As an executive for American Express in West Germany, Burkhard Breiing isn't used to pushing a broom.

But there he was the other afternoon, helping to clean up after the evening meal at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter at Second and D streets NW. Or at least trying to help.

"I tried to clean the place, but it wasn't possible -- it was clean," Breiing said, with some wonder in his voice. "It's a very clean place, much cleaner than I expected."

Breiing was one of 30 senior corporate executives from around the world who pitched in to help Monday afternoon at the homeless shelter as part of a University of Michigan program designed to show the corporate elite what life is like outside the executive suite.

Officials from companies such as General Motors Corp., Exxon Corp., Sony Corp., Procter & Gamble Co. and Hitachi Ltd. worked in the shelter's kitchen, ladling out shepherd's pie, squash and cantaloupe. Afterward, they bused tables and swept and mopped the floors.

The visit to the homeless shelter by the executives, all rising stars in their companies, was part of an unusual two-day tour of Washington that focused on a side of the city usually invisible to business travelers.

Trading pinstripes for jeans and sport shirts, the executives visited hospitals and police stations, unemployment offices and courtrooms, a day care center and a drug rehabilitation clinic -- all to learn firsthand, albeit briefly, about life in the city and how companies can deal with pressing social issues.

Most of the executives said they had been affected by what they saw, and many said the experience had forced them to rethink their value systems and willingness to work to help solve social problems.

"I haven't thought about this much. This is a real awareness for me," said Richard Moreau, executive director of engineering services at GM. "I came out of the mud a bit."

"Some people have had actual shock of seeing something they haven't seen," said Monica M. Falkenthal, a director of financial assurance for American Telephone & Telegraph Co. "It's got to be a little uncomfortable."

To some extent, that was the idea of the two-day visit, which was part of a "global leadership" program sponsored by the University of Michigan. The five-week program -- tuition: $30,000 per participant, paid by each company -- is designed to broaden the executives, improve their leadership and team-building skills and get them thinking about how their companies should be dealing with such questions as world poverty, the environment, education and drug abuse.

Later this week, the executives will travel in small groups to China, the Soviet Union, Brazil and India for two-week immersions in the cultures of those nations. The executives are to produce written and videotaped reports on the countries to show to the other participants in the program and to the top management of their own companies.

"We want you to be able to identify problems," Noel Tichy, head of the global leadership program, told the group at a meeting at the Watergate Hotel on Sunday before they hit the streets. "The idea of the five weeks is to think about issues that are hard to think about when you're back on your job."

The Washington trip was a sort of dry run for the foreign visits. Leaders of the program urged the executives to act as "anthropologists and journalists" on their tour of the city.

"I think {the program is} a success because we at least expose people," said Falkenthal, the only woman in the program. "If you're going to be the people who are targeted to be the next generation of corporate leadership, you need to have exposure to this."

The executives' encounters with the city bureaucracy, the overcrowded legal system and all varieties of Washington's less-fortunate underclass at times provoked fear, anger, frustration and, occasionally, laughter.

There also were some surprises, particularly for the foreign members of the group, which was made up of 10 Europeans, 10 Japanese and 10 Americans. Many of the foreign participants were struck by the city's racial makeup, particularly the number of blacks in authority and the fact that virtually all of the defendants they saw at D.C. Superior Court were minorities while the judges and lawyers they saw were white.

They also were surprised that things weren't quite the way they had expected from watching depictions of American cities on television. For instance, Yoshinari Shimatani was shocked to learn from a police officer at the Fifth District station house that police here rarely have to fire their guns. "His answer was unexpected," said Shimatani, a general manager at KAO Corp., a Japanese soap company. "In Japan, many people believe American cops shoot guns frequently."

The rapid-fire pace of arraignment proceedings at D.C. Superior Court and the deliberate pace of a murder trial impressed many members of the group, particularly the foreign executives unfamiliar with the American way of justice. One Japanese participant even drew a detailed diagram of a courtroom for future reference.

A small group that visited the drug rehabilitation center returned enthusiastic about its work. "I was impressed that they could do it on no money," said Robert T. Hamilton, vice president and general manager of Eastman Kodak Co.'s health sciences division, noting that the rehab program had an annual budget of $130,000.

"I walk away from here thinking if you can get more people to donate money, to donate buildings, you can have more success stories like this," Larry J. Zigerelli, an advertising department manager at Procter & Gamble, said of the homeless shelter. And Breiing, the German executive of American Express, rated the CCNV shelter "a four-star homeless center. Even a five-star."

But the strong feelings evoked by the shelter also included some anger. A handful of the executives balked at having to do menial work at the shelter and declined to eat the food served there. Some executives also complained mildly that they already knew that there were disadvantaged people and that the visits to the shelter and elsewhere had not added much to their knowledge.

"All this can possibly do is get you interested if you aren't already," said Steve R. Smith, director of the executive consulting program at International Business Machines Corp. "I think Noel {Tichy} vastly underestimates how involved businesses are in this kind of stuff."

Many of the other executives, however, said they had come away from the visits wondering how they, and their companies, could do more to help. And GM's Moreau said he was considering doing more volunteer work when he returns home to Detroit.