One of the best books I read this year is The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age by Reid Hoffman. The core concept in the book is that there is no longer employment for life but there is still a way to build a win-win relationship between employers and employees. Hoffman and his co-authors suggest a tour-of-duty type relationship, where employer and employee agree to a short or medium term engagement with a defined goal.
The current reality
Hoffman begins by pointing out that in the at-will era (when employers can and do fire employees at their discretion), employees thus think of themselves as “free agents,” seeking out the best opportunities for growth and changing jobs whenever they get a better offers. He points to a 2012 study that found even though about half of employees wanted to stay with their current employer, most of them felt that they would have to take a job at a different company to advance their careers. Hoffman writes, “loyalty is scarce, long-term ties are scarcer, but there’s plenty of disillusionment to go around.”
Related to this point, employees’ trust of management is at an all-time low. One reason employees do not trust their employer is that the foundation of the relationship is built on dishonesty. When employees are courted, they are told about the fantastic long-term opportunities. When they answer interview question, they comment on how there goal is to spend their life contributing to the company. Both parties know this is nonsense but feel they must utter these phrases. It creates a relationship built on lies and a relationship without trust is a relationship without loyalty. A business without loyalty is a business without long-term thinking. A business without long-term thinking is a business that’s unable to invest in the future and thus one doomed to fail.
Tour of duty concept
A tour of duty is when the employer and employee mutually agree on a finite project, with goals for the employee’s contribution. It also includes how the tour of duty will benefit the employee. To create a fictitious example, say Uber wants to open the Las Vegas market to its service. When recruiting a VP, rather than pitching them on working for Uber for life, the hiring manager specifically lays out that the task will be a two-year project to penetrate Las Vegas. The employee will need to work with the legal team to counteract the local taxi companies and then recruit drivers. The candidate would learn how to lobby local governments and launch a location based tech product. Both agree that at the end of the two-year tour of duty, there may be another tour of duty at Uber that is mutually beneficial or the employee might use the skills he learned to help another company. For example, he may go over to Peapod to open the Austin market with the skills he learned at Uber. Uber benefits by having a successful launch in Las Vegas, and the employee is more valuable and has a great new opportunity. The important thing is both parties are honest with each other and they have built a mutually beneficial relationship.
The tour of duty is a way for companies and their employees to build a stronger, more profitable, relationship given the reality of at-will employment and free agency. The tour of duty is an alliance between the company and employee where they both honestly plan to add value to each other. The company is telling its employees that by making the company more valuable they will make the employee more valuable. The employee is effectively telling the company that they will help the company flourish if the company helps them flourish. The manager can speak openly and honestly about the investment the company is willing to make in the employee and what it expects in return. The employee can speak openly and honestly about the type of growth s/he seeks (skills, experiences, and the like) and what s/he will invest in the company in return by way of effort and commitment. Both sides set clear expectations.
The tour of duty allows companies and employees to build trust and mutual investment. It also preserves the flexibility that both employers and employees need to adapt to a rapidly changing world. It also allows you to build this trust incrementally, starting with small steps, thus relieving the pressure on early employee employer relationships.
According to the book, Hoffman employed this tour-of-duty strategy from the early days of LinkedIn. LinkedIn “offered an explicit deal to talented employees. If they signed up for a tour of duty of between two to four years and made an important contribution to some part of the business, Reid and the company would help advance their careers, preferably in the form of another tour of duty at LinkedIn. This approach worked: the company got an engaged employee who worked to achieve tangible results for LinkedIn and who could be an advocate and resource for the company if he chose to leave after one or more tours of duty. The employee transformed his career by enhancing his portfolio of skills and experiences. “
Tours of duty create trust
A critical benefit of the tour-of-duty model is that it creates trust between your company and your employees. While most current relationships are built on a foundation of ambiguity at best and lies at worst, during the recruiting process, when the candidates says they are looking to stay at the company for life and the company says they want to nurture the employee for their entire career, the tour of duty is realistic and straightforward about the relationship. Both sides are signing up for a mutually beneficial, albeit finite, relationship. The employer will have an employee who complete a key project or function, the employee will gain skills and experience that make them more valuable either to the current employer or others.
