Book Reveiw: The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age


The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age was co-written by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, so it comes steeped with a bunch of Silicon Valley assumptions and bravado that I initially struggled with. “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.” This also kind of feels like survivorship bias. These things worked at LinkedIn, ipso facto they are good.

I was also initially turned off by the sheer amount of reference to LinkedIn — as though no other companies had any real guidance on some of these matters. After some reflection, though, I appreciate the singular example company: this keeps the book short, and doesn’t proclaim to be some kind of universal truth. Yes, these things worked at LinkedIn, presumably for the reasons used to explain them in the book. The book also doesn’t contort a bunch of marginally related examples to refine any of its point.

It was refreshing that this book was short and sweet. I ended up skipping the last two chapters, but managers and executive folks might be interested in those more than I was.

What, then, is the alliance?

Our goal is to move from a transactional to a relational approach. Think of employment as an alliance: a mutually beneficial deal, with explicit terms, between independent players.

This seems somewhat self-evident, but the intentionality and explicitness of it is actually quite powerful.

Employers need to tell their employees, “Help make our company more valuable, and we’ll make you more valuable.”

Employees need to tell their bosses, “Help me grow and flourish, and I’ll help the company grow and flourish.”

It’s not just “you work for us and we give you money and benefits.” Thinking about an employer’s responsibility to make the employee more valuable is a very different frame of mind. It makes crystal clear that employees are not automatons, nor are they disposable “resources”.

The book doesn’t shy away from the fact that making an employee more valuable carries some flight risk; but the focus on mutual benefit is far more incentivizing for long-term relationships than just salary or benefits.

Tours of duty

The real meat of the book is the notion of a tour of duty, a military term.

In the context of the alliance, the tour of duty represents an ethical commitment by employer and employee to a specific mission.

Important note: the alliance proposed here is not a contractual obligation but a moral one. It does not supersede “at will” employment, nor does it mean that under-performers can’t get sacked. It does mean, though, that both employer and employee work honestly and diligently to uphold the commitment for mutual benefit as much as possible.

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 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.

There was a lot about “personal brand”, which is obviously an important element of the LinkedIn product, but if you replace that buzzword with “professional experience” or “marketability” it still works.

This was an interesting bit: LinkedIn SVP Kevin Scott

asks every person he manages, “What job do you envision having after you leave LinkedIn?” He asks the same question of folks who are interviewing for jobs at LinkedIn (“What job do you want after you work at LinkedIn?") in order to make sure the company can offer a tour of duty that will advance their future career.

Being open and honest about career goals only helps: the employee is looking to earn the necessary skills for that next job by doing good work today at this job. Maybe, along the way, that dream job will open up right here; but if not no one really loses out by developing an employee and then watching them succeed in a different company.

The book identifies three basic tours of duty:

A Rotational tour isn’t personalized to the employee and tends to be highly interchangeable — it’s easy to swap an employee in to or out of a predefined role.

A Transformational tour is personalized. The focus is less on a fixed time period and more on the completion of a specific mission. It’s negotiated one-on-one by you and your employee.

Exceptional alignment of employer and employee is the hallmark of a Foundational tour. If an employee sees working at the company as his last job, and the company wants the employee to stay until he retires, he is on a Foundational tour of duty. The company has become the foundation of the person’s career and even life, and the employee has become one of the foundations of the company.

As the world has become less stable, you can’t just rely on a few stars at the top to provide the necessary adaptability. Companies need entrepreneurial talent throughout the organization in order to respond to rapid changes. Obviously, you will spend less time reviewing the tour of duty principles with a summer intern than with a senior executive, but the same principles hold true for both. Every employee relationship should be bidirectional in nature; it should be clear how the employee benefits and how the employer benefits.

