Dow Chemical Develops Leaders by Sending Them to Work in Unfamiliar Surroundings

Dow Chemical’s mission is “To passionately create innovation for our stakeholders at the intersection of chemistry, biology, and physics.” It intends to do so by maximizing long-term value per share by being the most valuable and respected science company in the world. Its strategy is to invest in a market-driven portfolio of advantaged and technology-enabled businesses that create value for our shareholders and customers. As Dow Chemical expands its global presence, it needs employees who have the ability to network and develop relationships with local commercial and government leaders.

To develop global leaders, Dow had been sending high-potential employees to a week of leadership development classes at its Midland, Michigan, headquarters. After completing the classes, employees spent the next week in one

of Dow’s international location such as Shanghai, China; Sao Paulo, Brazil; or Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

These locations had Dow regional headquarters with work environments similar to what employees experience at corporate headquarters. Dow’s global manager for leadership development and its vice president for human resources both recognized that the program had a major weakness.

The program was missing a hands-on experience that taught participants how to understand culture context. Exposing participants to problems within different cultural contexts helps get learners to self-reflect and consider how they deal with uncertainty and change. It would also help develop leaders that understood what needed to be done to do business in new cultures. Dow wanted to change the program to create a learning experience that developed leadership skills, as well as developed humility and integrity needed for doing business in new markets. Dow developed a new leadership development program, Leadership in Action, with its first location in Accra, Ghana, where the company had recently opened its first office.

The program is part of Dow’s approach to meeting the world’s basic needs by matching its employees with organizations that need support for sustainable development projects, especially in business growth areas for Dow. Accra, the western African country’s capital, was chosen because it provided a way to get potential leaders to understand a new business territory, develop a new market, and establish relationships in the local community. Thirty-six high-potential employees were organized into seven teams. Each team was assigned to work with a nongovernment organization to help with a project that the community needed.

Projects included determining where to grow plants that could provide medicine for malaria and working

with a trade school to develop education science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum.

Program participants spend five months virtually planning and collaborating from their home offices.

This helped them develop their consulting skills and adapt to the unexpected such as the sudden loss of

electricity or telephone service. After working virtually for five months, the group traveled to Africa to examine their finished projects. Participants in the second class worked in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Dow was considering opening an office. One of the teams worked with a team of IBM employees to develop marketing to promote hygiene and sanitation practices. These participants gained valuable skills in collaborating with both humanitarian groups and corporate partners. The teams working in Ghana and Ethiopia both had to learn how to

solve problems in a culture and community that was extremely different from the one they were accustomed

to experiencing. They had to focus on understanding social structures and values of the people in the communities to create meaningful, accepted, and useful solutions. Both groups also represented Dow Chemical in news interviews, which enhanced their media relations skills and understanding of how to best represent the company.

Surveys completed after the program was completed showed that participants feel they have a new view of the world. Almost all participants wanted to continue to be involved in some way working on Dow’s growth in Africa.


1. What competitive challenges motivated Dow Chemical to develop the Leadership in Action?

2. Do you think the Leadership in Action contributes to Dow Chemicals business strategy and goals? Explain.


3. How would you determine if the Leadership in Action program was effective? What metrics or outcomes would you collect? Why?

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