Use the Tours of Duty Concept to Attract and Retain Entrepreneurial Employees

August 6, 2014

This is an excerpt from Reid Hoffman’s latest book – The Alliance. According to Reid and his co-authors, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, the 21st century employee-employer relationship has transformed dramatically and the companies that will win in this new age are those willing to adopt a new career management framework. That framework is an alliance where employees invest in the company’s adaptability while the company invests in employees’ employability by commissioning them on finite yet transformative mission assignments or “tours of duty.”

Introduction to Tours of Duty

How did David Hahn go from a twenty-three-year-old with no business experience to one of the most sought-after executives in Silicon Valley? The answer is the unique way he structured his nine years of working at LinkedIn. Over four distinct “tours of duty,” Hahn transformed the company and his career.

His first tour was as a junior business analyst; his last tour was running all of LinkedIn’s monetization products as a vice president. Each time, with a differ­ent manager, he scoped out a mission objective that led to long-term benefit for both sides. For the com­pany, it shipped dozens of key products under Hahn’s stewardship. For the employee (Hahn), he acquired the managerial experience he needed to fulfill his longtime aspiration to become a successful company.

As a manager at LinkedIn, Hahn was also explicit about tours of duty with his team members, encour­aging them to rotate to new tours of duty within LinkedIn so that they could gain operational experi­ence across multiple areas. Hahn did this despite that the fact that many of his team members were per­fectly happy within his group. He saw it as his duty to help them grow. This seeming contradiction—regularly changing roles in the context of a long-term relationship—is the essence of the tour of duty framework.

. . .

The phrase tour of duty comes from the military, where it refers to a single specific assignment or de­ployment. Soldiers will typically serve multiple tours of duty during their military careers, much as employ­ees will take on a number of different projects or ini­tiatives during the course of their work at a particular company and throughout their careers.

Clearly the parallel is only partial—it’s difficult and arguably unwise to run a business like a military unit, especially in today’s world. You probably don’t have the authority and tools of a commanding officer. When an employee leaves your company, he might get a farewell party. When a soldier leaves his unit with­out permission, he goes AWOL and gets a court mar­tial (and probably several years in a military prison). Nor will most companies offer the job security and social safety net of the US military. But the metaphor conveys the key concept that both military and busi­ness tours of duty have in common: focus on honor­ably accomplishing a specific, finite mission.

In the context of the alliance, the tour of duty repre­sents an ethical commitment by employer and employee to a specific mission. We see this approach as a way to incorporate some of the advantages from both lifetime employment and free agency. Like lifetime employ­ment, the tour of duty allows employers and employees to build trust and mutual investment; like free agency, it preserves the flexibility that both employers and em­ployees need to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

This approach can relieve the pressure on you and your employees alike because it builds trust incremen­tally. Everyone commits in smaller steps and, as with any kind of meaningful relationship, the relationship deepens as each side proves themselves to each other.

The tour of duty is a way of choreographing the pro­gressive commitments that form the alliance.

By recasting careers at your company as a series of successive tours of duty, you can better attract and retain entrepreneurial employees. When recruiting top talent, offering a clear tour of duty with specific benefits and success outcomes beats vague prom­ises like “you’ll get valuable experience.” Defining an attractive tour of duty lets you point to concrete ways that it will enhance the employee’s personal brand—while he’s at the company and if and when he works elsewhere—by integrating a specific mis­sion, picking up real skills, building new relation­ships, and so on.

When Reid first founded LinkedIn, for example, he offered an explicit deal to talented employees. If they signed up for a tour of duty of between two to four years and made an important contribution to some part of the business, Reid and the company would help advance their careers, preferably in the form of another tour of duty at LinkedIn. This approach worked: the company got an engaged employee who worked to achieve tangible results for LinkedIn and who could be an advocate and resource for the com­pany if he chose to leave after one or more tours of duty. The employee transformed his career by en­hancing his portfolio of skills and experiences.

A few of the managers we spoke with for this book worried that the tour of duty framework might give employees “permission” to leave. But permission is not yours to give or to withhold, and believing you have that power is simply a self-deception that leads to a dishonest relationship with your employees. Employ­ees don’t need your permission to switch companies, and if you try to assert that right, they’ll simply make their move behind your back.

The finite term of the tour of duty provides crisper focus and a mutually agreeable time frame for discussing the future of the relationship. It gives a valued employee concrete and compelling reasons to “stick it out” and finish a tour. Most importantly, a realistic tour of duty lets both sides be honest, which is a necessity for trust.

We recognize the irony of looking to Silicon Valley for lessons on building long-term relationships. After all, Silicon Valley is where an engineer can update her LinkedIn profile in the morning and have five job offers by lunchtime. But this is precisely why you can learn from Silicon Valley. This is one of the fastest-moving, most competitive economies on the planet. It’s immensely difficult to retain quality employees, so the companies and managers that convince their people to stay must be doing something extraordinary. The talent management techniques—such as tours of duty—that work in this brutal environment are battle-tested. If they work here, they can work anywhere.

To receive regular updates like this, subscribe to the blog newsletter.

How executives can use linkedin