Crafting Your Own Rotational Program

By Emily Carney, SWE Editorial Board

Rotational leadership programs are great ways to gain insight into and experience in different parts of the company. More than 10 years ago, I joined a manufacturing leadership rotational program at a large corporation. I completed four job assignments, moving every six months to different locations in the United States. This opportunity stretched me outside of my comfort zone. After graduating from my rotational program, I became an assignment leader and mentor to other program members. While not all engineers have the opportunity to complete a formal rotational program, I became a firm believer that anyone can create their own rotational program, no matter where they work or what industry they work in. Here are the steps:

1. Create your own cohort

Rotational program members have the benefit of joining the workforce at the same time as a group of individuals who have similar jobs and responsibilities. But any employee can create their own cohort, and it starts with your coworkers. Identify a few coworkers whom you trust. Build your relationship over time by sharing a meal together, exchanging information about your work, and asking for help from each other. Consider inviting these individuals to company social events, where you can expand your network.

CREDIT: Sorbetto

2. Learn the company culture quickly

My rotational program assignments were only six months long, which created some pressure to make an impact in a set period of time. An effective way to assess a work culture quickly is to use Edgar Schein’s organizational culture model, which has three layers. First, look for artifacts — the visible environment — including how people and things are organized in the office, what is visible on the walls, etc. Then look for espoused values, which are the reasons why members behave the way they do in the organization. You may discover these through conversations with employees or in written documents, such as goals, policies, or annual reports. The final part of the model is discovering underlying assumptions, which are the unconscious beliefs that determine how group members perceive, think, and feel. Listen carefully and ask questions with humility to avoid bias and learn from your new coworkers.

3. Set a pace to learn regularly

If you are not on a rotational program, you might not experience pressure to finish assignments in a short period of time. But time constraints can enable creativity. If you want to build the skill of time management that many rotational program members develop, consider creating a six-month timeline for your own projects and measuring what tangible impact you can make in that window, even if the official deadline is beyond that time.

4. Acknowledge that how you perform your job matters as much as what you do

It is often said that people will forget what you said and forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. While rotational program members may feel the pressure to accomplish business-changing results expeditiously, learning how to work in new environments and on project teams is a critical career-building skill. Great leaders are self-aware and introspective. Ensure that you are not damaging relationships on the path to meet a project deadline.

While the design of rotational programs intentionally places participants in new work locations, any employee can ask for development in a new functional area.

5. Learn from experience

Training seminars can be a perk of being on a rotational program, but don’t be intimidated if you do not have the opportunity to attend one. Most learning and development stem from on-the-job experience.

6. Work in a different function, department, or location to gain new perspective

There is an old adage, “Don’t knock it until you try it.” Change can be intimidating. In my experience, changing where I work (physically and functionally) has changed my perspective and made me a better business leader. While the design of rotational programs intentionally places participants in new work locations, any employee can ask for development in a new functional area. If you don’t feel ready for a full-time assignment, ask for a project or “bubble” assignment to gain exposure to something new.

7. Senior leaders want to learn from people who perform the work every day

It can be falsely perceived that senior leaders do not have time to talk to employees. My experience has been the direct opposite: The higher a leader is in a company, the more the information is filtered before it gets to the leader. Leaders desire real information about how work actually gets done. A benefit of rotational programs is that they have structure to introduce the participants to senior leaders (and a network of program alumni). You can create a system to meet senior leaders yourself. Work with your manager to identify a few individuals that you’d like to meet and request an appointment on their calendar. You might also be able to meet senior leaders informally by attending social events and town hall meetings. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself or ask a question in these settings.

Emily Carney (she/her) works as a manufacturing continuous improvement lead at UniQure, a global leader in gene therapy. She graduated from Tufts University with a B.S. in environmental engineering and an M.S. in engineering management. An active SWE member, Carney serves on the SWE editorial board.