5 simple methods for changing “tours of duty”
The past 18 months has been a roller coaster at work for most of us. As a co-founder of Tamr and investor in 100+ startups via Koa Labs I have spent a good chunk of the past few years keeping the hearts and minds of great entrepreneurs focused on their respective missions/visions.
One of the core values I encourage entrepreneurs to integrate into their culture is to “invest deeply in the professional development of their people.” I often say and deeply believe that one of the few advantages of any startup to compete for the best talent in an incredibly competitive market is by committing to the professional development of their people more passionately than other companies (especially large tech companies). Creating an unfair advantage in recruiting and retention based on a commitment to individualized professional development is possible at smaller companies while at larger tech companies an individual’s professional development can easily be lost in a sea of bureaucracy, politics and other priorities.
Over the past 6–9+ months as many startups have begun to adjust to the “new normal”, many companies have experienced “The Great Resignation” — a number of people leaving their companies in a short period of time. I have found that many entrepreneurs and leaders at early stage companies are faced with a series of organizational development challenges that I view as opportunities to build the character of their organization, reinforce their core values and bring a fresh set of diverse perspectives into their companies.
At the top of the list of opportunities I believe is the chance to reinforce a core commitment to professional development. Not just for those that are staying at their company — but even for those who decide that their next tour of duty requires them to move to a different company.
Many people at these early stage companies who believe in their company’s genuine commitment to openness and transparency, are approaching their managers and openly and honestly talking about their interest in their next Tour of Duty — even if that Tour might take them away from their existing company. (I endorse “Tours of Duty” as primary framework to think about career development; thanks to Reid Hoffman for his book The Alliance which sets up the framework so well). Unfortunately some of these early stage employees are telling their manager that their next tour of duty is going to take them outside of their existing company. Most often, the manager would prefer that they stay. But in reality — as most companies are experiencing — many people are coming out of Covid looking for a significant change. Their reasons are varied but regardless of the validity of their reason for leaving, each company and their managers are in an interesting position: how do we handle this dialog?
First and foremost — I have to say there is NO perfect company, role or tour of duty. There is one imperfect tour of duty after another. But over time, if an individual is intentional, thoughtful, ambitious and considers using the five principles below, they are are more likely to find that each tour of duty will build on and leverage the previous, and the tours will become more interesting and stimulating over time- enabling you to work at the intersection of the well known framework summarized in the chart below:
My response to “The Great Resignation” has been that this was a fantastic opportunity to help these individuals develop professionally. I have leaned into helping coach the people changing companies through the process of how best to leave one company in order to go to another to pursue their next tour of duty. We decided to coach the folks who wanted to leave on how to do so in the most effective and productive way possible. Over the years — I had made a lot of transitions and it became clear that there were some behavior patterns that worked well and I embraced the idea of clearly articulating these patterns and sharing them with the folks who were talking about leaving Tamr for their next Tour of Duty.
After a few of these discussions and some hard conversations I’ve landed on an approach that was consistent with my core value of “unconditional support for the professional development” and also lined up with the commitment to maximize value of my organization since one of the key principles in my approach reinforces that the individual minimized impact on Tamr thru their transition out of respect for the commitment to their individual professional development.
The core philosophy of the method that I propose below is the belief that change is the only constant and that the traditional post-industrial model of a “job” as something that one has for an extended number of years/decades with one company is fundamentally flawed (again, see “Alliances” by Reed Hoffman as great framework for how to think about work and careers going forward).
Embracing this model in your own career means that you will have many transitions from one tour of duty to another over time — and that you will need to become skilled at making these changes while minimizing the impact of those changes on the companies and people with whom you work. After all, you want the work (and relationships) you’ve invested in to live on after you have moved on to your next tour. Moving on constructively will support the development of your reputation as someone who created a lot of value and was able to transition to the next cool project or company with grace and without creating more work/effort for those around you.
So the 5 simple principles and behaviors that I recommend for those changing tours of duty are as follows :
- The best people are always being recruited and competent managers at the best companies assume that you are being recruited all the time. If you are young, don’t view someone knocking on your door with a new position as some form of validation. Instead consider it the first of many potential tours of duty that will be presented to you over time. Before you jump, consider if you are really interested in the next tour of duty being presented and separate any feelings you might have that are associated with being desired by a new employer or manager. For anyone who is a fan of the show “Mythic Quest” on Apple TV — the process that Poppy went through in considering leaving Mythic Quest for Cold Alliance 2 is a classic example of this dynamic. Somewhat cliche — but the right question should be “is the grass really greener?” and is this next gig going to get me closer to what I want to do in the long term. (see principle #3 below).
