One of our mentors (Trevor) likened Protagion to a rotation programme for professionals within and across companies, which got me thinking… He called us a “bigger thinking equivalent to a rotation programme… to plot a [career] path… and see the bigger picture [for your career]”. Definitely an insightful comment which prompted me to reflect further, and I’ve set out my thoughts in two related articles on rotation. This is the first.
Read more for my thoughts on corporate perspectives on employee rotation, the concept of ‘tours of duty’ to align interests, and your developmental responsibilities as a manager. The second rotation-themed article then shares an overview of my own career experiences as an example of internal and external role rotations, and offers suggestions on how you might create your own growth opportunities by rotating during your career.
Corporate perspectives on rotation
Corporates who don’t offer their employees formal opportunities to change roles are considering rotation programmes more seriously. Especially where they are seeing their high performers committed to professional development and growth actively exploring new roles to get the challenge they are seeking. Indeed, this is one reason why ambitious individuals consider MBAs or other business studies: to give them more breadth and exposure beyond their existing experiences.
I’ve been asked on a number of occasions by corporates and managers about designing rotation programmes that have positive long-term impacts on retention and growth, including in more technical or specialised environments. And, I’ve personally worked for organisations who had successful programmes, and ones who didn’t i.e. where you get ‘stuck’ in the job you originally applied for, years later… Once those employees start looking at new opportunities, both inside and outside the company, the risk of losing their talents is significant. And before seeing this as disloyalty, ask yourself: are employees who are willing to stagnate for years on end going to be capable of adapting to dynamic situations and taking decisive actions that your company needs to thrive and grow?
Part of the challenge is that structures have become flatter over time, so employees can feel they aren’t developing if they’re not getting promoted ‘up the ladder’ every now and then. Also, in some areas, teams are becoming more specialised and more technical, so companies think you have to have years of recent experience in that specific area to be able to perform the job efficiently (instead of valuing flexibility and learning-on-the-job). Another factor is that some managers don’t want to lose their experts: they worry about keeping their teams intact for as long as possible to deliver on never-ending projects, holding on so tight it becomes restrictive for the employee.
In my experience of building teams and working with high-potential individuals, different career experiences (like those obtained through rotation) are crucial to the development of leaders and executives. Varied experiences help them understand what they fit well with and prepare them to take on bigger challenges and thrive in unknown environments. This remains true even if they ultimately take responsibility for a ‘technical’ function like a Chief Financial Officer, Chief Risk Officer, Chief Actuary, or Chief Investment Officer.
Offering broad opportunities over many years at your organisation can also help in attracting top talent. Being able to point to concrete ways the potential recruit will
Some organisations think about their employees’ value to them both while they’re delivering as employees and once they’re working outside. This is common in the professional services industry, and in up-or-out environments, for example. By design, alumni of these organisations tend to have positive memories of their developmental experiences at the firm, and regularly refer new clients to the consultancy or hire them themselves when they’re executives. This could be seen as sending their advocates into organisations where they can influence from the inside for mutual benefit: rotation on a broader scale.
Another benefit to a wider perspective, bigger than your own organisation, is that employees may return for another role with you after they’ve been away, bringing a combination of an outsider perspective and existing knowledge of your company process and culture.
Tours of duty
Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh refer to the concept of building a career from different experiences over time as ‘tours of duty’. They discuss an approach to offering employees different, well-rounded experiences within the context of a business relationship in their book The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age*. They use the term ‘tour of duty’ because the focus is on honourably accomplishing a defined, finite mission: “In the context of the alliance, the tour of duty represents an ethical commitment by employer and employee to a specific mission”. The goal is for the manager and employee to select a mission objective that is clear, detailed and concrete that helps the company while also providing an opportunity for the employee to grow.
A successful mission objective delivers results for the company for either quantitative or qualitative goals, such as launching a new product line and generating a certain dollar amount in first-year revenues, or achieving thought leadership in a specific market category… A successful tour of duty should move the needle for the employee as well as the company. Success might include developing new knowledge and skills; acquiring functional, technical or managerial experience to advance the employee’s career; and building a personal brand within and outside the company by accomplishing an impressive goal. Usually it won’t include an upgrade in job title.”
While the terminology has a military feeling (similar to Hoffman & Yeh’s ‘blitzscaling’ concept* covered in another book), I’m definitely not suggesting you run your rotation programme like a military general, moving your troops as your battle strategy evolves, like pieces on a war game board.
Instead, the focus should be on building over time, between employer and employee, mutual trust and making mutual investment (of energy and money) for mutual benefit. This includes the employee changing roles in the context of a longer-term relationship, rather than it being a transactional time-for-skills interaction.
