Imagine you are hiking the Grand Canyon. You have just hiked down one mile, to meet the river that created this canyon and cut through rock formed over two billion years ago. This natural wonder is rich in geology, ecology, history and culture. As you approach your destination, either the campground or Phantom Ranch Lodge, you eagerly anticipate a cold drink with ice. Just as you approach the river and hear its mighty roar, you have one obstacle remaining, a suspension bridge over the river.
There are two suspension bridges that cross the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Black Bridge, built in 1928, is the bridge connecting the South Kaibab Trail to the North Kaibab Trail. Hikers or mule riders who have descended the South Kaibab Trail will find this bridge has a wooden floor. Hikers who have descended the more popular Bright Angel Trail are led to the Silver Bridge, built in the late 1960s. Only hiker traffic, no mules, may use this suspension bridge, and the floor of the bridge is metal slats, allowing hikers the opportunity to look down and see the raging waters pass beneath them. (There are videos of both bridges on YouTube.) For some travelers, the thought of the suspension bridge at the end of a long day is somewhat unnerving. It is possible the person has never crossed a suspension bridge, walked over such a mighty river, or ridden a mule. The newness of the experience combined with just a little dehydration, exhaustion and sore muscles may cause a little anxiety. The key is to continue to focus on the other side of the bridge.
Now think of your onboarding process to your department or organization as a suspension bridge. Does that suspension bridge have a floor? How much anxiety does it cause? Is it wide or narrow? Is there room for a mentor to guide an employee over the bridge? How do we maintain and care for the bridge? How does it welcome people and present a first impression of who we are as an organization? And how do we empower and engage employees from the moment they approach the bridge?
While new employees will certainly provide a perspective of your onboarding process, they are not the only way to assess the value of your bridge. Through temporary assignments, established employees can also experience your onboarding processes. Temporary assignments have been identified as an effective strategy for recruiting and retaining millennials, as they provide varied growth opportunities. But temporary assignments allow a variety of employees to grow beyond the silo of their own department or division.
Assignments take employees out of their comfort zones, encouraging growth and self-reflection. Such an assignment may be an opportunity for an ascending employee to gain supervisory skills, oversee a budget or begin an initiative. It may be a great opportunity for a “Buddy to Boss” situation, where an internal candidate who has been promoted within the department can expand his or her supervisory skills with another team of employees.
Additionally, employees on temporary assignment can assess the suspension bridge to your team. The employee on assignment has a set point of reference from their home department. They have an experience to draw from and compare, favorably or unfavorably. They may be more candid with their perspectives since their tenure is temporary.
So how do you go about setting up such a rotation? First, partner with another division, department, or even another organization, for an employee rotation, with one employee rotating to the other department and another employee rotating into that position (a position swap). Or have an employee rotate into a vacancy. Second, work on priorities, goals and expectations for the rotation. Usually, such rotations are three to six months in length. Who will the employees report to? How will they complete their timesheets? Will they continue to meet periodically with their home department or supervisor? Will they weigh in on any long-term projects in the home department for continuity? Third, hold a competitive process to determine which employees will be able to take part in this opportunity. Fourth, outline the expectations with the selected employees, including transition strategies into the new department, transition strategies back to the home department and any deliverables.
Some questions to ask at the completion of the assignment may include: Is the group effective and transparent at inclusion, particularly in situations where the employee may have a different perspective? Are the employees in the new team open to the question “why?” or do they rely on “because we have always done it that way” and “we tried that before.”
Are expectations shared or do employees keep their heads down and watch how others navigate situations? For example, how do employees call in sick? Are they allowed to text to notify a supervisor they are out for the day? Are employees taking long lunches? Do they arrive late? Do employees offer assistance to one another and how do they respond when asked for assistance? Is the office a ghost town at four o’clock on Friday? Under what circumstances are office doors to be closed? Do all employees have the same rules and guidelines, or do managers follow an entirely different set of criteria? What is the overall culture? And what is the tone of morale? Also, and possibly more importantly, ask what the employees learned about themselves through the special assignment process. Ask how they grew professionally and what specific takeaways they will bring back to their home department.
Having a fresh set of eyes in the department-division may allow out-of-the-box improvements to be made or give a unique perspective to a particularly challenging task. This may help to move a project forward that has been stalled or put on a back burner. A new leadership style may help to engage staff in the department in a new, dynamic way. It may also help identify some areas that need attention in the department. Finally, it may help the rotating employees to be reenergized in their own work. Department or division rotations are not only good for the growth of the organization, they are fantastic ways to give growth opportunities to employees who may not have an immediate or obvious vacancy to aspire to on their career track. They get projects moving, invigorate staff and focus on inclusion.
While the suspension bridge is critical, the focus must be the other side of the bridge — the career in public service and the mission of the department. If we can’t create an atmosphere of inclusion as part of our culture, we jeopardize our ability to retain top performers.
For that reason, we need to evaluate our ability to create such a culture: one that starts with the first look at the suspension bridge, but continues to focus on what lies beyond the bridge.
Because if you focus on the metal slats, you will miss the majesty of the canyon and the power of the river.