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Creating the Highest Performing Teams Through Community-Focused Initiatives

January 19, 2018

Ey_earthwatch_ambassadorsDiversity in the workplace has become a widely discussed topic, and while every company has its own approach and initiatives designed to promote diversity, most of us agree that diverse teams — not just across race, gender, and nationality but also background, knowledge, and skill-set — perform better. This has been proven by a great deal of research, but it is up to companies to bring this data to life in the workplace. At EY, we believe that our ability to execute on our purpose of "building a better working world" is best achieved by building a culture of the highest-performing teams, and a significant component of that has to do with encouraging a deeper understanding among our employees of working alongside people from other backgrounds and cultures, as well as promoting opportunities to learn new skills in new environments.

It's for this reason we invest in programs that promote high-performing teams by encouraging our people to "think outside the box." One program in particular — the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors program — empowers our people to help overcome challenges that most corporations actively look to resolve: thinking and operating in silos.

The EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors program sends high-performing, early-career professionals from the Americas and Israel on a week-long expedition with the Earthwatch Institute to Mexico or Peru. Organized in four groups of ten, Ambassadors provide skills-based services to a local business and also engage in dynamic scientific field research (at no cost to the organization).

This past year in Mexico, two teams of ten Ambassadors helped improve the marketing and sales strategies of a local farming cooperative that is working to improve the health of the region's ecosystem. They also collected water-quality data in the Xochimilco wetlands outside of Mexico City as part of a study on the health of global freshwater ecosystems. In Peru, EY professionals provided operational recommendations to AmazonEco, a research expedition business that provides sustainable financial strategies for holistic conservation efforts in western Amazonia. Ambassadors also supported research staff by surveying a variety of wildlife species to better understand how climate change is impacting the region. Findings from the project are being used to develop conservation strategies in partnership with local indigenous communities.

While Ambassadors are introduced to global thinking in part by being placed in a new country, the lion's share of their development happens as a result of teaming with deliberately diverse groups. By design, every team has representation from each of EY's ten Americas geographic regions and from each of its five functional service lines.

Like employees at most large organizations, our people can easily become siloed, teaming with colleagues within their same business unit or with similar areas of expertise. Any team hoping to be high-performing, however, must bring together the right mix of skills and talents needed to turn a shared vision into a quality, tangible solution. Programs like EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors are designed deliberately to embed this thinking into their structures, not only exposing participants to other business units that may otherwise be invisible but, more importantly, engaging them in different ways of seeing, analyzing, and solving problems. EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors use their existing skills to provide services to organizations and communities that couldn't usually access them and, through the ensuing process, strengthen their skills by asking questions that wouldn't usually fall within their individual domains. They're challenged to problem-solve by taking a more holistic view — a fundamental step for any developing professional or high-performing team.  

Participating businesses also receive the benefit of seeing their organizational challenges being filtered through many different lenses, resulting in more comprehensive recommendations. In the words of Dr. Richard Bodmer, the scientist who founded AmazonEco in Peru, "This isn't an exercise — this is our lives. With [their] recommendations…we've come up with some very useful ways to look at our operations, make them better, and make a real difference on the Amazon."

When participants return to their home offices after the week-long program, they often seek opportunities to apply their new learnings. By design, Ambassadors are encouraged to think about how they can bring their experience of diverse, high-performing teaming back to their day jobs — starting with presentations to their local offices on what they've learned and introductions to other EY teams that include suggestions on how they can best leverage participants' new  knowledge.

"Going forward, I'll be able to use the collaboration techniques I learned working with a diverse group of professionals to help solve client challenges in my work at home," says Christian Bowers, an Advisory professional based in Atlanta who participated in last year's program supporting AmazonEco. "I'll also better be able to recognize when EY may be able to provide additional support to clients through other service lines or in different countries."

Christian isn't alone in his thinking, as revealed by PYXERA Global's 2016 International Corporate Volunteerism Council's Common Performance Indicator Report, which benchmarks global pro bono programs' impact on their local clients, communities, participants, and companies. According to the report, EY participants lead in reporting new ideas to the business (80 percent vs. benchmark 57 percent),  in developing or improving their problem-solving skills (83 percent vs. benchmark 68 percent), and in reporting job satisfaction (98 percent vs. benchmark 88 percent). Initiating new ideas around cross-teaming to better support client relationships post-participation is also exemplified by Aric Johnstone, an Assurance professional who served as an Ambassador in 2014. After returning home, Aric reached out to a practice separate from his own: EY's Climate Change and Sustainability Services (CCaSS). He made CCaSS aware of his EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors experience and offered his willingness to support future client relationships. A year later, Aric found himself taking the lead in proposing conflict minerals assurance services to a public client. 

"The EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors program placed me in a unique position to lead the early stages of the proposal on behalf of the Assurance and CCaSS teams," says Aric. "It provided me with early-career opportunities to be involved with business development and to present the values and skills I gained to the highest levels of client management."

In addition to the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors program's contributions to professional development , EY's annual Global People Survey consistently shows that participation in the program has a very strong statistical correlation with engagement and retention. In other words, program participants are more likely to stay with EY than other similarly-rated professionals at the same rank; that when they do leave, they do so after staying at EY longer; and that they have best-in-class employee engagement.

Strategically designed programs that celebrate diversity in all its forms and have it intentionally built into their operational models can serve as a mechanism that not only brings the best of a corporation to the recipient organization or community, but also bring the best out of its people.   

Lindsey_poole_for_philantopicLindsey Poole is a corporate responsibility senior associate at EY Americas and is the EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors program manager. The views expressed in the above post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Ernst & Young LLP or any other member firm of the global Ernst & Young organization.

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