By Shannon Banks, Worldwide Leadership Development Consultant, Microsoft

I still remember the day, two years ago, when I hit send on the email. As a leadership development consultant at Microsoft, I was responsible for designing the appropriate experience for 30 of our most talented senior leaders worldwide. What I was proposing was an immersive, unique experience in Africa that I felt would change participants’ perspectives on leadership and the emerging markets while helping them become stronger corporate citizens. It was different from what we had done in the past, and a significant investment of resources and time during a very economically challenging period. When I got the approval to move forward with the program, I was thrilled. In fact, in my 13 years with the company, I have never been prouder to work at Microsoft.

In February 2010, we all landed in Nairobi and kicked off the program. Called Front Lines, the experience we developed brought these Microsoft leaders together with seven partner organizations—including United Nations agencies, IT solutions providers and nonprofit Organizations—all of whom directly contribute to the development of Africa and have an existing strategic relationship with Microsoft. The partners each brought a real business challenge to the event and the majority of the time in Nairobi was spent working together in small groups on these challenges. Additional perspective was added by thought provoking visits to the Mukuru Slums and the Naivasha flower farms as well as powerful keynotes and panel speakers.

Our partners benefited from Front Lines by getting fresh, diverse views on their work and exposure to new problem-solving methodologies, plus a strengthened relationship with Microsoft.

For the Microsoft leaders who participated, the benefits were substantial. Front Lines gave them direct exposure to the opportunities and challenges in Kenya, both through the immersion and the work with the partners. Not only did this help us develop stronger local partner relationships, it gave our leaders much needed exposure to emerging markets and their prevalent business models.

The leaders also learned a lot about themselves and developed core leadership competencies around problem solving and dealing with ambiguity. Finally—and importantly--Front Lines helped them see how corporate citizenship efforts can be strategic and opened their eyes to think about how to be better corporate citizens. In response, they also found immediate opportunities to act—for example by donating funds to help finish a building at the school we visited in Mukuru.

In the words of Ali Faramawy, our vice president of Middle East & Africa “As a company, we have a global mission and inclusive mission statement around enabling opportunity for people and realizing potential for people and business. Getting our top talent to think how our technology and people can make a tangible difference in people’s lives in Africa is just incredible. I leave feeling even stronger about our prospects to make a tangible difference in people’s lives and grow Microsoft’s business.”

Corporations often separate citizenship and leadership development but when they are brought together it is powerful for the companies, the partners/geographies and the participants as individuals. I am proud of the work we have done through Front Lines and proud that Microsoft is continuing to invest in this type of leadership development experience. Next stop, February 2011: Peru.

Shannon Banks, Worldwide Leadership Development Consultant, Microsoft