How to Start a Manager Exchange Program

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By Dan McCarthy. Management & Leadership Expert

Dan McCarthy is an expert in leadership and management development. For over 20 years Dan has helped thousands of leaders and aspiring leaders improve their leadership capabilities.

Dan took over the Management site in April 2014 from John Rey, a management expert who wrote many of the articles found on the site.

Published 7/18/2015

You may have heard of an old reality show called “Wife Swap ”, where families would exchange wives/moms for a week and have to get used to entirely different environment and styles.

Well, how about if organizations were to implement a “manager swap” program as a way to learn to lead in different environments and with different styles?

One of the best ways to develop a broad and deep set of leadership competencies is to move around in a variety of challenging and diverse jobs.

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The most successful leaders, especially general managers, tend to hone their skills by working in different functions, geographies, and product lines.

General Electric is best known for this kind of a general management leadership development model. They’re able to do this because they are so large, and have so many different businesses all over the world.

Why not? Because without some kind of intervention, or top-down process, it won’t happen naturally. Job changes, especially to new areas, are inherently risky, for both the manager as well as the hiring manager. They both may understand that these moves are for the longer term greater good, however, shorter term priorities always come first.

One way a company, or HR leader, can overcome this dilemma is to implement a “Manager Exchange Program”, or “MEP”. Here’s how it works:

1. Identify positions

The Talent Manager, or HR Leader, works with senior executives to identify positions that could be filled with an MEP candidate.

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These should be positions that are developmental by design - small plants, small businesses, Assistant to the CEO, etc… The position may be opening up in the near future or a newly created

role. You might set a target of one position per senior executive, or business unit. It’s helpful to have CEO sponsorship, in case some senior executive doesn’t want to play.

2. Identify candidates

This part is a lot trickier. Candidates for an MEP should be of the highest caliber, truly high potentials being groomed for senior leadership positions. They should be at a point where they are ready and willing for this kind of developmental challenge. The fastest way to kill the program is to let someone into the program that some senior executive wants to get rid of.

An ideal candidate would be a promising leader that’s never worked outside of their home country, or a career engineer that needs some manufacturing experience, or a line manager that needs some staff experience. Gather a list of names, along with brief bios and a summary of their development needs.

3. Match candidates with positions

This can be an annual process, tied into the succession planning and development process. or it can be a regular monthly or quarterly meeting. The Talent Manager or HR Leader is responsible for gathering all of the responsible senior executives at the table and facilitating the discussion of who should move into what job. At times, the CEO may need to get involved to force a decision or override a resistant senior executive. Eventually, once the program gains some traction and success stories begin to emerge, the program takes a life of its own. High potential leaders start asking to be on the list, because they realize it’s a career builder. Senior Executives get more comfortable filling positions with “unnatural” candidates because they see what a top caliber leader, even with an initial steep learning curve, can bring to their business.

Keep the process as simple as possible. There should only be two confidential documents – a position list and a candidate list. Anything more than that means you’re adding too much bureaucracy and over complicating it. The focus should be on the discussions and true developmental moves, not filling out a lot of forms and checking off boxes.


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