Making the Switch

Making the SwitchtcbrPDF normal

By Laurie Ruettimann

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Laurie Ruettimann headshotI live my life by the simple belief that you can never be overdressed or overeducated. Whether in a boardroom or a pharmaceutical facility, a comprehensive education—and a good suit—will go a long way toward making an effective and positive impression on colleagues, business partners, and suppliers.

And while it is passé, and possibly illegal, to micromanage your employees' wardrobes, you should be obsessed with retaining great workers and challenging your high-performing individuals to learn, develop, and grow over an extended period of time. Stagnation breeds mediocrity, which is why HR professionals endorse job-rotation programs—systematic and structured movements of employees from post to post within an organization—as a tool to help staff learn valuable critical-thinking skills and gain exposure to various roles and departments over a period of time.

Both academics and CEOs regard such programs as an effective way to expand a workforce's knowledge and abilities. A formal rotation program offers customized assignments to promising employees in an effort to give them a view of the entire business; these assignments usually run for a year and can vary in size and formality. While larger companies are more likely to run formalized rotation programs, the Society for Human Resource Management advises businesses of all sizes to consider implementing one.

But is that a good move? Should any company of any size invest in a rotational program?

Proponents of such initiatives argue that job-rotation programs have real benefits, especially for new recruits who emerge from top MBA programs with a solid education but little real-world experience. Giving high-potential rookies the opportunity to solve problems and tackle actual work—outside of their comfort zones in a rotational program—is touted as a quick and effective way to build competencies, character, and resiliency. For more seasoned workers who have a solid understanding of business, a rotational program may offer an opportunity to work collaboratively and develop new leadership skills.

While there's no doubt rotational programs can be fun and interesting, let's face it—there are certain skill sets that do not transfer well and would not improve with a rotational assignment. And when it comes to building character and resiliency, I think you're either born with it or you're not.

Neil Morrison, group HR director for U.K. and International Companies at Penguin Random House, believes that, indeed, many skills are not transferable. “Human-resources professionals who are sent into functional business units to learn the business with the goal of becoming better HR people are wasting their time,” he says. Temporary assignments meant to improve HR professionals—or help a business leader develop Sherpa-like powers over the workforce—are a fool's errand.

“When I interviewed for my current role five years ago, I described myself as a businessperson who understands HR,” Morrison says. “I was wrong. I am actually an HR person who understands business. It isn't semantics—it is an important yet subtle shift in emphasis.” (Leave it to a British executive to tell you when he's making a subtle and important distinction.)

When I ask Morrison if he values any rotational assignments—such as when a marketing executive is sent into an operations role to learn more about how relationships work and how business is accomplished—he scoffs, insisting that “it's pointless to send a hairdresser into a butcher's shop to learn to cut meat.” Or cut hair. “The value of rotational assignments is at best questionable and at worst the window dressing of collective organizational stupidity.”

But there are corporate professionals—inside HR and beyond—who are motivated and bright. They are interested in learning the ropes in functional areas outside of their natural expertise. They look to expand their range and dare to challenge the complexity of other departments. If a high-performing, high-potential worker asks for a challenge, wouldn't a temporary assignment of any kind enhance and improve intelligence and capabilities?

“I think an HR person who knows how business operates is of much more value than a newly certified HR employee who has never bothered to understand the ins and outs of an industry,” says Mary Faulkner, director of talent management at ClearChoice, a national purveyor of dental implants. “I think HR people would benefit from a rotation if they don't already have that knowledge and they really want to learn.”

Faulkner believes that participating in a good rotational program is akin to participating in a formal study-abroad program. Participants have an opportunity to learn a new language—and to take a much-needed career break to help alleviate burnout. She also argues that savvy workers understand the résumé-building power of versatility; a properly structured job-rotation program affords tremendous development opportunities.

Honestly, I think that even the most structured study-abroad programs are little more than extended vacations for privileged undergraduates, but having been a student in London during the mad-cow epidemic and the 1996 IRA bombing campaign, I know that an experience in a foreign land—even one in which the language seems familiar—can be eye-opening. A successful job-rotation program needs to be constructed so that the assignment is a stretch and brings value . . . but isn't so much of a stretch that you lose a good employee subjected to an overwhelmingly intense, stressful experience.

Faulkner believes that balance is possible. Employees must buy in to the concept of the program; expectations and goals must be aligned from the onset. And a rotational program could work well so long as it's designed in a way that benefits the business, builds better leaders, and doesn't jeopardize careers and outcomes.

But when it comes to the tricky act of sending a sensible and pragmatic HR lady into an operations or finance role, how do you structure an experience that allows for a quick and measurable transfer of knowledge without causing a baptism-by-fire scenario?

Faulkner suggests assigning a project that doesn't require specialization of skills. For example, I was once asked to participate in a cross-divisional, cross-functional team to review my company's legal obligations under the new Sarbanes-Oxley law. As the lone HR professional at the table, I worked with legal, IT, and finance colleagues to review the legislation, reconcile our employee handbook, and make recommendations on changes to our board of directors.

The temporary assignment was given to me not because I knew a little something about my job. It was given to me so I could learn how to manage multiple stakeholders and deal with resistance from people who were difficult and cranky. I used my basic understanding of human behavior, gained through years of slogging through HR, to win points with my colleagues and negotiate favorable outcomes on behalf of my team.

Ultimately, both Faulkner and Morrison are dedicated HR professionals who welcome all employees to learn, grow, and contribute in a concrete way that will aid and improve business performance. Whether it is through a rotational program or via other continuous-learning initiatives at the individual, group, or organizational level, no responsible HR leader would disagree that companies benefit when employees ask questions and push themselves to contribute in new ways.

But when HR professionals look to a job-rotation program to build real-world business skills, I think we shortchange the profession and take the easy way out. We hire adults. We should expect the best from the workers on our payroll. Every employee is responsible for asking questions when he doesn't understand something—from a P&L statement to an earnings report. Everyone has the chance responsibility to learn and grow by observing more experienced co-workers and business partners. And the Internet provides myriad opportunities to read thought-leadership articles and attend webinars on the challenges and complexities that businesses face today and beyond.

If your local HR representative cannot take initiative and identify her own strengths and weaknesses—and cannot develop business acumen without a formal job-rotation program—what hope does she offer your line leaders and executives who will need her help in developing and retaining your organization's best and brightest colleagues?

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The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.