The "Tour of Duty" approach to management and hiring...

This concept popped up on the Masters of Scale podcast and hasn’t gone away. It's been gnawing at me, mostly because it fits with a lot of my hiring experiences. With hindsight, this metaphor has gone a long way to explain why some staff stay, why some leave and what time commitment to expect from them.

The best form of learning is writing - so
here we go. A crash course in Tours of Duty.

Let's start with the academic overview of the concept from Harvard Business Review.

What is a "Tour of Duty"? It's a mapped out journey for both employee and employer. By setting expectations up front, you can manage the intergenerational conflict that occur between people who tend to stay in jobs for longer vs people who do a series of jobs for experience. It is an ethical contract, not a legal one - an undertaking by both parties of "what you want to get out of this".

When you hire someone, the idea is to define their Tour of Duty with them - what is the mission they're signing up for and how long is it likely to last. This tactic helps manage expected outcomes of a job - which is the most important element of any employer/employee relationship.

An overarching principle in management, at least for me, is...

Outcome > Effort

But it's also the trickiest one to implement. Humans naturally want to be rewarded for effort. Businesses naturally only survive on outcomes. Outcomes almost always take longer than expected. If both parties understand this and deal with it upfront, a better career journey can be mapped.

With its combination of military-style "work missions" and some good geeky Star Wars character references - the Tour of Duty metaphor seems to make sense in this new world of work.

Here's a 4 minute video with Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh explaining the concept.

Critical to understanding Tours of Duty and applying them to your team management and hiring strategies is mapping the 3 types of tours. Here they are.

  • timeframe: +-2 years (unless you die/defect on the field of battle)
  • it's a set of experiences to add richness to a career
  • it's usually undertaken by entry-level or junior staff
  • it usually has a defined end (e.g. graduate programme, first role or when you just know you’re not going to at a company forever)
  • it's usually single mission, you're a soldier helping to get the company from A to B
  • here's a 2 minute summary video on Rotational Tours of Duty

  • timeframe: 2 to 5 years 
  • a personalised mission(s) that transforms both the employee and the business
  • from a business perspective, this could be: building a product, launching a project, entering a new market
  • has nothing to do with job titles, it’s about the mission, the outcome
  • could be multiple missions but preferably ends when the mission is achieved 
  • here's a 5 minute summary video on Transformational Tours of Duty

  • timeframe: much longer, often “for life”
  • your values and the missions of the business are aligned and intertwined
  • this is your core team - they'll have multiple missions in multiple roles in multiple departments
  • to retain them, the business needs to provide continuity, the ability to move from role to role and grow with the company
  • here's a 7 minute summary video on Foundational Tours of Duty

If you're into Star Wars, Reid makes the metaphor even easier to understand.

Princess Leia = Foundational. She's inextricable Alliance.

Luke Skywalker = Transformational. His ultimate journey is to become a Jedi, to get their he takes on the Alliance's fight.

Han Solo = Rotational. Until the end, he's a hired gun, a soldier on a contract.

Finally, if you like visuals, there's a great slide deck of the Tours of Duty concept here.

What Tour of Duty are you on? 

What Tour of Duty are your staff on? 

More importantly, are you on the same Tour of Duty?



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