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How to harness the hidden power of free workplace talent

Published:Sunday | August 4, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Francis Wade, Sunday Business COLUMNIST

In my last column, I mentioned that giving away free advice during recessionary times is a powerful way to generate prospects. It's far better than doing cold calls.

Let's continue the contrarian advice in this column with another crazy idea: the best way to learn a new skill that's critical to your professional success is to find an organisation that's already successful and give them your time - for free.

Almost 20 years ago, I attended a weekend workshop in New Jersey that was the most powerful, transformational experience I had ever participated in or witnessed.

During that weekend at the Landmark Forum in 1994, I saw scores of participants openly apologising by phone to people in their lives who they had wronged. There was more real-time forgiveness than I had ever seen.

I joined in and made my own calls, including a memorable one to a relative who I had come to resent after a long stay in my home.

After that experience, I was on a high. I dropped into their office in Fort Lauderdale and was astonished to learn that you could 'work' at Landmark Education as a volunteer while they taught you to perform a useful job. After a long training period, one could even lead their programmes to over a hundred people at a time.

Needless to say, I signed up and started immediately before they could realise what they were doing and change their minds. By the time I completed my last volunteer stint in 1999, I had donated hundreds of hours of my time. In return, I had also become a programme leader for hundreds, just as I had been promised.

It took months of training and multiple rounds of tough feedback from skilled trainers, but by the end I had learned how to lead transformational dialogues with large groups and had gained invaluable coaching skills.

It was extremely hard work, but the exposure I had to the highest organisational standards I have seen to this day made me a different person. To say that the time spent volunteering changed my consulting business would be an understatement.

Fast-forward to our Jamaican reality, and it's unfortunate that our corporations and organisations don't fully appreciate the value of this kind of experience to their bottom line. Here's what they can do to capitalise on volunteer power.

1. Capture the Value of a Volunteer Experience:

Sometimes, it's difficult for local firms to see the hidden value of a volunteer position. One of the most important things I learned from my Landmark experience - which I don't believe they teach intentionally - is the value of being on time.

Arriving late for a regular assignment could mean being sent home without even starting. The benefit of this high standard has remained with me till today.

It's a small example, till but there's a big payoff for companies that take the time to write deep job descriptions before looking for volunteers.

In plain language, they should enumerate not only the duties, but also the benefits. Volunteers are hoping to get something in return for their time investment, and the more obvious the upside is, the more likely they will be to weigh the opportunity accurately. The mutual value created must be clarified.

2. Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill:

Southwest Airlines leads the way by looking for people who don't have experience or education - unless they are pilots, thankfully. Instead, they look for character and self-motivation in the form of what they call "warrior spirit".

If your company can't imagine following such a radical path for hiring employees, try it for your volunteers.

When you choose the right people, you can safely assume that they need to be taught everything from scratch. But the right people will teach themselves what they need to know more quickly than those with a sour attitude will.

3. Make Volunteers into Employees, then Fans:

Welcoming volunteers allows you to pick the finest employees. It's a great way for the employee and the employer to check each other out and to make an informed decision for the future.

The majority of volunteers won't become employees, but they will end up with a powerful line item on their CVs and a strong recommendation.

Even ex-employees can be turned into volunteers after they leave your company. The leading consulting firm McKinsey & Co retains close contact with 'alumni', who in turn promote the company and their association with it at every turn. Their link to the firm and other alumni is carefully nurtured.

The recession has provided your company with a large and unique pool of potential volunteers and interns. As others have put it, it's one way to make sure that you 'don't waste a good recession'.

Francis Wade is president of Framework Consulting and author of 'Bill's Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure'. Send feedback to