Training

By Martha Frase-Blunt
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Ready, Set, Rotate! by Martha Frase-Blunt HR Magazine, October 2001

Sherrie Zapp is a long way from where she started 18 months ago. The University of Florida graduate, who holds a double major in finance and management, has just landed in Singapore, where shell work on special financial projects for a division of Pratt and Whitney. She hopes the experience will help her land a full-time overseas posting.

Zapp's journey to this foreign land began when she attended a university job fair, where she visited the booth for United Technologies Corp. (UTC) of Hartford, Conn. Although she was being wooed by firms such as Ernst and Young and the Harris Corp., UTCs rotational job program caught her eye.

The rotational aspect of the training was very attractive, she says. I also liked the fact that Id get a chance to touch the many products Id be helping to support. (In addition to Pratt and Whitney, UTC owns Otis Elevator Co. and other manufacturing and engineering firms.)

She adds that the varied experience the program provides has been a boon for her. Coming straight from college, I wasn't exactly sure what to do, not having had a real job before, Zapp says.

And she admits to being surprised by her own adaptability. It really becomes clear when you cross-train someone to replace you and you realize how much you've learned in a short period of time, she says. I'm thankful I learned the skill of being able to move on and seek new opportunities without fear.

Win-Win

Today, entry-level rotational training is being applied more widely throughout organizations, both formally and informally. Streamlined companies have to do more with less, so it makes sense to develop employees who can jump in anywhere they're needed.

Any remnants of silos that exist these days have to be knocked down for organizations to function more effectively, says Nicholas C. Burkholder, who heads Human Resource Engineering Inc., a Manhattan-based consulting firm affiliated with the Bernard Hodes Group. Rotational programs forge relationships that automatically do that.

He adds that rotational training is a wonderful way for newly hired college graduates and others to be developed within an organization.

Wendy McChesney, manager of UTCs financial leadership program, agrees. A well-structured rotational program can compress up to a decade of business experience into two years, she says.

She adds that rotational programs also pay immediate dividends to the divisions that host trainees, who frequently bring an original perspective, a new way of doing things. They also bring with them best practices from their previous rotations and a host of valuable contacts from other areas.

Rotating employees through on-the-job learning experiences also constitutes an important risk-management tool for employers: By spreading institutional knowledge around a company, its more easily retained when employees resign, retire or are laid off in numbers, as is becoming ever more common in these volatile times.

Welcome to Work Life

Typically, rotational training programs assign new hires to work for specified periods in various departments, business units or geographic locations. The programs usually seek to achieve one or more of the following goals:

  • Assess new employees interests and skills to determine their final placement.
  • Allow deep immersion into the organizational business and culture.
  • Acclimate employees to foreign environments.
  • Groom future managers and executives.

Formal rotational training programs commonly target new hires fresh out of college or business school. Students are recruited directly into the program even before they graduate.

The recruits are young; many have never held a corporate job and really don't know yet what it means to have a finance degree or an accounting degree, McChesney says.

Entry-level corporate rotational programs typically last for two years, during which trainees sometimes called associates move through three or four positions lasting six to eight months each. The starting salary in most rotational programs can be increased at a review following each rotation, or sometimes more often.

McChesney pre-assigns first rotations, which set the tone and quality of the experience. Thereafter, new associates give McChesney a list of six rotation preferences that vary by job type, subsidiary or location. She assigns each associate two mentors initially one a senior staffer and the other a more experienced associate.

At General Electric Co., a corporate veteran of rotational training, recent college grads and MBAs are hired directly into one of the company's seven rotational programs, not into a specific position. (The company's seven Leadership Development Programs include communications, engineering, financial, information management, operations management, technical sales and human resources.)

Over the course of the two-year program, GE trainees are transferred across locations and businesses, perhaps even out of the country. They earn a professional salary and can garner raises based on frequent evaluations by their direct manager or local program leader.

GEs trainees quickly find themselves challenged. Four rotations of six to eight months each, plus classroom instruction, provide trainees with intensive, accelerated experiences that it would take years to gather in a standard corporate career if at all.

Like GE, New York Life's rotational program takes two years to complete. The company's MBA Management Associate Program, which seeks to groom future leaders, attracts students from some of the country's top business schools, giving them a multifaceted look at the life insurance industry during three eight-month stints in various areas.

We also provide additional management training, say Nicholas Copulos, director of recruiting and coordinator of the program. The return on investment comes in the way our recruits are swiftly immersed into the corporate culture and our products. We hope these MBAs will become senior executives in the long term.

Keys to Success

Although rotation programs can provide many advantages, employers wont realize any of those benefits if they don't properly conceive of and execute these programs. If these programs are not done right, they are wasted, Burkholder says.

McChesney and Burkholder agree that program quality is one of the keys to successful rotations. (Another is trainee selection, discussed later in this article.)

To ensure quality, the programs goals should be clear, and the program should be aligned with business needs. Program directors should establish objectives that both trainees and managers understand and should assess those goals throughout the rotation.

Program directors also must obtain buy-in from management. One reason such support is crucial is that rotational training programs that target top graduates can be expensive. To attract the right candidates, we offer competitive salaries, plus a sign-on bonus that takes compensation to the low six figures, says New York Life's Copulos.

Another reason to obtain buy-in from managers is that rotational training programs wont go anywhere if line managers aren't willing to cultivate learning experiences for trainees. Managers must recognize how trainees can benefit their work units and must assign trainees real-world work.

