Rotations and Stretch Assignments

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Rotations are used in medicine (physician training) and in business (management training). We may think of them as predetermined periods of time during which someone is assigned a role in a functional area for purposes of learning and perspective. After a rotation, they have a more concrete sense of what that area is about and how it connects and contributes to a larger system of operation. 

Although larger organizations still use a rotation strategy for training, with the flattening and leaning of organizations in the 21st century, it’s become less common especially in small and medium sized firms. It’s been replaced by stretch assignments, i.e., when talented performers are moved from one area to another, or when a new hire is selected based on their “raw potential” despite relevant experience. 

But these bet-on-the-come strategies are less intentional and seldom serve the developmental purpose that rotational experiences were designed to address: A talented HR leader is assigned to Marketing to do analytical work that was quite similar technically to what he had done in HR. A strategy consultant is hired as an executive director to lead a turnaround in a not-for-profit organization. 

In both cases there was neither a predetermined duration, nor was attention given to supporting the candidate’s need to learn and adaptively develop in the role. So, the HR leader struggled and failed over the course of a year. The strategy consultant succeeded in achieving key milestones, but she burned out and had to leave the position due to the wear and tear of chronic stress and strain after two years.     

Who Failed and Why?

Having worked with both, but only after it was too late, I can tell you that neither of these individuals were the cause of failure. But both felt like failures. And it was management in both cases who suffered the greatest failure – they failed to learn from their experience. Maybe at some level they knew they had “blown” it. If so, it was not reflected in the way they handled things. 

I was called in as damage control by management in the first case, and by the executive director herself (at her spouse’s prompting) in the other case. And I think it was important that someone like me was brought. I only wish that I had been brought in before the assignment was made, so that could have helped avert an unnecessary experience of failure. 

Both individuals had most of the technical skills that were needed for their new roles. Both were bright, hard-working, and highly motivated to succeed. But in the case of the HR leader, he went through three different executive-level supervisors in 18 months. Highly visible issues were at stake in Marketing, and he encountered a radically different and highly political subculture. He didn’t have a chance. 

The not-for-profit turnaround situation called for creative thinking, effective analysis, and board-level communications, all of which the strategy consultant had. However, the role also entailed many hands-on, operational tasks with little support, which did not play to the executive director’s strength. Indeed, it wore her out – it was a turnaround-plus job. She hadn’t expected that. 

Unnecessary Harm and Recovery

Achievement-oriented professionals take their work seriously. They identify with the role and measure themselves by their impact and success. The healthier their ego, the less likely they are to blame others and make excuses for their struggles. They’re more apt to conclude that it’s about something lacking in them, that they’re not as good as they thought they were! 

Unravelling this harsh narrative of self-evaluation is difficult. And it’s painful, often producing depression and eroding self-confidence. That’s why, when you are about to hire or redeploy a very talented person, it’s foolish not to ensure that you are doing what you can to optimize their chances for success. In some cases, this consultation may cause management to recognize the risks and decide differently. 

But if management proceeds with the hiring or the deployment of in-house talent to such a stretch assignment, now they do it eyes open: “Is there room for adaptive learning, or is the assignment to urgent, failure too costly? What are the technical and non-technical requirements of the role, and how ready is the candidate to meet those requirements on day one? What support resources are needed?” 

Sounds simple, even obvious? Then why is it that these considerations are so frequently overlooked? It’s the same reason so many mergers and change initiatives fail? The results we want can cause us to push aside the inconvenient complexities of what’s really involved realizing those results, many of which don’t appear in a spreadsheet analysis or rational business-case argument for investment. 

Pay a Little Now or Pay Much More Later

It’s people who get things done. Every instance of human performance is “situated.” Success here does not equate to success there. Visible aspects of the role often overshadow other less visible but equally vital demands for the new leader. We are inclined to underestimate the time, resource requirements, and costs of achieving results. 

Management often inadvertently contributes to these errors in appraisal and planning by their belt-tightening insistence: “Go do it again. It’s your job to deliver a plan that affordable!” So be careful what you wish for. And make sure you give your most talented people the breathing space to learn, adapt, and thrive – they’re smart and motivated, they’ll use it wisely!