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Fresh out of school with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., Rowena Lee found herself in a job ordering supplies from vendors for L’Oreal USA, the cosmetics company. Often during the 17 months she spent in that position, she wondered how this logistics experience would help her advance in an engineering career.
Then, as part of her scheduled job rotation, she became a processing project engineer at a L’Oreal plant that makes a variety of cosmetics in Somerset, N.J. Lee, now 25, is responsible for making improvements to the equipment there and for determining whether the machines will still be adequate three years from now.
As it turns out, many of the skills Lee picked up in her first rotation are coming in handy in her second.
“My logistics background has been superhelpful,” she said. “A lot of things you pick up in the [job] rotations help you get to know the entire business and make better decisions.”
Lee is participating in a four-year rotation program for young managers. [Watch a video featuring Lee.] The program, about two decades old, has changed significantly over the years, according to Heather Gorzelnik, L’Oreal’s director of human resources and corporate operations. It started with one or two promising young people. Now it has 77, with about 40 more coming aboard during the summer of 2013.
The goal: to produce the next generation of company leaders with great technical skills and a hunger to learn and grow. The company says it is particularly supportive of young women pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers.
Two job-rotation program graduates have risen to the level of plant manager, and others can be found throughout the ranks of L’Oreal, said Gorzelnik. “It’s part of our succession-planning process,” she explained. Each program participant “is in a real job with a lot of responsibility. What they’re experiencing is very hands on.”
When Lee walks out onto the production floor sporting a lab coat, protective goggles and a hairnet, she studies robotic machines as they fill tubes with brightly colored lipsticks, the popular Baby Lips gloss and other products. Boxes are filled with lightning speed and whisked off efficiently to their destinations.
But although other employees might see well-oiled machines and be tempted to cruise through the workday, Lee is constantly looking for ways to improve processes. New products force her to adapt. And despite her busy schedule, she takes time to mentor another rotation program participant—just as she has been mentored during her time at L’Oreal.
Lee gains satisfaction from “the challenges you get every day. I crave the ability to learn things. I want to absorb as much as possible.”
Job rotations are not new, but they can be highly effective, said Gerald E. Ledford Jr., Ph.D., senior research scientist at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Low-level workers in job rotations can get “variety and perspective—they don’t get bored,” he noted. For managers, rotations typically are designed “to broaden people out and make them better able to move to the next level of management.”
He pointed out that in recent years middle-management jobs have all but vanished, so rotations for managers are more important than ever. Organizations are “so lean, developmental positions don’t exist,” said Ledford.
Some participants in L’Oreal’s job-rotation program manage projects; others supervise people as well, even though many, like Lee, are in their 20s and have never worked for another organization or managed employees before. The rotations tend to remain within one of four tracks—manufacturing, development, finance and supply chain—though some participants explore two tracks.
One of the features that has made the L’Oreal program so successful is its flexibility, said Gorzelnik. Participants who are put into a rotation that isn’t working out for them can change it, although efforts are made to “get them whatever they need to be successful” in that position.
Another significant feature is participant networking. All of the young managers come together periodically, in addition to meeting with senior leaders.
Job rotations “give us the tools we need and help us prepare” for management careers at L’Oreal, said Lee. “What I love about this is that there’s always more to learn.”
Steve Bates is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.
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