Leadership optimize

Want to develop your staff? Try a "tour of duty"

Take high-potential employees in your department who may be in danger of burnout, or that need to round out their resume before moving into a higher-level position, and seek candidates in other business units in a similar situation, and arrange for a swap.

Whether you're a CIO or a mid-level manager in a non-IT business unit, staff development, motivation, and "talent retention" are probably some of your biggest challenges. Endeavoring to further all these goals without breaking the bank seems impossible, which is why I love the idea of a "tour-of-duty" program, which I first heard of from a CIO I worked with in the UK.

The term has military origins and refers to a situation where soldiers are sent to a specific geography or assigned to a particular post for a defined period of time. For the grunts, the tour of duty provides a "light at the end of the tunnel" for what might have been an arduous and dangerous battlefield assignment, and for those on the military equivalent of the "management track," it might provide a defined time period in a series of different roles, allowing a high-potential leader to develop into a potent commander.

In an IT shop, the idea is similar, although with far less risk of taking a bullet. Take high-potential employees in your department who may be in danger of burnout or who need to round out their resume before moving into a higher-level position, and then seek candidates in other business units in a similar situation and arrange for a swap. While many of us like to think that it would take years or perhaps decades to develop the skills we bring to our specific job, in truth a skilled individual can probably pick up the basics quite quickly and also bring a new and unique perspective to the role.

While there are some obvious costs to this type of program, they are fairly minimal, and most are soft, such as lost productivity as the new arrivals learn their respective role and the associated management and administrative duties to facilitate the transition. The benefits, however, are exceptionally compelling, the three largest being:

  1. "Saving" high-potential employees who might otherwise leave your company. If someone is stuck in what he or she perceives as a dead-end job and is looking for new challenges, a tour of duty is a great way to let that employee try something new, while keeping a talented individual within and contributing to your company. For the employee, he or she gets nearly all the benefits of a new job, yet retains all the familiar comforts of the current employer.
  2. Exceptional staff development. What better way to develop well-rounded IT talent than having some of your employees spend six months to a year in Marketing or Finance? Not only will their knowledge of your company's business grow, but they will also see your IT organization from the outside and likely bring back pointed and astute observations on how to improve it upon their return.
  3. Finding the ever elusive "business alignment." A constant CIO gripe is that people in "the business" don't understand IT and vice versa. Cross-pollinating IT and business unit personnel lets each experience life in the other's shoes, engendering a deeper understanding and respect for the trials and tribulations of each and sharing formerly compartmentalized knowledge across the organization.

Imagine the potential of someone who knows your IT organization intimately from the inside but has also consumed its services, and you will begin to see how exceptionally beneficial this experience can be not only for the individuals involved but for your organization as a whole.

Structurally, this type of program should not be wildly difficult to set up, and in a medium or large corporation, Human Resources should be able to both facilitate the administrative transition and provide expertise in helping tour of duty participants acclimate to their new positions. Some of the best HR departments will even help develop this into a well-structured program that can be a model across the organization. When the tour is complete, getting the participants in a room with full attention of key management should be the first order of business.

Perhaps the only risk to a tour-of-duty program is that occasionally a high performer from IT may discover that her true calling lies in corporate finance, although the chances are just as likely that an ace from sales ends up discovering an unknown passion for technology. In either case, a tour-of-duty program should be on every CIO's radar as a way to develop strong staff, spread new ideas, and develop a better understanding between IT and non-IT functions.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has...

14 comments
MomtoJustin
MomtoJustin

One company I was with had a prgram like this. I went to their factory for three days. It was the best three days I had at that company.

shamidjaja
shamidjaja

Great article. To make it even more effective and attractive, add some compensatory incentive to this plan. Monetary or other kind of compensation.

jforonda
jforonda

Though looking at the external groups to immerse them as alternative source to retain high performing staff we must not forget also that internally we could retain and keep them performing better by ensuring we have a clear and doable succession plan and technical/managerial laddering program that is well supported by top management.

RikDee
RikDee

I've seen this actually work in practice. Nice, meaty article while short and to the point. Great job, Patrick.

Regina55
Regina55

"Cross-pollinating IT and business unit personnel lets each experience life in the other?s shoes, engendering a deeper understanding and respect for the trials and tribulations of each and sharing formerly compartmentalized knowledge across the organization." The concept is great but I doubt that many business personnel come equiped with knowledge of Java or .Net or any other the other technical knowledge critical to an IT job. Do you expect to train the business people in these skills during their tour of duty?

Steve__Jobs
Steve__Jobs

sales are less likely to defect to IT because they will also need to master a large fundamental set of technical knowledge.

codybwheeler
codybwheeler

Interesting analogy. I've always thought cross training to be a great productivity booster for an organization, especially when it helps the different silos of a company understand one another better. The risk of people liking one area better than another is worth it. They may even be more productive elsewhere if they have a passion that lies in another area. Integrity HR Blog

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Cross training. The military does it on the assumption that Sgt. A may be killed or wounded and that Sgt. B or Pvt. C may have to assume his duties. B and C don't necessarily have to be trained to be as skilled as A (although that would be nice). The idea is for them to possess enough experience to get the job done, however ragged a fashion. In the civilian world, cross-training makes it easier when someone is out unexpectedly or quits with minimal notice. One way to accomplish this is to assign people to cover another person who is on vacation. If possible, that coverage should be the secondary person's primary duty during the training period. If the person being covered for is a remote site, the secondary person should go to that site. Say the remote site's primary will be on vacation for a week. Bring the secondary in a couple of days early so they overlap, but suggest the secondary minimize contact with the vacationing primary to emergency situations.

skicat
skicat

I have always been in favor or some sort of position assessment or "tour of duty" for not just up and coming employees but for veteran and senior employees. As I was working my way up the IT food chain I expected my next step from the Help Desk or Desktop Support was to the server or network side of things. But on the server side there can be many options (email, security, infrastructure, support) to choose from and each look more glamorous than the other. In addition, how often have you come across a seasoned systems admin who won't give you the time of day or thinks your idea is garbage because you are new and working on the desk? My proposal (and I have presented this to several executives at various companies I have worked at)... each tech gets two weeks (not at once) to train and/or shadow another tech from a different department. All seasoned/senior techs must work two weeks (again not in a row) on the help desk or desktop support side to remember what it is like to be on the front lines and interact with the end user. This way an up and coming tech can try his/her hand at a variety of skills and they can find their calling and it keeps the seasoned techs humble about their position and authority.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

while all my other support counterparts are in an office environment, and many of their users are developers. It's an eye-opener for them to cover for a week when I'm on vacation, where the direct labor workforce often is computer illiterate.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Youth, eagerness to learn, and the solid opportunity to do so was the compensation in my two grateful experiences.

Steve__Jobs
Steve__Jobs

What position in sales did they move from and what position did they move to in IT ? management? paper boy? PM ?

JamesRL
JamesRL

At a previous employer, we had help desk and desktop support staff join the other groups to get a feel for it. It was all in aide of promoting teamwork, empathy and giving a different perspective. But we also had staff from these groups shadow some of the other groups like the data center staff. James

santeewelding
santeewelding

I clucked with complete approval. Been there.