By Kevin Matthews
When the Ice Bowl was played in Green Bay in 1967, Roger Anderson ’64 was in the middle of his Peace Corps service in Ahvaz, a majority-Arab city at the southwest corner of Iran. About 300 American volunteers were scattered around the country with him in 1966-68.
One difference between Anderson and the medical students he had in English classes then was that he needed to know who’d won. So he walked five miles in order to find a copy of the International Herald Tribune recounting the heroics of Bart Starr with practically no time remaining on the clock.
“I was young enough and arrogant enough when I went to Iran that I thought, I’m not a typical American,” Anderson said. “My experience there made me realize I was much more typical than I wanted to admit.”
Over time and over a career in organizational development consulting, Anderson saw that it was all right to be an American and an outsider overseas. He lived in Iran for a second time in the 1970s and then in Saudi Arabia for seven years, teaching English for specialized purposes. Since 1992, he’s worked with businesses, governments and nonprofits in more than 40 countries, from UN agencies in Mali, Lebanon, Cambodia and East Timor to the Anglo Platinum Mining Co. in South Africa to the Scottish parliament.
He traveled regularly to South Africa between 2004 and 2011 for the consulting firm Linkage Inc. On his last day of work there with a quasi-government agency – which he was helping through a move and the adjustment to a new corporate structure – he was invited to the office of a white Afrikaner whom he knew only by reputation, as a man of unparalleled skill in a technical field. Anderson had been told that this man (call him Ernie) felt bitter about not being promoted all the way to the top of the organization, as he might have been under the apartheid system.
But Ernie hadn’t called the meeting to discuss that. Instead, he explained that he was “10 percent of the man I was a year ago” when his 16-year-old son was killed in a hunting accident.
Anderson assured him that he would listen, though he would not be able to help with that essential problem. About 15 minutes into the conversation, he had a question for Ernie: “Are there five or six very young, very bright people in this organization who you could identify as having real potential in their careers?” he asked.
Ernie said yes.
“Would you be willing to spend two hours with them once every two weeks, passing on your skills to accelerate their development, and consider doing that as a monument to your son?”
As a result of the half-hour meeting, Anderson later confirmed, Ernie began to participate more in his community at work, and the careers of several young black professionals were advanced.
Making connections with people and influencing them was not always that easy for Anderson. He was a spectacular failure at sales, he said. Now semi-retired, he thinks his greatest contribution has been to help organizations clarify both what to look for in new people and what experiences to give them, so that employees can make a difference.
The technical skills that are required for a job play their biggest role in a person’s success during the first six months, he said. After that, workers must rely on broader skills that let them leverage the others. “So communication, influence skills, coaching skills, drive, imagination: How do you give someone an opportunity to develop those broader, general skills that they’re going to need to have as they grow upwards in the organization?”
Along with international experience, the key for Anderson has been education. He started out in a one-room school for eight years in South Dakota, then high school in the San Fernando Valley. He ended up with advanced degrees in English literature and human resource education.
In between was Cal Lutheran.
“I think that a kind of rational, critical thinking that I got from professors like Helmut Haeussler [history] and Roland Dille [English] and Mary Ellen Heian Leonard [English] and Roy Peel [political science] has stayed with me,” he said. “It’s not so much what I learned as how I am able to apply what I learned.”