Tag Archives: short-term assignments

Leader Development: Beyond the Workplace

 

A recent conversation with colleagues at Taproot Foundation was a welcome opportunity for me to once again explore the leader development opportunities in people’s lives outside the workplace.

taproot-logoThe Taproot Foundation’s mission is to drive social change by leading, mobilizing, and engaging professionals in pro bono service. They work to match skilled volunteers with pro bono opportunities. But here is what I was most interested in: They also work with forward-thinking organizations to design pro bono programs that go beyond employee engagement to capitalize on the leader development and team building opportunities embedded in volunteer work.

Group of children at soccer practiceAlthough many of us are prone to compartmentalize our lives into work, family, community, and leisure domains, effective leaders have long been applying leadership skills and insights developed in one setting to the challenges encountered in other settings. I worked once with an executive who was focusing on working with his direct reports in more of what he called a teaching mode rather than a telling mode. He drew from his experience as a volunteer coach for his daughter’s soccer team to articulate what teaching entailed and adapted skills developed in that setting to the workplace.

In their research on the relationship between multiple life roles and effective performance at work, Marian Ruderman and Patricia Ohlott found evidence that experiences outside of work can provide the practical skills and psychological support that enhances leadership effectiveness on the job (Academy of Management Journal, 2002). Experiences as a volunteer, parent, neighbor, traveler, or hobbyist can enhance a wide range of skills, from selling a concept and planning events to resolving conflict and handling ambiguity.

Corporate Social Responsibility and Learning & Development functions in organizations are now collaborating to more intentionally leverage the leadership development potential in employee volunteer programs. What does leveraging this potential entail?

  • Recognizing the kind of stretch experiences that a volunteer will likely encounter—and the competencies such experiences develop. For example, these employees will be in unfamiliar settings with limited knowledge of how things work. To be successful in these settings, they will have to expand their network, be an agile learner, and develop comfort with ambiguity. Volunteers will also likely be working in a more resource-constrained environment—a challenge that can spark creativity and force the re-examination of assumptions. If volunteers go into the assignment knowing not only what talents they have to offer, but also what they can gain from the experience, then efforts to learn and grow can be more deliberate.
  • Designing pro bono experiences to target specific competencies that the organization needs to realize its strategic goals. For a number of organizations, the aim is more leaders adept at working in a global environment. Global pro bono programs are a way to give more employees a global leadership experience. These programs typically deploy multi-cultural teams to emerging-market countries to help organizations or government agencies solve problems. These short-term assignment expose participants to different worldviews, require collaboration across cultural boundaries, and deliver on-the-ground lessons in adaptation to local context.
  • Making pro bono work the centerpiece of a broader learning experience. IBM’s global pro bono program (Corporate Service Corps) starts with three months of preparation, including self-reflection and personal goal-setting, an intense structured learning curriculum, and virtual teambuilding. A CSC alumnus serves as the team’s facilitator. And after the one-month in-country pro bono work, participants have two months to reflect on and harvest key insights, and then share the experience and those insights with back-home colleagues. These elements of the program serve to maximize the learning gained from the pro bono experience.

Taproot Foundation has put together a useful Program Design Roadmap to help you start imagining and planning how you can integrate pro bono work and talent development in your own organization.

Most organizations find that they don’t have enough of the right kind of stretch experiences within the boundaries of their organization to meet their growing need to develop leaders. Pro bono work is one way of getting outside the constraints of those boundaries—in ways that energize employees and fulfill organizational aspirations to make the world a better place.

This post first appeared in November 2016 on The Conference Board’s Human Capital Exchange blog.

Short-Term Assignments, Long-Term Success

This article was originally posted on the Center for Creative Leadership’s Leading Effectively blog.

hourglassMany years ago as a young professional at CCL, I had a special six-month assignment as “assistant to the president.” I was the second person to serve in the role. The president had created the role to serve multiple purposes—to have someone dedicated to helping him with special projects, to keep him connected to those of us doing the on-the-ground work of the organization, and to provide a learning experience for the person taking on the role.

And it definitely was a learning experience. I got to see how things worked at the executive level of the organization, worked on major cross-functional projects for the first time, and learned strategies for dealing with the stress of tight deadlines and unexpected requests that would throw my plans for the day into disarray.  It was an experience whose lessons I drew on later when I took on managerial responsibilities myself.

I had not thought about that assignment in a long time. What brought it to mind was our recent efforts to learn more about what organizations are doing to better use experience to develop leadership talent.  Short-term stretch assignments are one of key development strategies that emerged. It’s simply not practical to rely on job moves to get individuals the variety of experiences they need to develop a broad repertoire of leadership skills.

Yet it was not just any type of short-term assignment that these organizations created. They targeted three types:

  • Cross-functional. Organizations need leaders who understand the whole business, the different perspectives that various functions and units bring to the work, and how to manage and integrate those differences. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their silos. If you are a high-potential manager at SAP, you get a notice every six months with a listing of special project assignments across the organization. If you and your manager agree that one of them is just what you need to move forward on one of your development goals, you can apply for that assignment. You may or may not get it because competition for some assignments is high. If you get the assignment, you temporarily leave your position and work fulltime for six months in some other part of the organization.
  • Strategic. Organizations also need leaders who can look to the future, dig into complex emerging issues, and see ways forward. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of day-to-day operations. If you’ve been doing stellar work at GlaxoSmithKline, you could get the opportunity to go to corporate headquarters in London  and work with a team of 2-3 other people like yourself (but from different parts of the organization) to examine and develop recommendations for dealing with a strategic issue.
  • Global. And organizations need leaders who understand cultural differences and can work with people around the globe. To develop such leaders, you have to get them out of their country.  If you work at IBM, you can apply to participate in their Corporate Service Corps. If you are lucky enough to get a slot in the program, you’ll join a team of up to 15 IBMers from around the world and travel to a developing country where you’ll do pro bono work for a small business or a nonprofit group to improve their organization.

These examples of short-term assignments are major organizational initiatives. They are often reserved for people who are expected to move up in the organization and take on broader leadership responsibilities.

However, we also found examples of short-term assignments that were on a more local scale and open to anyone who wanted to expand their leadership capabilities. Assignments that gave individual contributors in the organization a taste for supervisory work. Opportunities to shape an assignment that allowed people to spend 10% of their time in another function. Project posting systems that helped people find assignments outside their typical work.

One thing stood out about these efforts to create more short-term developmental assignments: if you took one of these assignments, you were not going to be left on your own to make of it what you could.  Because these organizations want to maximize their investment, they surround the experience with the things needed to stimulate and focus your learning—learning goals, coaches, peer networks, formal courses, feedback, and tools for reflection.

Short-term assignments fill an important niche. They provide the opportunity to do real work outside of your current context without having to commit to a job move (and all the upheavals that entails).  Is your organization finding ways to create these types of opportunities?  What examples, experiences, and insights do you have to share?