Moreover, a tour of duty acknowledges the reality of the current employment environment. While you may worry that giving an employee implicitly gives them a permission to leave, the reality is you do not have the ability or right to keep an employee from leaving. As Hoffman points out, “that power is simply a self-deception that leads to a dishonest relationship with your employees.”
There is another example that highlights the true honesty of the relationship. During the interview process, LinkedIn managers ask, “what job do you envision having after you leave LinkedIn?” This question helps them ensure that LinkedIn can offer a tour of duty that will advance their future career. It acknowledges that the employee might leave is actually the best way to build trust, and thus develop the kind of relationship that convinces great people to stay.
At SAS, the largest privately held software company in the world, management believes that its employees will have three or four careers over their working lives. The company wants them to have all of their careers at SAS. Each completed tour of duty builds the bond of mutual trust, and knowing when a tour of duty is drawing to a close allows SAS to begin the process of working with the employee to define the next tour at the company.
How long a tour
The tour of duty can be defined other by a finite term or a specific project. Hoffman describes three different types of tours, each with different requirements, but rather than rewrite the book I will focus on the core part of defining the term.
A tour of duty with a finite term provides sharp focus and a mutually agreeable time frame for discussing the future of the relationship. It gives a valued employee concrete and compelling reasons to “stick it out” and finish a tour. As Hoffman points out, “a realistic tour of duty lets both sides be honest, which is a necessity for trust.”
At Google, they prefer five-year tours of duty. This length allows a couple of years to learn, a couple of years to do the job, and a year to arrange the transition to the next tour or company.
Alternatively, a tour can on the completion of a specific mission. It is negotiated between the company and employee. The tour of duty framework creates a structured and explicit process, rather than vague and implied. The central promise of this type of tour is that the employee will have the opportunity to transform both his career and the company.
It is best to mix terms of the tour, between finite and project based. Different mixtures lead to different capabilities, which are suited to different uses. Tours with finite terms provide scalability by helping companies hire large numbers of employees into stable, well-understood roles. The standardized nature of these tours makes them easier to implement and recruit for, especially at scale. Terms driven by projects, which are transformational for the employee, provide adaptability by helping companies bring in the specific skills and experiences required.
Tours of duty help both employee and your company
An underlying principle of the tour of duty concept is that it makes clear to all parties how both the employee benefits and how the employer benefits. As it is beneficial to both parties, both parties need to invest in building and executing a successful tour.
For the employee, the start and end of a tour of duty is marked by changes and growth in their network, progress in their projects, and changes in their skills and opportunities. As the benefit is not simply for the company, employees, especially mid-level and senior, must actively be looking for potential opportunities to make a positive difference for the company and identifying ways they can invest in themselves to advance their own career.
The bi-directional benefits extend beyond the tour. When LinkedIn cannot retain a top performer, the company still tries to maintain a mutually beneficial alliance. Former top executives come back to speak to top LinkedIn employees to explain the benefits of undertaking a tour of duty at the company. In the consulting world, consultants often join the companies they are engaged with and may hire the former consulting company for new projects.
Keys to a successful tour of duty
The above shows the value and the high level structure of a tour of duty, but with everything success comes down to execution. The first key to implementing tours of duty effectively is alignment between the company and the employee. Alignment means that managers should explicitly seek and highlight the commonality between the company’s purpose and values and the employee’s career goals and values. Your company may want to launch new products, grow its market share, and expand into new markets. Your employees may want to take on new responsibilities, increase their capabilities, and grow their compensation. Effectively, both want to grow and win.
As always, when you look at the details, the alignment is not quite as strong. Perhaps your employee has a side interest in early childhood education, but the tour of duty does not involve that kind of work at all. The employee, though, may value autonomy and flexible work hours, which you can accommodate.
You need to make sure the alignment and alliance can last. Your task is to build alignment with regard to the employee’s specific mission objective, not his entire life. As Hoffman points out, “your company is not a family— you don’t have to unconditionally support your employees’ values and aspirations, but you do have to respect them. “
To align the tour of duty with your employee, you thus need to understand their core aspirations and values. Asking about an employee’s core aspirations and values may sound and feel awkward, but it is an important step toward building stronger trust and loyalty between employee, manager, and company. Also, do not expect them to know their goals, many people, especially early in their career, have not thought through their long-term priorities.
