Tours of Duty and Job Half-life

Alliances, tours of duty and the half-life of a every job

I spend a good chunk of my time coaching young people who are working at start-ups, either as founders or early employees. I love talking to people about their projects and their career development in context of the insane risk and ambiguity of early stage projects. The best moments are always those when people have experienced radical success or radical failure  (more often the latter rather than the former). There are a few patterns that I think are becoming ubiquitous and probably worthy of a blog post. After reading Reid Hoffman’s book The Alliance I was inspired to write up some thoughts on professional development as the primary tool for retaining the best people – which I believe is a core principle of next-generation high performing organizations.

Reid clearly articulates the new contract that is emerging between employees and employers. I won’t recount what Reid says – instead – I HIGHLY recommend that you read his book – it’s now at the top of my reading list. Reid’s view is consistent with how I believe coming generations of high performers will engage with organizations – both for profit and non-profit. The framework of “Tours of Duty” is a fantastic articulation of how I’ve seens successful leaders manage and retain their best people at both large companies and start-ups.

Tours of duty require three things: a mission, a specific time constraint and a team. Ideally the time constraint is measured in months, quarters or, at the most, a small number of years. Let me discuss each of these:

Mission

The best missions are those that have a tangible and measurable benefit. I’m not talking about the usual corporate-speak missions – but rather the mission that a person and a small team can take on and is a call to action and often a call for significant change. Great examples of start-up missions for specific people:

  • “Acquire our first 10 customers”
  • “Ship our first commercial product release and in the process satisfy the requirements of our first 5 customers”
  • “Acquire our first 2,000 users”
  • “Create a product offering that has a repeatable sales model”

At large companies there is a HUGE amount of effort and resource that goes into setting objectives and trying to measure people against those objectives. Often these corporate HR driven exercises are just that: form-based exercises in checking boxes on some HR persons administrative agenda. One of the problems that this creates is that it sucks the enthusiasm and emotion out of the mission. The best missions are those that inspire emotion, commitment and passion.

Time Constraint

I have always said that I believe that any position at any company should have an explicit half-life. This is in explicit contrast to the post-industrial model of work – where you are just filling a spot on the proverbial assembly line and hoping that the assembly line doesn’t shut down either because of lack of demand or some macro-forces. This old model sucks the urgency out of people’s work and in the process much of their emotional commitment to their objectives. Having a mission and a time constraint to achieve that mission is crazy empowering and energizing.

There is a tremendous amount of 3rd party validation for the fact that most people in the modern workforce find their work unfulfilling/unrewarding and not much fun. I think that one big part of this “lack of fulfillment” problem is that most people and their managers are using the post-industrial model for engagement in their work. Injecting urgency and mission into peoples work creates emotion and expectation – most high performing people welcome this urgency and inspiration. Low performing people are often those that have been lulled into a sense of complacency or forced into a post-industrial assembly line model for their work – I’m hopeful that Reid’s book wakes some of these people up – it’s NEVER too late to pick up a mission and some urgency and go to work – and it’s most rewarding when you do so with a great team.

Team

Putting the usual sports, military, rugby cliches aside, most significant missions – especially those executed with urgency – require teams of people to work together closely. Start-ups and most high performing projects are a team sport and embracing this, regardless of how tempting it might be to focus on pure individual contribution, is essential to the success of any mission. Perhaps most importantly,when you either succeed or fail in your mission, you’ll do so with colleagues, partners, friends who can celebrate with you or console each other. Everything is better with team.

Regardless of where you are in your career – I strongly encourage you to read The Alliance and to go into work today and ask yourself what tour of duty you are on and if you can’t answer that question – grab your manager/boss/partner and figure it out immediately. Life is too short and times are too good right now to miss out on doing important work that has an impact on other people.

In my work as a leader I’ve worked hard to practice “retention through professional development.” This starts by working on the schedule of the individual and the mission on which they are working. The best, most talented people in the world have lots of options and can make money working for many different people/companies. The primary tool that you have as a leader and manager at a company is to provide people with better opportunities to develop professionally than they could get elsewhere. If your people believe they have better professional development opportunities working with you, they will stay. If they don’t, in all honestly, they should probably go where they can find the best professional development opportunities. As Reid says in his book, you should probably encourage them to do so. The timeframe and context in which you manage these missions is what is required by the mission and the individual, not some artificial annual schedule.

Providing people with the best professional development opportunities almost always boils down to Tours of Duty – packaging something that is essential to the success of your organization into a mission and timeframe that a person can take as their own and pursue in the interest of creating value for the organization and in the process develop their own skills.

It’s easy for me to identify people who have been on tours of duty in the past – they describe their accomplishments not in context of companies and titles – but rather in context of the missions that they were on and their success and failure in those missions. You see this all the time in job interview when a mission drive candidate is asked about their most recent experiences:

Mission Driven

“I led a team that built the first release of a software product that is used by more than 5,000 companies and millions of end-users.”

vs.

Traditional

“I was the director of engineering for a Fortune 1000 technology company.”

It is a simple distinction – and relatively superficial – but it’s a good early indicator. Mission driven people want their next mission and are going to measure their success or failure by pursuing a meaningful mission. This is consistent with the definition of professional “tours of duty” – where one does not have “a job” but rather is on a tour of duty and pursuing a mission. Even if the mission is more exploratory – it still has a beginning, middle and end. The idea of people having “jobs” without mission is the source of radically unproductive behavior in large companies – where people are institutionally encouraged to

Now I’m the first person to admit that work is called work for a reason. It’s hard – however – I also believe that it’s the obligation of each of us to discipline ourselves into being mission driven and to ensure that you always have an explicit tour of duty – so that you don’t fall into the trap of mindless, missionless work. Even the most routine of jobs can be in-context of an overall professional development mission.

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3 Responses to Tours of Duty and Job Half-life

  1. Pingback: Adaptation and Contrast Effects | mrodosky

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    As an author, it’s very gratifying to read a post where someone really “gets” the ideas of the book and expands on them. I love the distinction between the how the mission-driven and traditional candidates differ in how they describe their work.

    I believe that far too often, people mistake the label for the reality. “Product Manager” is a convenient job title, but it tells me far less than I want to know about a job candidate. Tell me about your work, your mission, not your job!

    Thanks for the awesome post!

  3. Pingback: Simple Truth: Happy People, Healthy Company - Tamr Inc.

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