At an external networking event a few years ago, I talked to an up-and-coming MBA grad who told me about the rotational program he was in. He was scheduled to spend one year in one department, one year in another, and so on. I envied how he was being groomed.
Deliberately moving through different departments helps you build a wide base of experience and a diverse network. The formality of the program means that the frequent job shifts won’t be taken against you, as they might in an organization that values depth and specialization. Management development programs like that are essential for cultivating people with a broad understanding of the organization. Without sponsors or organizational backing, most people would find it difficult to shift from one part of the organization to the other.
Rotational programs and other leadership development initiatives tend to be offered only to high-potential people, where high potential is not only based on performance, but also velocity. When I was starting at IBM, my eldest sister advised me to find the fast track, get on it, and stay on it. While not entirely following her advice—I’d pick coaching people on collaboration over working tons of overtime on well-understood projects, even though the first doesn’t show up on my metrics and the second doesn’t—I’ve also nudged my manager about some of the development programs I’ve seen. I’ve volunteered for things like the Technical Leadership Exchange and the Take Two women’s leadership program. I read as much as I can, as widely as I can. I learn from people all over IBM.
Envy is a surprisingly useful driver as long as you don’t let it consume you. This reminds me of the invitation-only web development course I heard about when I was in high school. I wasn’t invited—me! and I’d done well in our programming competitions!—so I talked my way into it. It reminds me of how I envied the courses that students in other universities got to take, so I read through the online course materials and learned whatever I could on my own.
It’s not about the world being unfair, and it’s not about other people receiving opportunities that you have to make for yourself. It’s about looking around and saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea. How can I borrow part of that idea and make something for myself?”
Back to rotational programs. I don’t know what fields need to be set in my record for me to show up on HR’s radar (in a good way), but I’m not going to worry about that. I don’t have to wait for permission to learn as much as I can from other parts of this huge organization. I probably have the perfect starting point, actually. During my graduate studies, I learned about research. In Global Business Services, I’ve learned about development and consulting. In my Innovation Discovery engagements, I’m learning about marketing and sales. From our clients and experts, I learn about strategy, operations and finance. I help people in communications and learning and IT. I can take free online courses in almost any area. I don’t have the depth that comes from everyday delivery, responsibilities, and war stories, but I’m learning from people who do.
This matters because there’s tremendous value in being able to break down silos and work across organizational boundaries. The more we can reach out and tap the talent throughout IBM and the world, the more powerfully we can work. If we can learn from different parts of the organization without a formal rotational program, then that broader understanding becomes available to anyone who wants it. If we can influence and inspire without formal authority, then other people can learn emergent leadership too. If we can figure out this different way of working, we can share it with other organizations and influence the world.
I don’t have an executive sponsor or an HR program shaping my career path, but I have many mentors and role models, including some who take a chance on me and give me opportunities beyond my level. That’s enough to make a difference. The limiting factor here isn’t training. It’s my time and energy. There’s so much more to learn.
If you’re waiting for training—or an organizational blessing—look around and see what you can do with what you have. You don’t need a rotational program or a classroom course. Think about what’s really limiting you, and find out what you can do about it.
Thanks to David Ing for nudging me to think about this!