GSK Encourages Employees to Take a Break from Work to Volunteer

(3BL Media and Just Means) - For Steve Pessagno, the decision to leave his job to volunteer in his local community of Philadelphia for six months was easy. Pessagno participated in GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) PULSE program, a skill-based, volunteer initiative which matches GSK employees’ skills with the needs of local nonprofits. GSK encourages their employees to build a local or global PULSE assignment into their personal development plan. And the most incredible part: GSK continues to pay PULSE volunteers their normal salaries and benefits packages during their assignment. GSK willingly provides their stakeholder communities with highly-skilled, business expertise. For free.

I recently spoke with Pessagno about his PULSE experience in 2012. He was paired with Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that raises funding for pediatric, cancer research. After having worked with GSK for 16 years, with his role in 2012 as the Project Management Lead of the US Pharmaceuticals Transformation Office and Strategy Planning & Operations, I wondered how he could manage to get away from his job for six months and why he wanted to do it.

“Building community was always important to me,” Pessagno explained. “When I came to the company, I was impressed with and interested in the different types of philanthropy the company was involved with. I did some volunteering in Philly, six months here or there, but nothing stuck. When PULSE was announced, I knew it would provide me with an opportunity to get to know a nonprofit in my community. I also wanted to help further our GSK mission to partner with our local communities.”

Pessagno was a perfect fit for the needs of ALSF. The focus of his work was to re-establish a collaboration among childhood cancer research groups. He sought to assess their current work, diagnose barriers to action and design strategies for implementation. Pessagno relied heavily on his experience to GSK in order to rebuild the collaboration and create buy-in. He used a GSK framework as a strategy for this multi-stakeholder collaboration: diagnose, design, implementation, embed a change.

“I spent two months on diagnostic work. I was very fortunate that everyone wanted to talk with me. The pediatric cancer community had tried to collaborate together before. They knew there were things they needed to do together, as opposed to 200 organizations doing the same thing. There was pent up demand to figure out how to do this.

“I spent a lot of time really listening to people about what needed to happen. I spent time getting to know folks. And then I tapped into my network.  I was sitting at my desk thinking, ‘how am I going to do this all on my own?’ And then I thought, ‘when have you ever done something on your own?’ You don’t. You have a network. I began asking myself, ‘who works in nonprofits? Who understands collaboration models? Who at GSK knows people who work in this area?’”

After six months, Pessagno left the ALSF team and the larger network of pediatric, cancer research groups with a multi-stakeholder advisory board and a strategic plan of implementation. He returned to GSK with a renewed commitment to efficiency and compassion. He also found himself challenging GSK’s status quo and norms, a desired outcome for GSK through the PULSE program. By providing employees with the opportunity to work in the nonprofit sector, GSK knows they are creating an open channel for accountability and feedback.  

Pessagno explains, “I experienced a complete flip in my work at ALSF. I spent 80% of my time doing work and 15% in meetings. At GSK, we spend a lot of time in meetings. You can forget what you have with so many resources at your disposal.  Sometimes I catch myself instant messaging someone down the hall, but now I remember to get up and go talk to them. GSK and companies like it have the luxury of re-work, but with a nonprofit, we want to get it right the first time. And, I liked the way ALSF worked as a team. If there was a truck to unload, we dropped everything and we contributed.

“Overall, I have more focus on what matters. The types of things that used to distract me or get me worked up don’t matter anymore. After working with a group of people dedicated to ending cancer, you see just how much passion, optimism, and entrepreneurialism they bring.”

It’s not often I speak with a multinational corporation that encourages and empowers their employees to take time away from their jobs to support local organizations. I believe they are modeling sustainability: empowering employees, resourcing nonprofits, freely offering valuable and expensive expertise, providing channels of feedback and building a culture of accountability- in a unique way through PULSE. Keep up the great work, GSK.

Read Steve Pessagno’s story via this blog on ALSF.  Here’s more about PULSE at GSK.