Think of employment as an alliance: a mutually beneficial deal, with explicit terms, between independent players. This employment alliance provides the framework managers and employees need for the trust and investment to build powerful businesses and careers… Employees invest in the company’s success; the company invests in the employees’ market value… The manager can speak openly and honestly about the investment the company is willing to make in the employee and what it expects in return. The employee can speak openly and honestly about the type of growth he seeks (skills, experiences and the like) and what he will invest in the company in return by way of effort and commitment. Both sides set clear expectations.”
The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age* sets out three types of tours, referring to entry-level programmes like those for investment banking or management consulting analysts as “rotational tours”. It terms personalised tours focused on specific missions of roughly two-to-five years “transformational tours” - these ones are what I’m largely referring to within rotation programmes in this article. And, for an even-longer commitment, where the opportunity is the “foundation of a person’s career and even life” (like it could be for a start-up founder, for example), they use the term “foundational tour”, reflecting exceptional alignment where the employee sees their life’s work as the company’s mission and vice versa.
The role of managers
As you may imagine, my perspective on management is less about the procedural requirements, work allocation or oversight, and more about helping the team to learn, improve and grow as individuals and collectively. In my view, inspiring individuals to become their best is what’s best for the organisation in the long-term, even if they’re then no longer doing only the narrow piece today’s project requires. I think our duty as managers is to create the conditions where great people decide to stay and invest their time and energies in the organisation’s success. This requires us to look for opportunities to align the interests of the business with the aspirations and interests of the individual, even if only in the short-term. And alignment doesn’t mean we need to unconditionally support all their values and aspirations over their entire lives, but we do need to respect them.
An important part of developing people is to give them space to be slightly in over their heads at first, ideally in areas they have an interest in – this helps keep them motivated and learning as quickly as possible. In our mentor Trevor’s words: “If a business is confident you are going to stick around, they are more willing to put you in roles you are not [yet] equipped for. They can take a longer-term perspective. You learn your way to competency.”
The Alliance* invites us to imagine “a world in which managers and employees have honest conversations about each others’ goals and timetables; where managers and team members define jobs that match their values and aspirations; and in which even employees who move on to a different employer maintain an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship with the company… Mutual investment creates massive value for companies and for employees.”
Trust between the employer and individual builds over time, and if it’s sufficiently strong, the individual will discuss their plans to explore options outside the company with you as their manager before they approach other employers. Regular conversations are important to build trust, and as a rotation draws to a close, you’ll want to begin the process of working with your employee to define their next role at the company, before they start to look elsewhere.
In many ways, a follow-up tour is the ideal outcome for both parties. Both company and employee can leverage past investments. Extending the tour of duty for an employee who launched a product enables that employee to learn how to grow or scale the product, while allowing the company to exploit the initial market success without having to bring a new person up to speed on all that went before… An experienced employee can make rapid progress on a well-defined mission because he doesn’t require much of a ramp-up period. But the increased strength of relationship can also be leveraged in the opposite way. A trusted and trusting employee can tackle more strategic, longer-term missions.”
Together, the manager and employee should negotiate the transition period and lay out everything required from the employee to complete their assignment before rotating out. As touched on earlier, this especially includes the handover and/or succession plan: how will the project be delivered or the role be done once that individual has moved on internally or externally?
It’s also possible that the employee or the employer needs to end a rotation before the previously-agreed timeframe. In this case, the renegotiation should be collaborative. For example, the employee may get an amazing offer outside, or need to take long parental or sick leave, or be relocating for personal reasons. They should be able to make these career changes, but should also work very hard to ensure a smooth succession before leaving, perhaps even delaying leaving if necessary (and possible). Similarly, if the company needs to restructure or reorganise a particular initiative the employee is focused on, you as the manager should work very hard to ensure that employee can achieve the professional growth you’d agreed. And, the longer and deeper the relationship has been, the stronger the obligation on both sides to work towards an amicable transition.
Overall, a manager’s role is to facilitate career-building opportunities, while their employees’ responsibility is to take full advantage and grasp those opportunities to create long-term value for themselves. Sometimes, this long-term value will manifest most clearly later in their career after they’ve left. Mike Gamson, CEO of Relativity, said this about creating opportunities for his team while SVP of Global Solutions at LinkedIn: “During the years we share [together], we both win when they grow fastest”.
My follow-on article on rotation shifts focus from the corporate and managerial perspectives to what we as individuals can do to create our own career experiences, illustrating one example of professional development using my own career so far. Please let us know your thoughts on rotation by commenting below.
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