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Why ‘tours of duty’ are the best way to motivate and develop your staff

Let me ask you something.  When you offer someone a job in your company, are you thinking they’ll be with you for years?  A job for life maybe? Or at least a decade?  Where does this idea come from?

Maybe it’s rooted in the industrial revolution when people moved from the countryside into cities to do manual work.  Whole families worked in the same jobs. You still see this now—Prudential springs to mind.  One of the directors told me three generations of the same family worked in their call centre in Slough.

That’s unusual these days. Jobs for life are becoming less common.  But the way employees and employers interact, you’d think it was still true.  At interview, everyone knows they’re unlikely to be there forever – both you and the applicant. Yet all the language around recruitment is couched in these terms.  It’s a lie on both sides.  And that’s never a healthy way to start a relationship!

In last week’s blog, I discussed how newly appointed managers focus too much on getting tasks done.  They can’t help but dive in.  Instead, they need to think in terms of making themselves redundant by training up their team to take over. But what if you took this view for every one of your employees?  What if every role was time-limited?  And you were upfront about this from the word go? 

This is called a ‘tour of duty’ and it can be remarkably effective at motivating and developing your team. 

What is a ‘tour of duty’?

The founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, borrowed the phrase ‘tour of duty’ from the army.  He wrote about it in the book he co-authored with Chris Yeh, ‘Alliance – Managing Talent in the Networked Age’.  It’s a concept that Hoffman introduced at LinkedIn with great success.

A tour of duty is a two to four year chunk of time that you’re explicitly hiring people for.  Not a contract as such, but a time-limited period with a specific goal.

In the book, Hoffman and Yeh suggest that you avoid making it a contract but instead set a certain mission to be achieved in an agreed time period.  An ideal mission is mutually beneficial.  The company gains new products, customers, profits etc and the employee gains new skills, experiences, connections and so on.  As part of it, you could help the member of staff to build a network within your organisation, as well as create an alumni network.  So, at the end of the defined time period, they either move on to another tour of duty within your company or to a role outside your business. 

Not only is the tour of duty about the skills the employee needs to get to the next level, but it puts in place a structure to help them get there. 

Avoiding stagnation

Let’s face it.  Doing the same thing for too long can be mind-numbing. By taking this approach, you avoid the drop in productivity that inevitably results. When I think back to my career, there were jobs where I could have got out sooner.  At Glaxo, I hung around too long because they were paying for my MBA.  And in my earliest roles at M&S, I was Assistant Manager in three different stores.  By the end of the third, everything was getting a bit samey.  I could feel my motivation dropping.

High performing companies need A-Players who are curious and engaged.  They’re more likely to stay that way if you offer them distinct challenges or projects with a finite end.  It’s not about remuneration.  It’s about keeping them interested with new opportunities to learn something – and then re-commit. 

One of my Regional Managers at M&S said to me, ‘You know Dom.  I’ve been here for 20 years.  But every 2 years, I think, where am I now?  Where do I want to be?  Is this getting me there?’  Your staff shouldn’t be doing this in their head.  If they’re on a tour of duty, they can have these conversations with your company.  Then everyone can plan.  There’s nothing more frustrating than a good person resigning and you not knowing they were unhappy.  It shouldn’t get to that point.  Tours of duty create a high performing meritocracy where everyone’s pulling in the same direction as adults.

Open and honest conversations

Tours of duty are Theory Y behaviour.   By introducing them, you’re encouraging far more open discussions about expectations and status.  These grown-up conversations lead to more meaningful discussions about learning, development and future progression.  They’ll allow you to talk about the company’s expectations and also what the employee wants to achieve.  There’s no pretence that this person will stay forever.  Instead, the focus is on how they want to develop and grow. 

Our client, Macquarie Telecom, articulates this perfectly.  They deliberately hire undergraduates who are two years into their degrees.  The offer?  To make the final year of their degree part-time, spread over a two year period.  During this time, they have a fixed-term contract.  It includes micro-promotions, pay rises and the opportunity to take 16 industry certifications.  At the end of this tour of duty, the employee has finished their degree with two years’ experience under their belt and a fist-full of industry certs.  They might get another explicit two-year contract with Macquarie or they might move on somewhere else.

Unlike Prudential with its jobs for life, Macquarie wanted to avoid the hub of their business becoming white-collar slavery.  Unless you become a team leader, after two years, you’re out.  But their people have a timeline and they know from the beginning that they’ll either leave and get a job elsewhere or find another tour of duty in the Macquarie Group.  And they know this from the moment they join. 

Differentiating your employer brand

Attracting A-Players to your business is essential if you want to grow.  And to do that, you need to differentiate your employer brand from your competitors. At the point of interview, it needs to be clear that you do things differently. Offering tours of duty will do this. It’s not going to cost you loads of money. But how refreshing is it likely to feel for a new recruit? They’ll know why they’ve been hired and what they’re going to do for your organisation. And, more importantly, what your organisation will do for them.

Don’t pretend that you’re recruiting them forever.  Don’t raise your eyebrows if they want to know about their promotion prospects.  Too many managers think, ‘We’re only just hiring you and already you’re talking about the next job!’  Re-frame that thought.  Instead, tell them, ‘We’re offering you a tour of duty for two years as a Sales Development Rep.  In our experience, 80% of SDRs get promoted to Account Executive in 24 months’. 

McKinsey have perfected this beautifully.  Their message is ‘promote or out.’  You join them in a cohort for a fixed period.  If you’re not likely to become a partner, their business model is to turn you into a good leaver.  They will try and get you a job with one of their clients, so that you become McKinsey alumni.  You’re still part of the McKinsey club – you’ve worked really hard with them and, in return, they get you a great job somewhere else.  Open, honest and transparent from day one.

Creating a culture of continuous development

Too many companies miss the opportunity to spell out to their new recruits what’s in it for them.  Tours of duty will give you that opportunity.  Be explicit. You can create something that feels bigger than just the monetary value of the contract. 

After all, your company is likely to change in three years anyway.  Do you really want your people stuck in the same roles?  Why would you want to hire someone with no ambition?  Someone who’s happy being an Accounts Clerk three years from now?  For every employee, you’re saying come in, be great and do amazing work for us for three years.  And then go and do something else with the skills and knowledge you’ve gained.

This culture of continuous development can be deeply embedded into your company.  I’ve done it in my coaching business, Monkhouse & Company.  My new recruits arrive in the full knowledge that this is a stepping stone to something else.  I’ve taken on school leavers for 15 month apprenticeships.  They know they’ll need to find another role at the end, either within my business or externally.  So when I talk to them about their progress we can have a frank discussion about whether they’re getting what they need for their next role.  This builds honesty and trust – two essential qualities of high performing businesses.


Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here.

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