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The Alliance: Honesty in the IT Community

Having recently left one employer for another, the topic of talent retention is fresh on my mind. When I started my new job at LifeWay the director over my department asked me to read The Alliance by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and and Chris Yeh. At first glance The Alliance looked like the typical IT management book. At only about 150 pages with a largish font and a trendy cover, my expectations where not high. Luckily, however, I was surprised by what I found inside. It is not a weighty book. It doesn’t go super deep. It does waste a lot of paper and ink – especially the later chapters. But, even though the content of this book would make a better blog post than a full publication, The Alliance makes some important points and gives useful guidance for the contemporary IT leader.

In Alliance the authors pose a solution to a predicament all too familiar to the contempory knowledge worker – continuing to outwardly act as if it were the corporate culture of the 1950s with guaranteed employment at one company for life when reality is much different. In the predicament many find themselves in, they must continue to pretend to be loyal to a company, all the while knowing they will most likely need to move elsewhere to further their career goals. On the flip side, corporations outwardly preach green fields and lofty mission statements to draw talent, even when they know they aren’t a good long term fit for the employee. The solution posed in Alliance is, at its most basic level, honesty. Employees and employers should be open about their motives and goals and honestly work to form mutually agreeable periods where alignment can be found between both parties. This they call a “tour of duty”.

The idea of a tour of duty is that both the employer and employee enter their relationship with honesty and the expectation that it will most likely not be a permanent arrangement. At the beginning of a tour of duty negotiation, the employer openly shares what he or she needs over a defined period of time. The potential employee, at the same time, openly shares what she or he is looking for in an engagement to further long term career goals and growth. A tour of duty arrangement is a good fit when both employer and employee find overlap in what they are seeking.

Because a tour of duty starts with honesty and openness, there is no stigma or uneasiness when it is time for the relationship to end. Tours of duty start with clearly defined goals and clear expectations. The employer knows what she or he can expect the employee to have accomplished at the end of the tour. The employee clearly knows what new skills and experiences the employer will ensure he or she has by the end of the tour. Both employee and employer know how they will benefit from the tour and clearly know the other party’s expectations. No ambiguity.

As a tour of duty is drawing to an end – as both party’s goals set out at the beginning are nearing completation – the employee and employer have an opportunity to discuss what the next steps might be. If the relationship has been a good fit, it might be time to negotiate a new tour of duty at the present organization. – This, naturally, is the most desired outcome for the employer. – However, if it is clear that either the employee and employer is not equipped to meet the next series of goals, either party can openly and without stress begin pursuing their next tour of duty with another party.

What I like most about the approach of The Alliance is the stress and dishonesty it removes from our modern knowledge worker economy. How nice it would have been over my career to leave a place of employment for a new opportunity knowing that I had accomplished what my employer needed and that they had given me the experiences and skills I needed to further my career. How wonderful would it be to work in an economy where people didn’t have to search for new opportunities in secret and where teams could expect planned and smoothly executed transition of staff!

I highly recommend that all people within IT, both leadership and individual contributors, read The Alliance and begin to implement its principals. If we could all be honest and open with each other, structuring our careers around clearly defined tours of duty, I think we would see an IT community with stronger community ties and a lot fewer battle scars.

Over the coming weeks, I will be establishing goals and expectations for a tour of duty with my manager at LifeWay. Once this is complete for me, I’ll begin this process with all my developers. I’ll keep everyone posted on how it goes. I’m expectantly hopeful.