Secondments: you’re never too big to learn

Secondments are without doubt a popular option for larger organisations and
those with international operations. The opportunity for professional
development, enhanced cross-cultural understanding and the sharing of best
practices are often quoted as some of the benefits to be realised.

It seems curious, then, that for many organisations secondments are only
offered to junior or middle management employees and that only occasionally do
senior managers get this type of development opportunity.

There are various reasons for this, not least the potential for disruption
and cost of international secondments. It is essential, therefore, to ensure
that clear objectives for the exercise are defined at the outset and ample
preparation time is set aside beforehand.

Ensuring business continuity, both from a revenue perspective and from a
motivation and morale perspective, can aid the transition both for the
individual and the wider organisation. Also, given the costs involved, it is
especially important to consider what benefits the organisation and the
individuals involved are going to derive.

From an organisational perspective, the benefits are varied; staff
development being a prime one. The secondment provides a unique learning
environment, where individuals will be stretched to develop or enhance
communication skills, cultural awareness and often leadership and influencing

Often, the aim is not simply to transfer an individual to an identical role,
but to create an environment where personal growth and learning can be achieved.

Best practice benefits

Sharing of best practices is also one of the benefits to be drawn from the
exercise. Organisations evolve over time and often at different paces across

Best practices can sometimes develop in isolation and unnoticed, the
secondment process creates an opportunity for these practices to be identified
and championed across the wider organisation, often with substantial commercial

Secondments should also be seen as part of a wider approach to developing a
knowledgeable and empowered leadership group. Having spent five years launching
and developing the business I work for in the UK, the secondment in which I am
involved provides an opportunity to further develop my own skills and
experience, while allowing my peer team to draw from my experiences of leading
the UK business.

These benefits, together with personal growth, should be imbedded in the
objectives for the secondment. These objectives will then be essential in
reviewing and assessing the ultimate value of the secondment.

Given the potential for disruption, it takes both courage and vision from a
CEO to sponsor such an initiative. Granted, no single individual is ever
irreplaceable, but it would be foolish to underestimate the risks.

But the benefits of secondments are so advantageous that the idea cannot
simply be put into the ‘too difficult’ pile. Provided the transition is well
managed and the proper amount of preparation is carried out there is no reason
why the project cannot be a success.

Inevitably, preparation is essential for all parties concerned; secondees
that go to work overseas should spend time in their new markets on orientation
visits. In addition to the practicalities of housing and relocation, this
enables them to meet their new teams and become acquainted with the local market
business plans and strategies.

Orientation visits are very helpful, not just for secondees, but also for
their families. As with any move abroad, it is important that the entire family,
rather than just the individual employee, feels comfortable, settled and
enthused. A little time spent on relocation will pay off in the long-term. If a
secondee is distracted by an unhappy home-life, it can only be to the ultimate
detriment of the entire project.

By the same token, work should be done in the host country to ensure that the
best possible handover is developed and implemented. The teams concerned should
buy-in to the process and wish to embrace the opportunity that having a new
leader with a different perspective can bring.

A fresh pair of eyes and the experience from a different market will give
everybody a chance to learn new things and to develop their own skills further.
It is important that everyone appreciates this. One way to insure this is to
share the key objectives of the secondments with the new teams, further
enhancing the collaborative and inclusive approach.

The timing of the secondments is also fundamental to its success. The firm
should look for the best time in the financial calendar (for instance, when
business plans have been submitted and approved and the quarter has been

This way, the teams will have absolute visibility over the key performance
drivers. Careful planning and a sensible timeline allow all parties to prepare
themselves and the business for the transition ahead, and this breeds a sense of
confidence which is vital to success.

When I joined Resources in July 2001, with one other colleague, we were the
first Europeans to be hired with a remit that was both simple and challenging.
We were to launch the business in the UK, prove the concept and prepare the
groundwork for future European expansion.

Our philosophy of hiring talented locals to set up and run each of our
practices has real benefits and has led to a very empowered leadership group,
bound together by our strong culture and belief in working collegially.

Chris Beer is managing director of Resources Global Professionals in the

Related reading