What’s wrong with the following scenario?
MicroTech hires Jeff to be a product owner for the software interfaces that accompany the home automation hardware the company has been making for years. He focuses on his job and does what he’s asked, and he and his team do well avoiding any substantial delivery delays and producing a high-quality user experience.
He has his eye on a VP role one rung above him, and hopes that his work and strong results will make him the obvious choice when Susan retires in a few years.
It seems almost idyllic. However, underneath this thriving (and arguably efficient bureaucracy), there are cracks in the foundation.
What happens when Susan decides she’s not ready and stays on for another 5-10 years?
What happens when Susan leaves earlier than expected, and Jeff gets passed over having been deemed not quite ready for the greater responsibility?
What if there’s someone else more qualified for the VP role?
Jeff gets lost in the mix. Slowly but surely, his exciting career gives way to simply showing up and going through the motions with no end in sight. Ultimately Jeff, the once-promising new hire with seemingly limitless potential, must make a choice. Does he stay and wait it out, hoping that one day something new will open up. Or does he look elsewhere for the upward mobility that is now in question with MicroTech?
A current trend highlighting a long-term reality
If you’ve been paying any attention to business news this year, you know the answer. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the business world and accelerated a long-time trend toward great mobility (not lower loyalty) for employees.
The grass has always been greener on the other side; the only difference is, it is now far easier and far more acceptable to cross that threshold.
The problem of interminable employment (hiring someone for a role and keeping them there until promoted or they leave) is then more poignant but no more powerful than it has ever been. Instead, the effects are more sudden and, to an extent, even more visible.
And this is great news because for far too long, great employees have become trapped or at least stalled in dead-end career paths. The lack of movement has a numbing effect on both the individual employee and the collective as well.
Show up, do your job and go home is the norm. Keeping your head down is the surest way to retiring comfortably and hopefully on time. Rocking the boat would disrupt the delicate balance and threaten the one thing the employee can count on, their current paycheck. Dry and pasty meetings. Annual cost-of-living raises. And lack of innovation has become standard operating procedure.
With no clear destination and no new opportunity on the near (or even medium-term) horizon, it leaves us to protect what we have. Unstated but ever-present is the fear that we will lose what we have. Change is the enemy. True innovation is a risk we are unwilling to take.
How great companies lose their way
Ultimately, fear is how companies end up in Treadmill. An unwillingness to change and lack of innovation is how great companies lose their way.
It’s not because the CEO or executive team made some catastrophic mistake. While that makes for great news, the unfortunate truth is it isn’t that obvious. The big mistakes are visible. They give us something to fix, a challenge to rally around.
The fall from greatness I’m writing about here is not so much of a fall and more of a long, slow slide into irrelevance.
The unexpected source of the surprising solution
And one of the fastest ways to prevent, stop, and even reverse that slide is to use “Fixed-Term Postings.” Rather than letting your employees get swallowed up in the mundane and monotonous, fixed-term postings allow and even force you to keep things fresh.
This employment strategy could hardly be called an employment strategy with how infrequently it is used for employees. Instead, you are far more likely to see it used with contractors or vendors whose contracts have fixed-terms in the business world.
A more prominent example (solely to illustrate the mechanics) is government. I know, I know. How could the business world learn a less bureaucratic strategy from the government? Hear me out.
The President of the United States, the Senate, the House of Representatives (and this is true of most other legislative and executive bodies worldwide) serve on fixed terms. Imagine what our governments would look like were this not the case. Consider the single-party systems and decades-long authoritarian regimes some countries still endure.
Though it has its share of challenges, the government’s use of fixed-terms has been a remarkable tool for keeping things as fresh as possible in an otherwise stale and stifling sector.
By using fixed-term postings, you open your organization to multiple benefits:
- A mission mindset: You run a sprint differently than a marathon. Energy conservation, pace, and mindset all vary dramatically. Within the context of a strong culture, a compelling vision, and a clear but flexible strategic plan, fixed-term postings bring a much-needed degree of sprint mentality, a sense that we are on a mission and have no time to waste. There’s a healthy urgency. We move from “if it can wait, we’ll do it tomorrow” to “if we can do it today, let’s do it!”
- An enterprise commitment: Knowing our time in any role is limited, and we don’t have the same opportunity (or reward) for “protecting what’s ours.” The natural rewards bend toward the collective success of the organization. It’s far more fulfilling as well. One of the key drivers of happiness in our lives is making a positive impact on the lives of others. Fixed-term postings allow us to leave a position better than we found it.
- An abundance of fresh eyes: I loved hiring new employees and empowering them to ask questions throughout the company, recommend changes, and create progress. There’s something special about fresh eyes, the ability to see things without the baggage of knowing why they are the way they are, the ability to see how it could be better. These fresh insights are the foundation of innovation, and nothing generates innovation better than new perspectives.
- Employee engagement and retention: Remember Jeff? If he is like the average employee today, he will not wait long for that promotion. The average time spent with one company today is just over four years. How much longer would that be if, every three years, Jeff had a new opportunity to start a new journey, take on a new challenge, and learn a new set of skills within the same company?
- Cross-pollination of people and ideas: How many times have you called customer support only to find out you’re talking to the wrong department, and they can’t transfer you, so you have to call another number and start all over again? As organizations mature, they become more siloed, more vertically oriented, and less likely to work cross-functionally. Fixed-term postings force lateral movement throughout the organization, broadening the relational connections and deepening the capacity and innate draw to work together cross-functionally.
Fixed-term postings aren’t easy. They are inconvenient, even messy. But even the inconvenience and mess have the intrinsic benefit of keeping us agile and out of the Big Rut. They keep things fresh and exciting up and down the org chart. And above all else, they lead to the kind of innovation and creativity that ensure an organization will enjoy Predictable Success for a long, long time!