Stepping in to a new role

With secondments becoming part and parcel of the modern workplace, would you be willing to swap roles and try something completely new?  Noel O’Reilly looks at one HR director who took on the challenge

Would you give up the job of HR director of a large organisation to run another department for a year? The secondment could go horribly wrong if you were found unequal to the task, and there might not be a straightforward route back to your old job, particularly if your replacement makes a good job of it.

This is what exactly what Robert Cragg, who was head of personnel and development at Borough of Telford & Wrekin Council until September 2002, has been doing for the last year.

Cragg was seconded to the newly created role of head of customer strategy and communications, while at the same time leading another project undertaking a major review of IT. He also held on to the organisational development part of his HR director’s role. It was a brave move after having spent 15 years in HR at the council, and having only ever worked in HR roles.

His main task during the secondment has been to undertake a best value review of how the council communicates with its customers, which has involved a broad consultation with the public.

He is now writing up the results, and is likely to recommend as a preferred solution a new call centre to cover the council’s 16 core services and 70 per cent of customer enquiries. Cragg’s secondment has recently been extended for a further six months.

So why has Cragg made the move? “However much you enjoy your job, if you’ve been doing it for 16 years, you need a change – just doing something different is good for you,” he says.

Cragg’s experience could reflect a general trend. According to Liz McGivern, director of talent and performance management at career consultancy Chiumento, secondments are coming back into vogue in the 21st century workplace.

During the 1990s, a degree of scepticism surrounded the practice as it became associated with downsizing programmes, and the idea of ‘special projects’ and interim roles became seen as a way to occupy executives to whom the organisation had no genuine role to offer.

Now, says McGivern, the ’employability’ agenda where individuals seek to make themselves as employable as possible, together with the willingness of talented people to view their career as a series of projects rather than a lifelong climb up the corporate hierarchy, has made secondments a viable career development option again. In the modern employment context secondments cover job swaps, special projects, interim and change management roles.

The public sector has been particularly keen to embrace the idea. The Civil Service has launched the Interchange Unit to arrange secondments for people from the private sector into the public sector and vice versa. The Inland Revenue has a scheme while local government HR body Socpo is working with the CIPD to develop good practice in the area.

However, while secondments offer a kind of on-the-job development that few other career development experiences can, there are also dangerous pitfalls if they are not managed properly.

The consensus of the experts is that unless secondments are integrated into the business planning process, there are bound to be problems. If you are considering a secondment for yourself, or adopting secondments as a tool, it would be wise to take on board the lessons of the pioneers.

Benefiting the business

Telford & Wrekin may well hold a record for secondments. In the HR function, they are happening at all levels from personnel officer up to the top. Cragg’s new role has allowed his deputy, John Harris, experience heading the HR function. Meanwhile, other HR professionals have taken on roles leading major projects as part of the Government’s best practice review process.

The context that provided these development opportunities was the merging of two councils with different management cultures when Telford & Wrekin became a unitary authority in 1998. Other pressures include demographic challenges such as the need to build 1,000 homes a year, low unemployment in the locality and a young population. Secondments extend right to the top of the organisation with chief executive Michael Frater advising Walsall Council on how to respond to the recommendations of the Government and the Audit Commission in a recent critical corporate governance report.

For Cragg, the secondment has helped address that old bugbear of the HR profession: how to gain a better understanding of how the organisation relates to its external customers. “In personnel you can tend to be inward looking,” says Cragg. “You have a good understanding of how the organisation works, but if you’re in a job giving professional support you can lose sight of the public it is there to serve.”

His secondment as director of customer strategy was ideal for developing an understanding of this, and he aims to apply the lessons he has learned to HR should he return to his previous role.

“I’ve learnt over the years in personnel that it’s easy to develop policies because they’re a good idea or are the latest thinking – very rarely do you think about how this is going to impact the customer. Now there will always be that extra dimension.”

Lessons learned

A concrete example of how Cragg’s closer understanding of customer needs could influence HR policies is his new insight into the public’s desire to contact the council after 6pm when most services close for the day under current arrangements, or at weekends. Cragg may propose, for example, that there should be more flexible working to allow opening hours to be extended to 8am to 8pm and Saturday mornings.

