Leadership

Why IBM sends its best employees abroad for four weeks

widak-notitle140912_npx2h.jpg

Suspending a company's most productive employees from their day jobs and sending them to the developing world for a month may not seem like the best use of their time. But IBM does exactly that.

Why? Because the company believes that sending its top talents on these pro-bono assignments helps them develop leadership and problem-solving skills, work more collaboratively, strengthens company loyalty and entices millennials to join the company.

"After [the program] people go back to work with a much more robust view of the world and IBM," Jennifer Ryan Crozier, president of IBM's Foundation, tells CNBC Make It.

The highly competitive IBM Corporate Service Corps program, which began in 2008, receives almost 5,000 applicants per year but accepts only 10 percent of the top IBM performers. By the end of this year, the company will have deployed 3,500 of its best workers to nearly 40 countries.

The value for the team's work while they're away costs IBM $400,000 per deployment and has exceeded $70 million to date, according to a company spokesman.

According to an internal IBM survey, most managers agree to send their qualifying team members to work in developing countries in hopes that they will be getting an even stronger employee. "It yields greater returns," says Crozier.

Additionally, managers who agree to send employees or who participate themselves can use this period to see who steps up to take on more responsibility and leadership roles during the month long absence.

Dawn Harris, a program director for IBM was sent to the Philippines in 2013. She says the experience helped her gain contacts in the tech industry which she has used for mentorship.

Harris says the biggest thing she received while working abroad was training in cultural diversity, a necessity in today's tech space. She adds that her communication skills improved tremendously. "[The program] helped make me stronger in managing a team," Harris says. "I learned that I needed to build relationships with my team and my peers."

Sharon Dinneen, a project manager, was sent to Turkey in 2013. She says that the project she was assigned to while in Turkey was one that she had never done before. However, working outside of her comfort zone forced her to tap into her wide range of skills and also "unleashed hidden talents."

"As I deal with my own team now I enable folks to really showcase their talents rather than having them go with my own prescribed notions," she says.

Dinneen adds that working in this new role challenged her thinking, forced her to rely on soft skills like listening and helped her grow her subject matter expertise.

IBM
Albert Gea | Reuters

Participants who come back from the month long trip say the program made them better listeners as they lead their teams, according to the company-wide survey. Eight out of ten participants say it increased their desire to complete their careers at IBM and nine out of 10 employees think that this was one of the best leadership development experiences the company offers.

Crozier admits that it is "hard for a manager to lose a star player for four weeks." However, she says that over 98 percent of managers surveyed say it improved their employee's teamwork, ability to lead a global team and that workers come back "more agile."

She adds that the program is a game changer in leading the next generation, specifically younger professionals.

"We know for sure that this recruits and attracts millennials, retains employees and imparts meaningful social work," says Crozier. "Millennials care about social issues, regardless. So part of [the program's] value proposition is that you can change the world in very exciting ways."

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook

You probably feel more loyal to your co-workers than to your boss or company

4 ways managers can keep introverted and extroverted employees from clashing

3 ways the most effective bosses are retaining their 20-something employees