catalyst or a convener. At IBM we understand the intersection of business and society, born out of a deep understanding of the core issues -- whether education, the core safety net, science education, healthcare. If you look at any of the things we've been able to do, they begin with a deep understanding of the core issues.

If you're an organization working in the social safety net, for instance, if you don't understand the legislation and what's state regulation, what's federal, you'll struggle to get ahead. If you want to grow and thrive, you must understand public policy, state regulation and law, tax legislation. The private sector can work to bridge this knowledge gap.

How have you done this at IBM?

Our Corporate Service Corp is one of our key programs. We take our top talent in the company and give them the ability to deliver strategic planning assistance, project management assistance, technology strategies, social networking tools. In the last 3.5 years, over a thousand employees have worked in teams with not for profit organizations and governments, creating really lasting partnerships. I like to think that we're operating in the community arena the same way we operate in the business environment.

We've also made a conscious effort to take community service by our employees and professionalize it by creating a site, the On Demand Community, where they can go to get trained on what it means to volunteer with different kinds of organizations and figure out how best they can contribute.

And I've heard that's not just for employees -

We have a lot of retirees and a class of alumni. From a retiree standpoint, when people work for a company and retire from us, they see us like a university they attended. Last year our employee charitable campaign raised $37 million from employees and retirees. They still feel a part of the company. And we take advantage of that connection through campaigns to involving them in the On Demand Community. They're also eligible for matching grants and community grants.

What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

We are significantly increasing our executive service corp by getting our clients involved. This year we started to work with FedEx and John Deere and other companies to build their own executive service corps and teaching them that this is the way to develop 21st century leaders -- and we expect to have many more partnerships with other organizations.

Another development is our work in education, we've created a new model of a 9-14 school, called P-Tech in New York City, students finish with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in Technology. We're starting five more in Chicago.

Any advice for other companies?

Talk to your employees. There has been, as part of our core values in the past 100 years, to connect with the community. We're a large company, 425,000 employees. And thousands of our employees have commitments to organizations of many stripes. So start out with the expertise you have in house. People know a lot about their communities. Build on that expertise, learn what the skills of your employees are.

I come back to this phrase from Rosabeth Kanter at Harvard: IBM has gone from spare change to real change. When companies give what is least valuable it's giving spare change, out of generosity. When you give what differentiates you in the marketplace, you produce not only significant benefit in the community but also for yourself.

You can read more about IBM's innovative programs on their website and a blog post written by Taproot staff here.