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Making the Most out of Temporary Assignments

You’re given a temporary assignment. Maybe you’re an intern or a fellow. Maybe you’re a new employee who’s been given a wonderful opportunity to rotate through various departments – hopefully making you a well rounded employee down the road.

I had the pleasure of talking with one of my coaching students this morning who is in this very situation. She’s smart, curious and recently graduated from college. The program she’s in is rotating her for 3-4 months at a time through various departments in the agency she works for. She asked me what I would do if I were given the same opportunity at her stage of career development.

Here are the thoughts I shared with her:

  • Decide early what you want to get from each rotation. It’s better to have an objective or two than it is to show up for work and wait for someone else to direct you’re efforts. Starting off being goal oriented helps a lot when it comes to filling in the blanks (inevitable when we start a new project in a place we’re unfamiliar with), directing our conversations with people we have not met before, and giving us ideas to share with others about how our talents might be best used.
  • Focus on relationships. Get to know people in each rotation. Make ita point to learn (and write down) as much as you can about the people you meet. Know their names, their interests, a little about their family, their position, and a few things about their personality. Send them friendly notes from time to time. Make the note about something that you discovered is interesting to them. After getting to know a few people, ask them who they think is the best person to talk with about X,Y, or Z (see the first bullet about knowing what you want to get out of each rotation). Keep your rolodex active. The people in your network will be one of the greatest assets in your career tool box.
  • Be helpful, but don’t expect to blow people away. No one really expects anyone on 3-4 month rotations to complete huge projects. They’re giving you the opportunity to expose you to various aspects of your ecosystem. They’re not sending you on a project completion rampage. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to prove yourself. You may not have this opportunity to build your network so fast again.

She went on to ask me about social engagements. She wanted my thoughts on going out to happy hours with other peers who are also on temporary rotations. Here is what I shared with her:

  • Extra-curricular activities can be great. But it depends on the individual. If you’re the type of person who can’t hold their liquor, if you like to dance on the tables, kick off your shoes and smooch with the first person who passes you after your third drink – then happy hours are probably not going to be good for you. If you’re responsible, friendly, and don’t make a fool of yourself, then happy hours can be a fun way to connect with other people. Relationships made after work often last for a long time after a job assignment has ended. I’ve had staffs who used to go out all the time and are still supporting one another as friends many years later.
  • Respect chain of command issues. If you’re a supervisor or going out to socialize with a supervisor, be aware of favoritism and the appearance of favoritism. Favoritism can crush morale and your career. Know that supervisors do sometimes have to fire employees. As a supervisor for most of my career, I was always careful not to get myself into a position where friendships could be used as a weapon in the office. “…but Dave… I know I haven’t been performing, I’ve been counseled five times, and all my colleagues are having to pick up after me, but we’re friends, dude! How could you do this to me?!”
  • Judgment Counts – Not just your own. Having judgement yourself sometimes means being careful about who you hang out with and where you hang out. I was once invited to a party overseas. I knew many of the people going, and I knew that they tended to get pretty wild when intoxicated. I chose not to go. That party turned out to be the reason for officers being relieved of duty, lot’s of “Extra Military Instruction” and an investigation launched from Washington DC that earned this party the unfortunate title of “Med Hook,” a title borrowed from a similar party a few years later called “Tail Hook.” Had I gone to that party, I would have been scooped up with the rest of the gang and considered guilty by association.

Temporary assignments can be great networking opportunities. They can advance your career and build your network. Have a great time with them, but also have a plan of your own for making the most of them.

What other advice do you have for making the most of temporary assignments?

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Corey McCarren

Any chance you could go a little more in-depth about how favoritism can crush a career or morale (if you were the one being favored)? Just curious to learn more about your perspective.

David Dejewski

I’m betting you’re not the only one who has that question. Thanks for asking, Corey!

Not much happens without teamwork. The better the teamwork, synergy, and trust, the more effective a team will be. Good supervisors understand that this takes fairness, consistency, clarity, etc.

Favoritism undermines trust and damages the sense of fairness in a team. If you’re the one being favored, others often feel resentment. Resentment is one of those festering moldy feelings. It doesn’t usually get better with time.

How resentment manifests is different for each team, but some possibilities include passive aggression, a break down in professionalism, and even sabotage. None of which is good for morale – or the individuals being targeted.

From a different perspective, favoritism can stack the team in the wrong order. Favored people may move into positions they are not yet qualified for. They may “get to do things” that they shouldn’t be doing or that someone else could (and probably should) be doing better.

Mismatching people to promotions or cherished assignments hurts the people who are favored as much as it hurts those who aren’t. A dysfunctional team causes the cycle or negativity to continue and even amplify.

If you’re a supervisor, you’re job is to help your entire team be the best it can be – to bring them together, multiply their effectiveness through synergy and trust, and leverage each of their strengths in the best way possible. Favoritism is unhealthy and upsets the balance.

Here are a few questions that might help to internalize this:

  • How might you feel if someone less skilled or experienced than you got a position you’ve been working on securing for yourself? Would you grieve (meaning file a grievance)? Might you not want to help the person who took your job? Might you hold a grudge or even try to damage their reputation if given the chance?
  • What would happen if someone to your right get’s fired for a minor infraction, but someone to your left does something much more serious and rides it out with a slap on the wrist? How would that communicate to you about your work environment or chances for being fired? Might you feel like the way to get ahead is to kiss the boss’s ring? To keep a low, risk-averse profile?

Doing something worthwhile in business or in government by yourself is like taking on the Green Bay Packers by yourself. You may think you look cool for five minutes or so while you have half the field to run around on, but you won’t get very far alone. You need your team.