Once you understand their goals, you need to work together to build this alignment. This is a collaborative rather than top-down effort and needs a commitment both from the employee and the company.
You also need to realize that the process of aligning values can be a long one, and requires establishing a deep level of trust during a series of consistent conversations. Each conversation should build on the foundation of the previous one. You should meet one-on-one with each of your direct reports to discuss their core aspirations and values, and how these values fit with the company.
One core element to this program, and I am a huge proponent of open leadership, is being honest and open with your employees. Tell them the real situation that the company faces, your team faces, etc. This will encourage them to also be open with you and find a true alignment, not an alignment of what you are both saying but not feeling.
You need to start this conversation as early as possible. For new hires, define an employee’s initial tour of duty during the hiring process or, at a minimum, start the conversation during the process if the tour options are not clear yet.
For existing employees, defining a tour of duty can provide clarity and strengthen their relationship with the company and their contribution. Paradoxically, it can also help you retain the employee, as they move from a free agent mentality to a commitment to completing successfully the tour. To define a tour of duty, you and your employee need to determine what is the overall objective of the tour. You should come out with a clear, detailed, concrete mission objective.
Based on this objective, you should also set the employee’s expectations for the length of the tour (per my earlier conversation about term). Most simply, the tour should last just long enough to achieve this objective.
Measurement and feedback for success
It would not be consistent for me to write a blog post without showing how analytics can contribute to its success. You need to select metrics that are leading indicators for your company and project. Metrics such as revenue, retention, virality, page views, customer satisfaction, and the like can play a powerful role in evaluating performance within a tour of duty.
A successful tour of duty delivers results for the company for either quantitative or qualitative goals, such as launching a new product and generating a certain dollar amount in first-year revenues, or achieving thought leadership in a specific market category, as measured by references from industry analysts.
A successful tour of duty should have real and measurable impact for both the employee and your company. Success might include developing new knowledge and skills; acquiring functional, technical, or managerial experience to advance the employee’s career; and building a personal brand within and outside the company by accomplishing an impressive goal. One thing it usually does not include is an upgrade in job title, as that is a very superficial measurement.
Related, the traditional approach of quarterly or annual performance reviews makes little sense in the context of a tour of duty. The mission objective, not the calendar, defines a tour of duty. Thus, an annual review process does not provide nearly enough feedback. You should set up a system of regular checkpoints to assess how the tour of duty is going for both parties.
Setting up the next tour
Prior to the end of the tour of duty, you and your employee should define the next tour. In many ways, a follow-up tour is the ideal outcome for both parties. Ideally, there you can identify a mutually beneficial next tour, one that will help both your company and the employee. If there is not one clear, rather than fabricating a reason for the employee to stay you should work together to find a great new opportunity outside the company for them.
You should discuss a potential departure openly and honestly. This conversation includes helping him assess his options, even if those options include working at other companies. An honest conversation about outside options requires courage from both manager and employee.
Before embarking on a new tour of duty, either internal or external, the employee in question should also help recruit and train a successor to carry on the previous tour’s project. Perhaps the replacement is an even better fit for the next phase of the initiative. Succession planning also provides a more satisfying closure for the employee, who can complete his tour of duty knowing that the product, project, or initiative that he owned for several years of his life is continuing on in good hands.
How tours of duty can transform or save your team
The tour-of-duty concept is one of the most transformational management techniques I have come across. First, it addresses the inherent dishonesty in the recruiting process and also turns the process into one of mutual benefit. Second, it helps you focus your team on the tasks that grow the company but also grow the employee. Third, it helps you overcome situations where your company may not be that attractive to a candidate but the project is. By making the recruitment about the tour and not about the company, you are not asking the candidate to decide what company they like best. Finally, it provides a concrete methodology for growing an employee in the current work environment.
- The prevalent employment-for-life model is inherently dishonest, as employees do not expect to stay with one company for life and employers do not expect to keep the employee through all conditions.
- A new model is using tours of duty, where employees are hired or moved into positions where the goal is to complete a specific mission objective of the company, often for a finite time. This tour of duty benefits both the company, as they get a key objective fulfilled, and the employee, as their growth is factored into the tour.
- Tours of duty help build trust between your company and your employees, as it is an honest look at what both parties need to do to achieve mutually beneficial objectives.