- Time matters — and a little more time to transition in the short term is highly valuable in the long term. If you are considering a new tour of duty — especially one that involves leaving one company and going to another — communicate as early and as frequently as possible with your manager. It can be difficult to have these discussions, but I’ve seen time and again that if you give your manager a heads up early and give them time to adjust, you will essentially enlist their support in helping you make the transition without negatively impacting other people on the team or your current employer. If the company you are working for cares about professional development and has invested in your development — giving them 2 weeks notice before you depart (the absolute minimum) feels like a slap in the face for the folks that were investing in you and working to help you build your skills and align your interests with the needs at the company. The extra 2–6 weeks that enables an effective and smooth transition of your responsibilities and commitments is a small price to pay for the loyalty and respect of the people on your team and the managers/leaders who were investing in you. One of the best examples of this in my experience was when my good friend and trusted colleague — Elliot Knudsen — was going to leave Tamr and move to be an early employee at DataBricks. I remember standing on the train platform with Elliot in Stamford CT after a conference. I had spent the previous year promoting Elliot as the “voice of Tamr” in the marketplace. Despite his young age Elliot was incredibly talented — not only crazy smart but also very articulate. He had desired a tour of duty that would enable him to exercise his skills as an evangelist for Tamr’s mission and vision of how data engineering was going to evolve over the coming decades and of course how Tamr could help those companies that were interested. Elliot had crushed his 12-month tour of duty — which of course brought many potential suitors to his doorstep. As we were standing on the train platform he told me he was going to DataBricks — but the next thing he told me was truly a role model for the behavior that I think works so well. He said that he wouldn’t leave until I was comfortable — even if it took 2+ months to transition. He told me how thankful he was for the professional development opportunities I had given him over the previous year and beforehand. He said that he respected my need to transition as gracefully as possible and knew that, because I had given him significant responsibility, the transition might be complicated. It was brilliant. I gave him a HUGE hug (as I’m prone to do) and told him how proud I was of him and how much I appreciated his maturity in handling the transition — that I knew that his next tour of duty was going to be spectacular and that I couldn’t wait to watch what he would do at DataBricks. By giving me flexibility and time he had shown me how deeply he respected my investment in him and how much he cared about Tamr not being negatively impacted by his decision to make a transition to his next tour of duty. It was awesome.
- Always strive to go “towards something new”. Resist a process and narrative focused on “moving away from where you are” — ie the negative aspects of your current tour of duty/team/manager. It’s incredibly dysfunctional to make a change that is driven by a need to “move away from something negative.” If you are unhappy with your current tour of duty, find something that inspires you to move towards before making a change. This enables the conversation and narrative to be positive about you moving towards something that is better for you instead of negative about your current situation. It’s a red herring to think that your departure is going to “change things that are broken in your current role/group/company” — if you really want to change things — you should provide open/honest feedback to your manager, peers, leadership — either directly or anonymously if that makes you more comfortable. The idea of “leaving a company to make a point about what needs to be fixed” is a fundamentally broken idea — it doesn’t work and most people will likely perceive your departure as negative because you’ve “given up” instead of trying to improve things. It’s much better for YOU to find your next tour of duty (inside or outside of your company) and set the narrative about your change in the positive context of how excited you are about your new tour of duty. Of course use your exit interview with the company to offer feedback and most companies are psyched to get the objective feedback as you are leaving — but don’t make this the primary narrative of your move.
- Carefully consider the timing of your transition. If you’ve recently made significant commitments that aren’t yet delivered as part of your current tour of duty or have recently been given significant responsibility, consider the impact on those around you of making a change at that time vs. waiting awhile. Per #1 above, the best people always have great opportunities. I have rarely found that passing on one opportunity prevents someone from having a successful, productive and happy career. If departing “mid commitment” or “in the middle of new responsibility” is going to have a dramatic negative impact consider that in the context of the upside in the new tour of duty. It’s often easy to under-value the negative impact in a situation like this and to over-value the bright shiny new tour of duty in front of you.
- The grass is ALWAYS greener. Full stop. No matter the situation — the proverbial grass is always greener in the next tour of duty/company. It’s cliche but true. If you are working for great companies that expect a lot of themselves and the people who work for the company, the challenges will always be large and intimidating, some level of dysfunction will always be present and the risks will always be large.
I hope that this is helpful — psyched for comments/feedback.