Maximize Your Learning in Short-Term Assignments

January 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

The number of short-term assignments in companies has been increasing, and the trend is expected to continue. Within large corporations, secondments, short-term transfers, and functional or geographic management rotation programs often thrust full-time employees into short-term jobs. Many companies employ temps or interns to supplement those working full-time. Even consultants may engage with a client for a period of weeks or months.

For individuals who take advantage of them, these positions can be rewarding development opportunities. These workers are rapidly introduced to new geographies, functions, and cultures. They meet new colleagues from whom they can learn and with whom they can connect. And there’s never enough time in the job for learning to stagnate.

But short-term assignments can also pose daunting challenges. Typically, short-term positions come with little or no training. Sometimes managers lack the long-term incentives to set clear development goals for short-term employees or to offer them reviews or feedback. So, learning in these contexts requires dedicated effort on behalf of the individual taking on the assignment.

As someone taking on a temporary role, how do you take advantage of short-term assignments for your long-term learning and professional development? I recommend four tips for creating a learning environment in the context of a short-term role, based on written responses from around 20 professionals ranging from mid-tenure to senior in a variety of fields, a review of some of the management literature, and my own professional experience. Of course, each environment, firm, person, and job is different, but this advice should serve as a starting point as you seek to create a learning experience.

Set short-term goals. HBR author Dorie Clark mapped out how establishing professional development goals each new year is essential to focused and effective growth. The same principles apply to those charting goals for short-term assignments. At the beginning of your experience, sit down and write out what you hope to accomplish during your tenure—both the instrumental (e.g., receive a permanent position) and the personal (e.g., develop expertise in my industry). Think through how you will reach those goals and the success factors to make them possible. Ryan, an executive in a large municipal government advises, “Set three tangible goals, no matter how simple, and track your progress relentlessly.” Alison, an executive at a small technology firm, adds, “Hone in on one or two skills — not all of them. Maybe work on a known weakness but then continue to really improve and develop ‘expertise’ level in an area that you excel in.” Importantly, these goals should align with the longer-term goals you’ve set for your career—either those you set annually or those you’ve thought through on a 5-10 year basis that lay out what kind of person and professional you’d like to become. Maintaining this alignment between the short- and long-term can assure focus and continuity.

Seek feedback. In a short-term assignment, establish a feedback loop with your manager and others around you. Feedback is a critical component of professional growth, particularly when you need to learn quickly in a short period of time. Start the conversation by thinking about the feedback you need and asking for it. With your boss and peers, mention up-front that you are open to feedback and would appreciate their help as you acclimate to the new role. With your supervisor specifically, set up at least one formal check-in (perhaps more depending on the length of the assignment) to review your work and generate formal feedback, and ask that this be complemented by informal advice along the way.

Find mentors and peer relationships. Relationships are an essential way to build experience and understand what it takes to succeed in your work. They can help you both in the context of your short-term assignment and more broadly as you develop your network and move on to future assignments. And they should include both junior and senior members of the teams with which you work. Katie, an executive in a large technology firm puts it this way: “Proactively seek out individuals at various levels of the [organization] for coffee chats to learn more about their work. Try to gather an authentic view of what skills they are gaining in the role.” Often the relationships you build can offer unparalleled insight into how things work in the environment of your assignments and what it takes to be successful, and they can help you hone your career path.

Take some of these relationships a step further and develop mentors. Finding those who are willing to invest in you and mentor you at all levels of the organization will help you move along your development path, and as an added benefit, the very act of you asking people for advice will likely improve their opinion of your competence. Ben, a top management consultant, suggests the following: “Find and invest in a peer mentor relationship. Identify someone who has been with the firm 2-3 years…This peer will likely heartily embrace the role…[and] will have valuable insights that would take you years to learn.” In parallel, finding mentors senior to you in the organizations in which you work can lead to critical learnings from those much further along in their careers and sponsorship from some of those people as you seek to navigate your future professional goals.

Keep a learning journal. One of the most fascinating short-term assignments I ever had was at a firm founded by an executive who wrote down everything he learned about his field and the discipline of management over time. These notes—about why things failed or succeeded, and about how to run an organization—became a working set of principles that guided his company. He realized that you can learn from every person you encounter and every experience you have, but you have to look for that learning, reflect on it, and commit it to memory. When you see something that works—or doesn’t—write it down. Compile your thoughts over time and reflect on them. If you create a journal or log to track what you’re learning and make sure to look for lessons in every relationship and circumstance, you’re more likely to leave even a brief experience with real insight.

Short-term assignments are remarkable opportunities to learn and grow, but to seize them you’ll need to take control of your experience. Doing so can assure a short-term assignment becomes a building block in your long-term professional development.

Originally posted at HBR.

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