Apart from the informal competencies Cragg has developed, particularly around project management, he has also acquired new formal qualifications, for example through doing the Projects in a Controlled Environment (Prince 2)course, run by the Office of Government Commerce.

Cragg has increased his employability. “I’m now, I hope, a much more marketable commodity. Before I had never done anything except HR,” he says. He also acknowledges that there is a possibility that his position could become permanent, another potential benefit of secondments.

Another member of the HR team, Marie Whitefoot, learning and development manager, has taken part in several secondments. In fact, Whitefoot moved into HR through a secondment, having originally been an environmental health officer. Her most recent secondment saw her managing a best value project, a key part of which was developing a new constitution for the council.

Her most recent secondment offered a range of development opportunities: “Project management is in itself a discipline – the rigour of managing a project with tight deadlines, project managing people more senior than yourself, negotiation and persuasion when you have no big stick.”

One of the challenges of secondments is managing the career development of the person who fills in for the secondee. “You’ve got to be clear what you expect that interim manager to do, whether it is to cover all of the responsibilities or only some of them,” advises Cragg. “You also have to be sure you give them enough resources and put some support in, otherwise they can end up doing their own and your job.”

Jeremy Webster, head of public sector consulting at Penna Consulting agrees and says that the organisation must think through what will happen to the person filling in when the secondment comes to an end. “It is important to be honest and open – if one of the potential outcomes is that the secondee or the filler wants to move on at the end of the secondment, this needs to be addressed at the outset,” Webster says.

Cragg supports the principle of managing the expectations of the interim. “Very often in this organisation a secondment leads to a permanent job, either the one the person is seconded to or they move on,” says Cragg. “You’ve got to talk to them about what they’ve learnt and about their career aspirations. You may have to accept that by giving them that bit of development you’ve made it more likely that they will go. John was always clear that there was a very real possibility of me going back.”

Cragg says the secondee must allow the interim to do the job: “Another thing that’s important is that the person who is seconded has got to let go. After 16 years you feel very possessive about a service.” He admits he found it difficult to let go for the first month.

John Harris, acting head of personnel, is clearly relishing the opportunity. “The thing I’ve liked about it is being able to pull together different aspects of HR,” says Harris. An example of this is the achievement of the Investors in People kitemark by 60 per cent of the organisation by April 2003, which HR drove by supporting IIP through information and advice online to line managers.

Secondments must satisfy the first principle of all good HR practice. “One the first things you need to do is make sure that the secondment opportunities are rooted in business needs, and are part of the business planning cycle and the strategic plan,” says McGivern at Chiumento. “This should be thought about at board level. Organisations need to see secondments as an option for addressing future people capabilities and requirements. That should drill down into the performance appraisal system so that secondments become a part of your talent development process.”

Forming an agreement

There is also a consensus that both the secondment and the return to the original role should be discussed and agreed in formal terms. McGivern says terms and conditions must be clarified: “Wrap it all up in some sort of secondment agreement. In some organisations this is done when someone moves off and when they come back.”

Sally Russell, principle consultant at organisational consultancy RightCoutts, agrees. “There should be a contract, and objectives set,” she says.

Webster at career consultancy Penna Consulting, says this also should be the case for the person filling the gap: “Treat that as a secondment too – be open all the way down the line.” And he adds: “Start with the end in mind – ask why you are doing this, don’t do it as a knee jerk response.”

Perhaps most important of all is ensuring that the new skills are applied when the secondee returns to their original role. Russell suggests that organisations should also have a “re-contracting” arrangement when the secondee returns to their original position, clarifying how the individual can use their newly acquired competence and knowledge and add value in their original role.

McGivern advises: “Make sure you shape the next project around the skills that are learnt. Make sure a performance and development plan is agreed with them so they have to draw on the new skills. Use the performance management scheme to bed down the new learning.”

But secondments are not right for everyone. Whitefoot, who says she has done more secondments than anyone else at Telford & Wrekin, outlines the attributes you need to succeed: “You have to enjoy change, have diverse and transferable skills including an ability to communicate at all levels, be flexible and be able to process information and draw conclusions.”

Comments are closed.