Casnocha: Create Alliances with Top Talent via ‘Tours of Duty’

By Roy Maurer Apr 30, 2015
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Ben Casnocha, former chief of staff of LinkedIn, gives the closing keynote address at the SHRM 2015 Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

SAN DIEGO—The traditional relationship between employers and employees is broken, Ben Casnocha told attendees April 29, 2015, during the closing general session of the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2015 Talent Management Conference & Exposition.

“It’s based on a dishonest conversation between the company and the employee,” he said. “The company talks about itself as a family, offering job security and training, but lays people off the moment stock prices demand it.” Employees are no better. “They show up saying, ‘I’m so excited to be here. I’m loyal for life.’ Then they leave the moment a better opportunity arises.”

This relationship is the fundamental disconnect of modern employment, said Casnocha, former chief of staff at LinkedIn.

He argued for shifting away from both the traditional family model of employment that promises a longtime investment and the polar opposite concept of treating employees like free agents. The family model is no longer affordable, but the opposite approach of treating every employee like a free agent doesn’t build the high trust and collaborative relationships necessary for innovation, he said.“We need to recapture some of the trust and relationship-building of the family model while acknowledging that the current economy for employers and employees alike demands a certain amount of flexibility. We need to carve a third way forward to characterize the employer-employee relationship.”


Casnocha explained how employers can attract and retain the best employees through the formation of alliances, an idea presented in his book co-written with LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh, The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).

Since we can’t go back to the old model of lifetime service at a company, Casnocha suggested building a new kind of employee value proposition, one “that both recognizes economic realities and allows companies and employees to commit to each other.” The solution: “Stop thinking of employees as family or free agents, and start thinking of them as allies on a tour of duty,” he said.

In an alliance, both sides commit to adding value to each other. “An alliance between HR and your employees is a relationship where two voluntary actors enter into a relationship characterized by mutual trust, mutual investment and mutual benefit.” Both companies and individuals need adaptability to succeed in the present business environment, he said. A bargain is struck: If the employee does great work for the company, the employer will help transform that worker’s professional career, even after they’ve moved on.

Casnocha explained that this is how you will get the most sought-after talent, what he calls the entrepreneurial talent. “They’ve got lots of options. And they respond best to this type of employee value proposition.”

Tours of Duty

Borrowing a concept from the military, where soldiers serve for set periods of time doing a specific task and then move on to something else, employees can benefit from going through a series of defined missions, or tours of duty, while at a company, Casnocha said.

“It’s not a legal compact, it’s an ethical compact. You say: ‘Over the next 2-3 years, you’ll be on this tour of duty to accomplish a key project. And as a company, we will invest in you to develop your career.’ ”

When the tour of duty comes to an end, the employee and the manager can come together to discuss the next project. “At the heart of the tour of duty concept is mission alignment between the employee and the company,” he said.

Alumni Networks

Employers know that their best people won’t spend their whole lives at the company. What about when employees that you’ve invested in leave the company? Is there a value in keeping that alliance alive? Casnocha encouraged human resource professionals to set up an alumni network and build this into the employee value proposition. If an employee successfully completes a tour of duty, they get invited to the network. “Lifetime employment may be over, but a lifetime relationship can and should endure,” he said. “You can co-opt them to continue to add value to the company, and you can continue to invest in them. To say that ‘You may only work here for a few years, but you’ll be an alum for life’ is a powerful message. ”

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.Follow him @SHRMRoy

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