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Take eight American IT executives, plunk them in towns without reliable Internet and cellular connections — much less electricity and indoor plumbing — and see what they can accomplish.

Sounds like a spinoff of “Survivor.” But no one gets kicked off the island — or, in this case, the archipelago. Rather, winning depends on cooperation, not competition.

Cigna Corp. sent the executives to Indonesia for nearly two weeks learn about the people and help two anti-poverty groups improve their computer capabilities. It was more than altruism, though. The Connecticut insurance company hoped the experience would offer insight into how to succeed in the Indonesian marketplace; the executives came back with a better understanding of the country and new outlooks on their jobs back home.

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The Cigna mission was the pilot project of the Cultural Agility Leadership Lab, or CALL, based at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business and the brainchild of Paula Caligiuri, a professor of international business and strategy. The lab, launched last fall with a $100,000 from the university’s Darla and Fred Brodsky Fund for International Initiatives, matches corporations with not-for-profit groups known as non-governmental organizations operating in developing regions around the world.

Cigna employee Shatice Collins (right) worked with women on computer skills at ROLE Foundation in Indonesia.
Cigna employee Shatice Collins (right) worked with women on computer skills at ROLE Foundation in Indonesia.Rajesh Singh/Cultural Agility Leadership Lab

The corporations provide volunteers for up to a month to help NGOs in areas from marketing to finance to technology. In return, companies get back employees with greater knowledge, understanding, and awareness of countries and cultures, a vital asset in today’s global economy.

“There’s a desperate need for companies to make sure they tool up their leaders to be effective in these multicultural environments,” said Caligiuri, a psychologist who has spent 25 years helping Americans workers navigate foreign cultures.

Caligiuri modeled CALL after programs sponsored by individual corporations that send teams abroad for short stints advising non-governmental organizations. CALL partners with the National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit network of Peace Corps alumni, which provides coaches to brief corporate teams on foreign cultures and accompany them on trips

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John M. Staines, Cigna’s human resources officer for global information technology, volunteered Cigna as the pilot after attending a CALL introductory conference last fall. Staines runs an IT leadership program that was already scheduled to spend a week in Indonesia learning about the society.

Before the trip, the Cigna group attended a seminar led by two returned Peace Corp volunteers who served in Indonesia. The executives practiced shaking hands, for example. Indonesians do so with a soft grip and then place their right hands over their heart as a sign of sincerity.

They also learned that Indonesians treat small talk not as a formality, but as a prerequisite for doing business. “You build that relationship through getting to know them and having them get to know you,” Staines said.

Paula Caligiuri, CALL founder and director, talked with Ardrika Adinata of the East Bali Poverty Project.
Paula Caligiuri, CALL founder and director, talked with Ardrika Adinata of the East Bali Poverty Project.Rajesh Singh/Cultural Agility Leadership Lab/Cultural Agility Leadership Lab

The Cigna executives first met Indonesians in both urban and rural settings. They then broke into two teams, immersing themselves for three to four days with the NGOs.

Rajesh Singh, a senior director with Cigna’s IT customers solution group,found himself in a remote town consisting of tiny hamlets sprawling over two mountains in East Bali. Parts of the town only became accessible to cars within the last decade; many residents are still learning how to build outhouses.

The Cigna-team was asked to help build a website to link the two offices of the East Bali Poverty Project, which are a three-hour drive apart. The organization’s schools teach children about nutrition, hygiene and agricultural practices, then encourage the students to share the lessons with their families.

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Singh was struck by how much the East Bali organization accomplished on a shoestring, using just laptop computers to produce data-filled reports about their programs to drum up donations. Their ingenuity spurred Singh to think of ways his IT teams could do more with less.

The NGO’s approach of teaching families through their children also has him reconsidering how to roll out new computer programs. He might, say, enlist members of the accounting department to train their peers. “Then it’s not someone from IT coming in and slamming something down their throat,” Singh said.

When Dave Zegzdryn, a Cigna project management senior director, Zegzdryn walked into the headquarters of the ROLE (Rivers, Oceans, Lands and Ecology) foundation, he was surprised to find paint peeling on cinder block walls and the director sharing an office with five others. “You’re left with the initial impression of how does anything get done here?” he said.

Cigna employees toured a bamboo factory.
Cigna employees toured a bamboo factory.Rajesh Singh/Cultural Agility Leadership Lab

After spending a day seeing the program in action — promoting sustainable agriculture and women’s education and business development — he said he “quickly realized it’s pretty organized.”

That afternoon, his Cigna crew taught young women how to use several Windows programs. The next day, the Cigna advisors set to work on their main task, helping develop software programs for ROLE to track its recruits and donors. They started by asking basic questions about what ROLE wanted to achieve.

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“I don’t think we do enough of that in corporate America,” Zegzdryn said. “We just assume everyone has thought that through when we get engaged, and then we get further down the road with some of these projects where we start questioning the value of what we’re doing.”

Perhaps most eye-opening for the Cigna executives was how happy Indonesians appeared to be.

They all spoke of an 85-year-old couple who invited the Cigna visitors into their home. The couple raised eight children in the rickety house on stilts. They have more than 30 grandchildren and more than 40 great grandchildren. They still work in the fields every day.

The man suffers from high blood pressure, but counts on his wife to cook him chicken soup when he isn’t feeling well.

“The man and his wife have so little in terms of material items and money, however I cannot express the presence of joy and happiness that I saw in his eyes,” said Maureen Mellett, a Cigna IT director based in Philadelphia. “I hope to never lose sight of that perspective he gave me.”


Steve Maas can be reached at stevenmaas@comcast.net.