How to Start a Manager Exchange Program

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One of the best ways to develop a broad and deep set of leadership competencies is to move around in a variety of challenging and diverse jobs. The most successful leaders, especially general managers, tend to hone their skills by working in different functions, geographies, and product lines.

Even if a company does have the potential to move their high potential leaders around in developmental assignments, they don’t always do it. Why not? Without some kind of intervention or top-down process, it won’t happen naturally. Job changes, especially to new areas, are inherently risky, for both the manager as well as the hiring manager. Both may understand that these moves are for the long term greater good, however, shorter-term priorities always come first.

One way a company, or HR leader, can overcome this dilemma is to implement a “Manager Exchange Program”, or “MEP”. Here’s how it works:

1. Identify positions.

The Talent Manager, or HR Leader, works with senior executives to identify positions that could be filled with an MEP candidate. These should be positions that are developmental by design – small plants, small businesses, Assistant to the CEO, etc. The position may be opening up in the near future or a newly created role. You might set a target of one position per senior executive, or business unit. It’s helpful to have CEO sponsorship, in case some senior executive doesn’t want to play.

2. Identify candidates.

This part is a lot trickier. Candidates for an MEP should be of the highest caliber, truly high potentials being groomed for senior leadership positions. They should be at a point where they are ready and willing for this kind of developmental challenge. The fastest way to kill the program is to let someone into the program that some senior executive wants to eliminate.
An ideal candidate would be a promising leader that’s never worked outside of their home country, or a career engineer that needs some manufacturing experience, or a line manager that needs some staff experience.

Gather a list of names, along with brief bios and a summary of their development needs.

3. Match candidates with positions.

This can be an annual process, tied into the succession planning and development process, or it can be a regular monthly or quarterly meeting. The Talent Manager or HR Leader is responsible for gathering all of the responsible senior executives at the table and facilitating the discussion of who should move into what job. At times, the CEO may need to get involved to force a decision or override a resistant senior executive. Eventually, once the program gains some traction and success stories begin to emerge, the program takes a life of its own.

High potential leaders start asking to be on the list because they realize it’s a career builder. Senior Executives get more comfortable filling positions with “unnatural” candidates because they see what a top caliber leader, even with an initially steep learning curve, can bring to their business.

Keep the process as simple as possible. There should only be two confidential documents – a position list and a candidate list. Anything more than that means you’re adding too much bureaucracy and over complicating it. The focus should be on the discussions and true developmental moves, not filling out a lot of forms and checking off boxes.