Speeding Up Rotations and Internal Movement for Development, Retention, and Profit (Part V)

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment in Dr. Sullivan’s series. Here are Part 1,Part IIPart III., and Part IV.)

In this part of the series on job rotations and stretch assignments, I will highlight three key tools or approaches that rotation program managers can use to make an organization’s job rotation program more effective. These approaches include: 1) the critical elements of a well-designed individual job rotation; 2) tips for increasing employee participation in the program; and 3) a checklist for assessing whether your organization is a good “fit” for implementing a job rotation or stretch assignment program.

Not all rotational assignments turn out to be great experiences, and a poorly designed experience might be more than just a waste of time; in the extreme, it might even damage someone’s career. The key to ensuring that your employees have well-designed assignments is to identify the elements of a great assignment and to use those elements to help design all subsequent assignments. Every organization must determine on its own what a “perfect” assignment is, but I have compiled a list of elements or factors that can serve as a starting point.

Critical Elements in a Well-Designed Stretch Assignment or Job Rotation
When designing an individual job rotation or stretch assignment, you should include the following structural and content elements in order to make it a more impactful experience.

Structural Elements

  • Pre-assessment — prior to the rotation, the rotatee goes through a formal assessment process in order to determine which areas need to be strengthened during this rotation.
  • Input — the employee (rotatee), their manager, and the supervisor of the rotation are all consulted about their needs and interests.
  • Goals with metrics — the goals of the assignment are clearly spelled out, prioritized, and agreed upon by all. The metrics to measure whether each goal was met are also agreed upon in advance.
  • Rotation plan — the rotation or assignment has a written plan. That plan outlines the skills to be enhanced, the scheduled rotation “stops,” the major activities, the deliverables, and a detailed timeline. The factors that excite the rotatee are emphasized and any potential “frustrators” are minimized. The plan includes an opportunity to abandon the rotation or assignment if the goals are not being met.
  • A learning plan — a written plan is compiled outlining the knowledge and skills that will be gained and the problems or opportunities that you will have an opportunity to address.
  • Exposure plan — there is a plan outlining the opportunities that the rotatee will have to have their work exposed to key executives, customers, peers, and managers of other business units.
  • Two-way communications — rotation contains pre-scheduled meetings and opportunities for two-way communication with the rotation supervisor.
  • Accountabilities — the deliverables of the rotatee and the responsibilities of the supervising manager and permanent manager are all clearly spelled out.
  • Duration — the length of the assignment is long enough to allow unrushed learning but not so long that the assignment becomes repetitious.
  • Flexible elements — the rotation design includes flexible elements so that both the duration and the content can be adjusted to fit the changing needs of the rotatee in the business.
  • Periodic feedback — mechanisms are agreed upon in advance to provide periodic candid feedback.
  • A mentor is provided — in addition to the rotation supervisor, a mentor or coach is provided.
  • Sufficient resources are provided — the rotatee is provided with sufficient budget and resources, so that they have a reasonable chance of successfully completing the assignment.
  • Strategic impact — the assignment problem or opportunity will have a significant strategic impact.

Content Elements

  • Opportunities for the rotatee to work with key individuals have been prearranged.
  • A chance to lead — the rotatee is provided with an opportunity to lead a team or project.
  • Decision-making — opportunities to make significant decisions are outlined in the rotation plan.
  • Technology and tools — the rotatee has an opportunity to use the latest management approaches, tools, and technologies.
  • An opportunity to innovate — the assigned problem or opportunity is designed in such a way to allow creativity and innovation.
  • Opportunities to travel — when appropriate, the assignment provides opportunities and sufficient resources for travel.
  • Post-assignment opportunities — the range of potential opportunities that will be available to the rotatee after successful completion of the assignment are spelled out (i.e. an opportunity to permanently stay in the role, promotional opportunities, “return” opportunities, and possible “next” development opportunities).

Although job rotation and internal movement programs can be effective in any organization, the impacts will be greater and be achieved faster in organizations with certain characteristics. If you’re trying to determine whether your organization is a prime candidate for developing a new or updating an old internal movement program, I recommend that you use the following checklist to help make that determination.

Organizations that are likely to benefit the most from sophisticated job rotation and internal movement programs display a majority of these characteristics:

People Management Factors

  • Low internal hire percentages — if most of your positions are filled externally through recruiting, an internal movement program can help shift that ratio.
  • A weak leadership development function — if you are constantly facing a shortage of developed leaders or if your leadership development function is weakly supported and poorly funded, you are an ideal candidate. If only a small percentage of your leadership development is “on the job,” a job rotation program can help.
  • Weak recruiting — if your organization has a weak employer brand image or it has difficulty recruiting top talent, having a “talked about” internal movement program can really help.
  • High new-hire failure rate — if new hires frequently fail because they have a hard time adapting to the culture, then speeding up internal movement could help by exposing new hires to more situations, one of which may be easier to connect with.
  • High turnover rates of top performers — if you have identified the reasons that top performers are leaving and they include a lack of learning, growth, and career opportunities, you can significantly improve retentionrates by increasing internal movement.
  • Slow best-practice sharing — if there is a slow rate of benchmarking and best-practice sharing between business units, a rotation program can have a major impact.
  • Workforce productivity — if your firm’s average revenue per employee is significantly below last year’s or the industry average, internal movement program might help increase productivity.
  • Low rates of innovation and change — if your organization operates in a fast-changing environment but it is known for its slow rate of innovation and its resistance to change, improved internal movement could help significantly.
  • High “college hire” frustration rates — if your recent college hires are frustrated or leave at a high rate, a rotation program for your interns or college hires might help.

