LinkedIn Founder: Sign Up for a ‘Tour of Duty’

The lifetime job guarantee is over. Everyone knows that. But what’s replaced it? Are all of us destined to join “Free Agent Nation,” with employees constantly on the move between companies while companies hire and fire based on the latest economic gyrations? There has to be an alternative, because the prevailing arrangement ill-serves both parties, writes LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman (with coauthors Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh) in the latest Harvard Business Review.

Today’s laissez-faire arrangement means that although employees have a natural incentive to stay adaptable and marketable, the most entrepreneurial of them end up taking their talents elsewhere, while employers reap some cost-savings but gain little in terms of innovation and adaptability, they write. What’s needed is a “new compact,” they argue, in which both employee and company acknowledge the likely impermanence of their relationship while seeking to build trust and investment anyway:

As allies, employer and employee try to add value to each other. The employer says, “If you make us more valuable, we’ll make you more valuable.” The employee says, “If you help me grow and flourish, I’ll help the company grow and flourish.” Employees invest in the company’s adaptability; the company invests in the employees’ employability. As former Bain CEO Tom Tierney used to tell recruits and consultants, “We are going to make you more marketable.”

The authors cite Hoffman’s own LinkedIn as an example, where he set the initial employee compact as a four-year tour of duty, with a discussion at two years. If the employee “moved the needle” on the business during the four years, the company would help advance his or her career — ideally at LinkedIn, but it could also mean a position elsewhere.

A tour lasting between two to four years is ideal, they write, because that time period tends to sync with a typical product-development cycle, “allowing the employee to see a major project through.” This sort of arrangement works better than typical retention programs, which are saddled with fuzzy goals and fuzzy timeframes that essentially ask the employee to commit to the company without it making a commitment in return, according to the authors. A tour of duty, on the other hand, can serve as a personalized retention plan “that gives a valued employee concrete, compelling reasons to finish her tour and that establishes a clear time frame for discussing the future of the relationship.”

Ideally, tour of duty agreements with key employees will include explicit terms, focused goals and clear expectations. When possible, they write, the agreement should include giving the employee a shot at a “breakout entrepreneurial opportunity” that might involve a new product, reengineering an existing process or “introducing an organizational innovation.” I think this is an intriguing concept that that’s based on a core reality — impermanence is here to stay — yet codifies a mutually beneficial arrangement in which employee and employer make a (time-limited) commitment to one another. Be interesting to see if this gains some traction. Of course, it’s also aimed at highly specialized talent — what about the rank and file, who may not be superstars but with whom you could not run your organization?

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