There’s a little pandering in this section about a “corporate middle class”:

The employees who sit between entry-level and senior management make up the “corporate middle class.” For these employees, a successful tour of duty cannot always be attached to a certain job title or compensation package. A competent professional in the corporate middle class might complete multiple tours of duty without a change in job title. … The start and end of a tour of duty for them is marked by changes and growth in their network, progress in their projects, and changes in their skills and opportunities.

It’s nice that the recognize that the tour of duty model works for all levels of employment, not just executives or superstars. Recasting “work” to a “tour of duty” also helps reframe the nature of work and success. It’s like the old quip “Do you have five years of experience, or one year of experience repeated five times?” By developing explicit tours of duty, with explicit success and growth objectives, you provide a lot more for the employee than just “another year of employment”.

There’s a whole supporting website (and, of course, LinkedIn group) for the content around The Alliance: Bonus Content: Tours of Duty - The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age

Building Alignment in a Tour of Duty

The key, in the authors’ opinions, is identifying the overlap between what employees and employers want. This alignment is critical to ensure bidirectional benefit, transparency, and trust.

The book offers three steps to building alignment:

  1. Establish and disseminate the company’s core mission and values.
  2. Lean each individual employee’s core aspirations and values.
  3. Work together to align employee, manager, and company

Once everyone’s values and aspirations have been articulated, all parties should work together to strengthen the alignment between them. This is a collaborative rather than top-down effort.

Advice for managers:

Implementing Transformational Tours of Duty

The book spends most of the time on transformation tours of duty, since rotational tours would be more cookie cutter, and foundational would be so specifically tailored.

What is the overall mission of the tour?

… clear, detailed, concrete mission objective. … The goal is to select a mission objective that helps the company, but also provides an opportunity for the employee to grow.

What do the results of a successful tour of duty look like for the company? LinkedIn asks “How will the company be transformed by this employee?”

What do the results of a successful tour of duty look like for the employee? LinkedIn asks “How will the employee’s career be transformed by working here?”

LinkedIn says “Big T Transformation” is something like a promotion or a plum assignment.

Only about 20% of missions result in a Big T Transformation. That’s why the company places as much or more emphasis on small t transformations, which may not seem as flashy but result in concrete increases in the employee’s marketability.

The book spends several pages going through some of the basics and requirements, like setting up checkpoints for regular two-way feedback; taking care to define the next tour before the current tour concludes to ensure succession planning; how to continue the tour within the company; what to do when manager and employee agree that the best next tour of duty is with a different company; how to manage a change in the middle of a tour. There’s also content on what happens if one party breaks the alliance, if one party is performing poorly, and if the employee wants to move into a new role in the company.

These bits aren’t super detailed, they’re more suggestive guidance than operational notes. It’s easy to read, and not overly stuffed with prescription.

Advice for managers:

Employee Network Intelligence

You’re not just hiring the person, you’re hiring their network. Be explicit about this. The alliance, as a mutually beneficial driver for both employee and employer, should recognize that the professional network is a powerful thing.

Network intelligence: connect a company with outside information sources.

growing their professional networks helps employees transform their career; employee networking helps the company transform itself.

There are more smart people outside your company than inside it.

Implementing Network Intelligence Programs

The authors spend some time suggesting ways to make this happen. Some simple things, like allow your staff to expense lunches with smart people from whom they can learn, can go a long way.

The two chapters I skipped were “Corporate Alumni Networks” and “Implementing an Alumni Network”. This concept is alluded to throughout the book, and I see the value — just like a college alumni association. It would be an interesting thing to see what a formal CoverMyMeds alumni network would look like.

The end of the book includes a sample Statement of Alliance, which you can also find online: Sample Statement of Alliance - The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age

Again, it’s nice to see this so explicit and formalized. It really makes one think about what the company can (and should) do to help the employee get where they want to go. I think a lot of us — myself included — have been working towards this kind of framing intuitively in fits and starts. Having a concrete model like that presented in The Alliance is helpful.

Maybe this will give you some new things to talk about with your manager!

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