Geographic Dispersion

  • Dispersed facilities — when organizations have multiple facilities spread across large geographic areas, there are obviously fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact. This can decrease cooperation, communication, and understanding between the separated units. A job rotation program can help minimize the impact of silos by creating peace brokers with cross-silo experience.
  • Global reach — in addition to the distance separating them from headquarters, the different cultural and economic environment that international facilities experience can lead to an “us against them” mentality. Rotation can be used to help squelch such notions.
  • Remote work — if your organization has a significant percentage of your workforce working remotely, the rotation program with remote capabilities can have a significant impact.

Organizational Factors

  • Larger-sized organizations — the larger the organization and the more diverse the business units, there is a lower likelihood that your employees will be aware of the appropriate opportunities to pursue in other business units. As organizations get larger, they become more siloed and less agile.
  • Diverse business units — if your organization has diverse business units which produce significantly different products and services or that operate in different parts of the business cycle (startup to commodity business) then job rotations can help you increase best-practice sharing amongst them. In the same light, if some business units are growing rapidly while others are shrinking, the redeployment of employees might significantly improve the impact of your talent.
  • Isolated overhead functions — if your overhead functions are given lower priority and there is little or no movement of employees from overhead functions into line business units, then the organization is likely to be helped with this program.

Political Factors

  • Political infighting and posturing — if your organization suffers from significant political infighting, high rates of bureaucracy and “turf wars,” you are an ideal candidate because improved internal movement can make your organization “boundary-less.”
  • Silos and empire building — if your organization is well-noted for individuals who over time build “empires,” then your firm is a good candidate for job rotations, because rotation programs help to break down organizational silos. If your organization is well known for strong internal politics and hoarding information in order to build power bases, your firm is a great candidate for an internal movement program.
  • Managers hoard talent — if your managers act relatively selfishly because they are not rewarded based on overall corporate results, then they are likely to hoard or shelter any talent they hire or develop. In the same light, if you have a large number of “bad managers,” speeding up internal movement will likely have a high impact by minimizing a rising stars contact with them.

Even if you successfully excite managers about participating in job rotation or internal movement programs, you still must identify ways to excite individual employees so that they’ll want to participate. It’s important to realize upfront that many employees are reluctant to participate because of uncertainty or fear of failure. Some of the approaches that you should consider for increasing employee participation rates include:

Educate and Reward Them

  • Show the impact — show them the average impact that participating in rotation programs can have on their career, pay, job security, and rate of promotion. Provide a list of the many benefits that can accrue to employees in your educational materials.
  • Reduce the fear — show them the high success rate of job rotations. Survey employees periodically to identify their fears and provide answers to counter each individual fear on your company’s job rotation website.
  • Team impacts — show them how their current team will benefit from their expanded contacts, increased skills, and better understanding of other business functions.
  • Educational events — hold periodic in-person and online educational events that describe the program, and answer “frequently asked questions” that potential participants have. Also consider providing information that they can give to their family in order to answer any of their concerns or questions.
  • CEO — encourage the CEO and senior managers to talk about the program and to highlight how it helps both the company and individual.
  • Rewards — provide recognition and small bonuses for participating in the program. Make program participation part of the employee’s performance appraisal process, bonus formula, and promotion criteria. Also consider rewarding managers and their teammates for superior program participation rates.

Provide Help

  • Alumni mentors — provide a list and contact information for other employees who have successfully completed job rotations and encourage them to talk to each other. Develop social network groups, wikis, online forums, and listservs to facilitate communications between employees.
  • Report participation — post-program participation lists so that other employees can see who is participating and to get an idea of some of the projects and assignments that others have undertaken.
  • Post available assignments — post a list of current and past assignments to give curious employees a sense of what kind of learning and development assignments are available.

Provide Flexibility

  • Start with part-time rotations — in order to encourage full participation, provide short-term rotation opportunities for participation in small assignments and projects. Give them a small taste of the program to encourage them to accept other more extensive assignments.
  • No-fault divorce — for noncritical assignments, allow employees to drop out early if they find the assignment doesn’t fit their needs.
  • Mid-course correction — for noncritical assignments, provide a midpoint reassessment so that the rotation can be restructured to better fit the company’s and the employee’s needs.
  • Develop their own — allow high-potential employees to propose their own unique assignment or rotation that best fits their needs. In addition, you should give employees and their current manager significant input into any rotation assignment.
  • Prequalify employees — provide a process where employees who may be interested in a future rotation can be preprocessed and prequalified, so that they can quickly choose an available assignment when they decide they are “ready.” Also consider allowing employees to select the “start time” for non-mission-critical rotations until it better fits their current work load.
  • Remote assignments — work with managers and leadership development to provide a number of assignments and rotations (including global assignments) that can be done 100% remotely, in order to encourage participation by those who can’t relocate or travel.
  • Buddy participation — when it’s feasible, consider letting an employee participate in an assignment with a coworker.
  • No ties — allow employees to participate in the leadership rotations and assignments without an absolute requirement that upon completion they accept a promotion. This option can alleviate the fears of employees who feel that they’re not ready for leadership roles.

Identify Potential Concerns

  • Employee involvement — periodically conduct employee surveys and focus groups to identify potential program problems. Where feasible, involve employees in the design of the program and subsequent rotations to address these issues.
  • Postmortems — conduct postmortem assessments of your rotations and assignments, in order to identify and fix any problems with the process.
  • Union participation — in situations where unions might encourage employees to resist participating, educate union leaders and solicit their input into the process.

Next week, Part Six of the series will highlight some additional tools and tips that you can use to improve your rotation program.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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