For example, trainees in the New York Life program receive attention from senior management, the chance to work as part of a team on special projects and special access to CEO Sy Sternberg.

At GE, program participants engage in work that is real and challenging, says Mike Cairo, program manager for corporate recruiting and staffing services.

Its about development, not about witnessing or learning by osmosis. Our associates thrive best on active participation, getting respect for their opinions and not hitting limitations on their contributions.

Those looking for an easy ride won't be happy with GE's program. Participants are expected to perform and graduate on the same level as a masters program, says Cairo. New hires have an immediate opportunity under a mentor to begin working right away on stretch assignments that challenge their knowledge and skills in a team environment.

Participants know they wont be getting an easy assignment, says Cairo.

At UTC, managers also make sure to give trainees challenging assignments. No photocopying or making coffee, McChesney says. They are helping departments complete projects and solve real problems, and the managers appreciate it.

In fact, because managers compete for trainees, they have an incentive to give trainees real tasks. After training, these managers really want associates to come back to work for them permanently, so they are really competing to be the final choice, McChesney says.

But that's not the case in all organizations, says Martin Crowe, who is the president of TechWright Solutions in Westwood, Mass., and has set up rotational training programs for companies such as Alcatel, BellSouth Corp., Digital Equipment Corp. and National Semiconductor Corp.

I've seen scut work happen in computer manufacturing, the railroad industry, everywhere, he says. It happens when the manager doesn't have enough support within the program. The fallback position is to give trainees the overflow work.

But even when trainees have to handle mundane work, managers can create learning experiences, says Crowe. It's important to tell them why they are being asked to do this work, let them know what to look out for and invite them to use their fresh eyes to give pointers on how the job can be done better.

In general, rotational programs should enable trainees to complete at least one significant project and become a comfortable and productive member of the work group, experts say.

Companies that fail to provide real work for trainees may find that the entire program is a hindrance, rather than a help. If trainees aren't allowed to contribute, they're just disrupting the people who are doing the work, says Burkholder.

Selecting Applicants

Another key to a successful rotational program is installing a good system for selecting trainees.

At UTC, McChesney works with a team of college recruiters, identifying candidates on campuses and through incoming resumes. Scouts look for individuals who possess excellent academic records, proven communications skills and a team spirit and who have demonstrated their leadership skills on campus.

The number of individuals selected for the program varies each year, depending on company needs, notes McChesney.

Like UTC, the number of individuals selected for GE's programs varies each year depending on business needs and the staffing pipeline.

GE's Cairo looks for demonstrated energy and the ability to energize others; integrity and leadership affinity, he says.

We love people who enjoyed being president of their frat, or university IT club, or a United Way event, for example. We want those who buy into what they do 100 percent.

Were looking for people who are among the strongest academically in their school; they must communicate well, demonstrate organizational skills and work well in teams while still able to take a stand individually without sacrificing the project, Cairo says.

A Generation of Itchy Feet?

Do companies that offer rotational programs run the risk of creating a cohort of professionals who get restless after six months in the same job?

In a sense, that's what employers should want from every staffer, Burkholder says. Rotational programs demand adaptation and assimilation, and the truth is, everyone should have that today.

In fact, a professional who's experienced in a number of areas within a company is ripe for internal transfer and should be offered the opportunity frequently. Rotations can enhance retention, because when people are more versatile, they can fulfill more roles. When they need a change of pace, opportunities are immediate, right where they work, Burkholder says.

McChesney, herself an alumnus of UTCs rotational program, agrees wholeheartedly. By nature, our associates are more apt to move around. The program teaches you to accept and seek out change, and we make sure we give them the opportunity to explore new horizons right here.

The Next Level

Once trainees have completed a rotational program, what happens next?

At United Technologies Corp., trainees become analysts. They receive a list of job opportunities throughout the company and can meet with the appropriate managers before choosing. But usually they are already so tuned in to what's happening around the company that its not hard for them to make a decision, says McChesney. They give me their top three preferences, and we are usually able to give them their first choice.

Upon finishing GEs Corporate Entry-Level Leadership Program, employees don't determine their final assignments. There is a lot of discussion among program leaders as to where the needs are, and we try to match them with the desires and skills of the associate, Cairo says.

Rarely is an associate dissatisfied with his or her final assignment, because the entire program is intertwined with constant discussion about career, geographic and personal goals, and includes immediate performance feedback. Keeping the channels open is the key responsibility of program management; otherwise the investment is at risk for both parties, says Cairo.

At New York Life, trainees who finish the rotation program indicate a preference, and the company attempts to find positions they can join at the appointive officer level.

Andrew Frazier, the first graduate of New York Life's rotational program, is now an assistant vice president for investment policy and asset allocation. He cant say enough about how his rotations greased the wheels for his current work. (See Bridges That Last, page 50.)

The exposure I got was very significant, says Frazier. One rotation I did was in mergers and acquisitions, and now we deal with them very often--I am the liaison because I know the players, he says. A big piece of our job is communicating with senior management, and if you've worked with them before, inside their department, its much easier to do.

That's a primary goal of a strong rotational training program: development of a knowledgeable, flexible workforce. Trainees can continue to reap and sow benefits long after the rotation ends.

Its amazing how much information these trainees bring with them, Crowe says. Suddenly one of them comes in and starts talking excitedly about different procedures and ways of doing things. They build links and bridges that weren't there before.


Martha Frase​-Blunt is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va.
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