Mix It Up: The Benefits Of Talent Rotation For Leadership Development

Published: Nov 07, 2016
Modified: May 20, 2020


Talent rotation is on the rise. According to a 2014 survey by McLean & Company entitled “Implement a Job Rotation to Engage and Develop the Workforce,” 55% of respondents said they would implement a rotational program “in the next two years.” Well, that time is now.

We spoke to Paul Falcone—HR consultant and bestselling author of 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (AMACOM Books, 2016)—to get his views on the subject.

AMA: What role does talent rotation play in leadership development?

Paul Falcone: Talent rotations can go a long way in improving team performance and communication with internal boundary partners. Rotations are also an excellent form of leadership development because they raise awareness and help emerging leaders gain a stronger grasp of operational flow. And while there is an “opportunity cost” to talent rotations because individuals are not contributing to their primary roles when on rotational assignments, the hard costs to the organization may be minimal, which makes rotations an excellent and fairly inexpensive way to build leadership acumen and bench strength.

AMA: How should it be implemented? Should the process be formal or informal?

PF: That depends on the size and structure of your company. If you’re looking for a short-term initiative to spice things up, generate new interest among leaders who may be feeling overworked or boxed in, then rotations can make for a refreshing change of pace. Rolled out as a quarterly initiative, you can gain quite a bit of “cross-pollination” in a fixed three-month period that allows your leaders the occasional freedom and creativity to experience other roles and parts of the business that add to their collective knowledge. Besides, it’s fun if everyone sees the program as an attempt to spark renewed interest in the organization and fresh perspectives to the way you operate.

On the other hand, if you want to build a formal leadership development program that exposes high potentials and other leaders to broader organizational considerations, then a more formal program may make the most sense. In that case, talent rotation would likely be one of several initiatives that your company offers to build frontline leadership muscle and bench strength. However, you’ll need to account for a more flexible operational leadership structure that allows participants to be away from their primary roles for extended periods, and provide backup personnel to fill the gap.

AMA: How often should it be conducted, and how long should each rotation be?

PF: Again, it depends on how you plan to structure the program. It could be as simple as having half-day job shadowing assignments so insurance adjusters can learn more about underwriters’ roles and responsibilities in approving policies and setting rates. Likewise, domestic staff accountants could partner with their international accounting counterparts to learn more about EU data transfer policies and restrictions. Or HR business partners can accompany field sales reps on customer visits to understand the nature of the challenges they face in the field every day.

One-off rotations like this can be fun and insightful, but they’re not true talent rotation assignments, of course. Larger organizations often have formal programs that may last a year to 18 months and that require multi-divisional and multinational assignments to truly learn not only the key aspects of the business, but the key players as well. Multinational corporations like consumer products giants and financial services firms have traditionally laid the path for such multi-year, multi-division, and multinational rotational assignments, typically preparing participants for the highest levels of leadership.

AMA: What is the best way of evaluating its effectiveness?

PF: While the costs for informal programs are minimal, expenses for larger, formal programs can build up very quickly. Paying relatively high-worth participants to spend a year to 18 months on the road triggers high payroll, travel, and opportunity costs that, depending on your goals in terms of leadership pipeline development and bench strength, may be well worth the investment. Formal programs done on a larger scale should demonstrate directly measurable results, including participant retention, performance review scores, promotion percentage into higher roles, and the like.

In comparison, an informal program done, for example, on a quarterly basis, doesn’t need to demonstrate a concrete measure of effectiveness. Instead, they focus on broadening exposure, internal networking, and opportunities for creativity and new insights in terms of revamping the workflow. Such programs could be indirectly measured in terms of overall leadership engagement, internal communication, and a greater understanding of the operation’s workings.

Generally speaking, intermittent rotational assignments are always beneficial in terms of sparking new ideas, breaking routine, and rewarding your employees by investing in their professional development. How many, and how often you offer a leadership development opportunity like this, is up to you, but you can generally expect a high level of leader appreciation from activities like this. As part of your leadership development toolbox, rotational assignments can go a long way in strengthening your frontline leadership muscle and succession planning strategies.