Move over, Anneka, this one's ours

Liza Donaldson finds out how big companies are developing staff skills by sending teams into the community on missions impossible
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The Independent Online
The BBC's long-running television series Challenge Anneka has a lot to answer for. Anneka Rice's cheerleading of enthusiastic volunteers to achieve the impossible is inspiring business leaders. Increasingly, their human resources chiefs are sending employees off on similar charity missions.

The difference is that as well as helping the charity involved through the "challenge", the companies gain a tremendous boost in developing their own staff. The cost is usually a snip compared with a conventional training course. In addition, both the business and the charity reap useful publicity.

At the London Stock Exchange, for example, Simon Wilkinson, manager of the company secretarial department, organised a team from his workplace to spend a Sunday creating raised flower beds, transforming urban wasteland into wildflower gardens for East End children near Stratford, London. He explains: "I had to start from scratch. It was quite time-consuming getting a group of volunteers together. But we were pretty proud of the results. What we achieved was pretty spectacular."

He rates the event, suggested by his human resources department as part of a personal development plan, a resounding success. It has given him more confidence to organise a team event - calling on skills he had not stretched in his current job.

At Coopers & Lybrand, the accountancy and management consultancy firm, the development objective was not so much expanding the individual as team-building for high technology, marketing and sales personnel. The consultant George Jolesz admits the scheme came as a flash of inspiration. "We are geographically dispersed and, having seen Challenge Anneka, we thought maybe there was a way of linking team building to benefiting the community."

In June, with help from Community Service Volunteers, which acted as brokers, a team of 12 senior staff spent two days constructing a children's pet zoo in a derelict building at the Lincoln's Fields holiday centre for inner-city children, near Watford.

"Everybody judged it to be a success," says Mr Jolesz. "Now whenever times are hard, we imagine ourselves splashed in paint rather than being locked into a business view of each other in a suit."

He says the project helped to build up trust and enabled team members to come up with more innovative solutions.

However some companies have gone further still. At the Trustee Savings Bank, charity projects are an integral part of management development. Since 1993, TSB has been sending cohorts of 15 managers at a time on 100- hour development assignments. The challenges are for managers seen as having "high potential" by the bank, and work out at a day a week for 13 weeks.

Anne Nixon, TSB's management development manager, says: "We knew that these managers had either always worked for TSB or had always worked in one discipline for the bank. They had rather a narrow base in terms of breadth of experience. We were looking not only to give them skills for the future but for something that would take them out of their comfort zone."

Through Employees in the Community, an offshoot of Business in the Community, each manager is given a choice of two projects. They find it hard work, Ms Nixon explains. But they emerge more confident and better at negotiating.

A spin-off has been the networks created, not just between managers but between the charities for which they worked. Line managers report that the participants now manage their time and delegate better.

Ms Nixon, who did a challenge with West Midlands Environment Network, says: "It broadened my mind and showed me I had transferable skills. It was quite humbling because it showed you a group of volunteers who had a shared vision - a commitment and enthusiasm which I took away with me."

She still works for the charity as its treasurer. However, at Employees in the Community, which awarded TSB a prize for its employee development work, David Hemsworth, communications director, stresses the two-way nature of the assignments.

"We listen to what the voluntary sector's needs are. We are not about parachuting pinstripes in as the solution to every problem. It is very important this is sensitively done."

Research just published by Employees in the Community indicates that corporate community involvement will grow, following practice in the United States. At present, one in three large companies is involved - compared with nine in 10 US companies.

A vehicle for expansion will be next year's "Challenge 1996", run through the Volunteer Centre UK, encouraging pairings of charities and business on challenges nationwide. Companies such as Allied Dunbar, Whitbread, Grand Metropolitan and National Westminster Bank have clubbed together to help to create a one-stop advice shop called the Employer Supported Volunteering Advice Centre. Launched last month, it aims to help all the participants to start or to extend their challenges.

Its director, David Apparicio, a Royal Mail training consultant at the Post Office, says nothing beats a challenge because it is the real thing. "I want every organisation to realise that as a team-building or personal development tool, building Lego towers is not a patch on building a real community centre in a real inner-city estate."

The Employer Supported Advice Centre, The Volunteer Centre, 183 Eversholt Street, London NW1 1BU (0171-388-0300).