SAP Social Sabbaticals Develop Leadership Skills

SAP Social Sabbaticals Develop Leadership Skills

Social Sabbaticals Also Help Retain Staff

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By Fred Donovan, Senior Editor, SAPinsider

SAP has developed a program called “social sabbatical” that sends employees around the globe to work with a team to tackle challenging social problems.  

The program is designed to develop leadership skills, motivate employees, improve employee retention, and attract new recruits. 

Begun in 2012, the program has expanded to include 1,300 employees from 51 countries and 500 nonprofit organizations (NGOs), said Alexandra van der Ploeg, SAP Global Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, in an interview with Reuters. 

Van der Ploeg explained that a team of employees is sent to an emerging country for four weeks to help a nonprofit organization address social problems.  

“It’s an immersive program, in that you go onsite for four weeks straight. You take that time off from your regular job, work on a concrete strategic challenge that a nonprofit organization is facing and provide concrete deliverables that truly drive impact,” she said. 

“In India, we worked with a foundation with a mission to bridge the digital divide and facilitate the adoption of technology in education. They needed expertise to develop a learning platform, to help youth learn at their own pace,” she related.  

When COVID-19 hit, the learning platform was ready to use for virtual learning, she added. SAP suspended the program during the pandemic but is expected to restart the program this year.  

SAP is working with other companies to set up their social sabbatical programs. “What we typically do is invite other companies to join us and leave some open slots for them. Direct exposure to the program, so they can experience it for themselves, shows the true value of what we do,” van der Ploeg related. 

She said the program has had a “significant impact” on employee engagement and retention. When the participants return to the office, they are motivated to use what they learned in their jobs and improve things at SAP when they return from the sabbatical.  

“Any company that is serious about purpose and sustainability needs to give their employees the opportunity to experience on-the-ground what that really means. The social sabbatical does that,” she said. 

Working in South Africa 

In a 2013 YouTube video, Saswato Das, then SAP Head of Thought Leadership Content, described his social sabbatical experience working in South Africa. 

“I was part of a team of three people who worked with an NGO that worked with disabled people in South Africa. I was stationed in Pretoria, which is the capital. I spent about a month in South Africa working in close partnership with the NGO,” he said. 

“What the program teaches you, when you are in a situation that is total immersion and totally outside your comfort zone, is how to adapt things you do in business — teamwork, focus, problem-solving — to the situation on the ground. You might not have all the resources at your disposal, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get the job done,” he added. 

“Many of the people who have come back from this program call it the best experience of their career. You can’t really put a price on that. It motivates people, helps in employee retention, and attracts new employees,” Das concluded.  

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