Volunteering is Helping Companies Develop Better Leaders, Faster—Here’s Why

Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org.


Nearly every CEO reports that their companies are not developing skills fast enough or leaders deeply enough. That’s a big problem for companies. According to the MIT Sloan Management Review:

“Many managers think they can create better products just by improving the development process or adding new tools. But it’s skilled people, not processes, that create great products.

In a time when continued success requires more innovation, creativity, and cross-cultural collaboration, companies are struggling to find people with those very skills. According to MIT:

Until organizations view people as central (and leaders act accordingly), the risk that development process improvement efforts will not improve anything is frighteningly high.

The Harvard Business Review takes this concept one step farther in the article The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners.

Reinvention and relevance in the 21st century instead draw on our ability to adjust our way of thinking, learning, doing and being. Leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode. Leaders that stay on top of society’s changes do so by being receptive and able to learn. In a time where the half-life of any skill is about five years, leaders bear a responsibility to renew their perspective in order to secure the relevance of their organizations.


So how do companies develop better leaders? They have to develop better learners, first.

Developing Better Learners

As the Harvard Business Review shares, the best leaders are constant learners: “There is no other way to address the wicked problems facing us. If work is learning and learning is the work, then leadership should be all about enabling learning.”

Being a better learner not only helps people become better leaders, but it helps them be more innovative, to – Steve Jobs is a great example of that. From a great article in The Daily Muse, 5 ways successful people become more innovative every day.

…The best innovators are also some of the biggest learners, and not just about fields directly related to their work. They follow passions and interests that might not make sense. They dive into topic areas they know nothing about.

Steve Jobs is not alone. As John Shook, CEO of the Lean Enterprise Institute, explained in his book, Managing to Learn, “The most important accomplishment of [Toyota] is simply that it has learned to learn.” Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal agrees: “Learning naturally leads to cross-pollination and ideation. Ideation can lead to action. Action is how innovation comes to life.

Companies must encourage that their people learn a wide variety of skills.

According to HBR, “a massive transformation from institutions designed for scalable efficiency to institutions designed for scalable learning” is underway. But companies can’t just get their people to learn about leadership, a specific industry, or a specific concept. As CEO and biographer Walter Isaacson writes in his book about Steve Jobs:

He connected the humanities to the sciences, creativity to technology, arts to engineering… no one else in our era could better firewire together poetry and processors in a way that jolted innovation.

In other words, people cannot learn all they need to learn within the hallowed halls of their employer. They must look beyond the corporate campus, university campus, and beyond their computer screens. They must learn through action learning: the act of real people working through real problems, and then reflecting on the process to learn from it. There is endless research showing that people learn through experience, and McKinsey & Company explains that the lack of experiential learning programs is why most leadership development programs fail.

But our experience in leadership development shows that experience have to be authentic. They have to be real. As wrote about in HBR, there is a shortage of learning opportunities for people within their companies, and paying a lot of money to create simulations or create learning practice is expensive and limiting. And at the end of the day, all that designing of experiences if for not. People need to find REAL experiences.

However, companies struggle to develop learners and leaders simply because they don’t have enough authentic experiences within their own halls – which is why innovative companies are transforming to turn learning into a self-driven pursuit. In tandem, employees “are demanding access to dynamic learning opportunities that fit their individual needs and schedules”.

Volunteering to the rescue

As Deloitte published in the Purpose Driven Professional,

Companies are seeking—and finding—ways to link talent development and rewarding, purpose-driven work, for both employee engagement and competitive advantage.

We previously published that volunteering makes you a better learner (in addition to other great research-backed benefits). Why?

  1. Volunteering Puts You in the Center of a New Environment
  2. Volunteering Exposes You to New Ways of Doing Things
  3. Volunteering Exposes You to More Resource-Scarce Environments That Are More Creative
  4. Volunteering is a Gateway Drug to Learning
  5. Volunteering Is Supportive and Empowering
  6. You Expose Yourself to Other Learners


Volunteering experiences are valuable because they are authentic

It’s important to realize that a lack of access to talent is considered one of the leading barriers to progress. This means that there is no shortage of organizations that are looking for people with a wide variety of skills, time frames, and prior experience.

Need something to do in your free time before meetings? There is microvolunteering.

Looking for a project in your city? LinkedIn for Good can help.

Want an immersive experience on your vacation or sabbatical? MovingWorlds has skills-based projects anywhere you want to travel.


How can companies promote volunteering to promote learning

A plethora of data has come in the past few years to show that when people go on skills-based volunteer experiences endorsed by their company, they make a positive impact while developing valuable learning and leadership skills. For these reasons, let alone the philanthropic, employee retention, employee engagement, and trust-building that comes from these programs, companies are harnessing in a variety of ways, like:

  1. Leadership development teams can build volunteering programs, like this one at Microsoft
  2. Companies, like this list of 8 on Fortune, can offer paid or unpaid volunteer time off to employees,
  3. Individual employees can take initiative and incorporate volunteering into their yearly goals as a no-budget learning opportunity
  4. Managers can recommend their teams engage in volunteer activities and easily optimize the experience
  5. Executive leadership can make volunteering part of the culture, like at Salesforce

This article in Forbes highlights even more reason why it pays for companies to have a volunteer program. But, even without formal programs, individuals and their managers can find ways to endorse volunteering and realize the powerful benefits it offers all parties.

In summary


  • To remain competitive, companies need more creative, innovative, and accepting leaders
  • To grow as a leader, you must first grow as a learner
  • To become a better learner, you must have more authentic learning experiences, but companies don’t have enough stretch experiences
  • The social good sector (i.e. nonprofits and social enterprises) constantly needs skilled professionals, and thus, can offer great stretch learning experiences that also make the world better
  • There are LOTS of ways that companies—and their managers and employees—can create time and space for people to volunteer and grow as learners and as leaders