How to Win at Details & Rotational Assignments
Since the hiring freeze, I’ve received a version of this e-mail at least once a week: “Kevin, I just saw a really cool detail at Agency/Office X and wanted your thoughts about it before I talk to my boss about it.”
Managers are exploring different ways to increase their team’s capacity during a time when hiring isn’t an option. To be transparent – I’m trying to do the same thing. I’m proud that my team is constantly being asked to do more because it means we’re driving value for the organization – but not only have we not been able to increase our capacity, we lost some employees to promotions (they were well deserved) and were unable to back-fill before the freeze.
The increase in the interests for details is a logical next step, but it isn’t always the right answer. As someone who has been on multiple details, managed people on details, and mentored a lot of employees exploring this opportunity, I wanted to share with you the thought process I go through. Details can be a win-win where the team is able to get more done and the individual receives a great experience, but it is the responsibility of both sides to design the right experience. Here is how I structure the conversation:
- Do you know what type of work you’ll be doing? – be specific. I have seen a lot of details that are extremely broad in scope. This is great to generate interest from a broad and diverse set of candidates, but it needs to become more specific before a decision is made. I have seen (and unfortunately experienced) broad statements during a detail that sound really exciting, but without a plan, it can take a while to get into a rhythm. That’s ok for a new hire, but when you’re only on detail for 4 months, that is valuable time you can’t get back.
- How well do you know the organization? This is a critical piece to reflect on when combining with the type of work you’re being asked to do. If I’m going on detail to work on communications for an organization and don’t know anything about the organization, how can I possibly be expected to succeed? I can be the best writer in the world, but without context, it makes it extremely hard to accomplish my tasks without a lot of support. This can create a scenario where the detailee is no longer growing capacity, but shrinking it. Make sure you are capable of doing the work you’re being asked to do – and recognize this is more than just a functional question.
- What are you going to get out of the experience? Details are a great way to “test drive” a potential job, gain a new perspective, or develop a skill, but you need to make it count. Most managers aren’t going to give you a chance to go on multiple details in a short period (remember, the current manager is losing a person during this time) so you need to make sure this is going to be worth it. If you don’t think you can succeed or are worried you may not get a good experience, you may want to continue to explore other opportunities.
Everything you’ve just read may sound like common sense, but I’m finding that these steps are being skipped in the current environment and managers are just looking to increase the size of their team without thinking if it will actually solve capacity issues for the tasks they are being asked to perform. If the detail isn’t structured correctly it ends up being a net-negative. You end up spending too much time onboarding and working with a short-term employee, lower your capacity, and the detailee has a bad experience.
So what does a good detail look like? While I’ve seen different structures succeed, there are some things that I’ve learned most good details have in common:
- Both sides know what success looks like. Each side should know what the other side is hoping to get out of this short term engagement – and those success areas need to align.
- There is a work plan. Yes, this can change and evolve, but you should have a fairly specific idea of the work the detailee is going to do and ensure that it is realistic for the situation.
- The Detailee has a project they can own. It is hard to come to a new organization. There is a lot to learn to be a productive team member, but usually there are some independent projects someone can own which require less upfront knowledge or context. Ad-hoc projects and support with other team members are nice to provide a variety of experiences, but there are going to be down-time when those opportunities aren’t always available – so always have an independent project for the detailee to fall back on.
- Make sure they feel they are driving value for the organization. There is nothing worse than going on detail and feeling like you’re just doing busy work or being given the least important jobs that nobody else wants to do. Ensure that the work plan links to driving value for you and them. They should be able to reflect back on their detail and be proud of their work and understand how it impacted the organization.
I have experienced amazing and not-so amazing details. Part of the responsibility is on the detailee to ensure they receive the right experience, but there a huge incentive for the manager as well. A bad detail can derail a manager’s productivity and prioritization, but a good detail can provide an amazing experience while bringing value to your team, your organization, and your mission.
By Kevin Richman is the Chief Relationship Officer for Young Government Leaders (YGL), a non-profit that is 100% run by volunteer government employees passionate about developing the next generation of public sector leaders. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @kirichman.
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