Maximizing a Secondment Experience

This past Friday I met up with a fellow Government of Alberta (GoA) employee by the name of Henry (name changed to protect the innocent from bad blogging) who is soon off to Washington DC for a two-year secondment with an international banking organization (the Bank). Henry wanted to pick my brains about my secondment experience with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) a few years back. I thought the advice I gave him so good that I figured I would take some notes on the off-chance anybody ever asks me again (hey, it could happen).

Before, During and After

As it is always good to start with a definition, thefreedictionary.com defines it as:

2. secondment – the detachment of a person from their regular organization for temporary assignment elsewhere.

From this definition, a secondment involves three parties. Henry; the GoA or the ongoing employer; and the seconding organization – in this case the Bank. Secondments also have three distinct time periods: the time before you go, the time on secondment and then the return. While good to think of them in three distinct periods they should nevertheless have a constant theme – the Value Proposition to three parties involved in the secondment.

Before the Before – The Secondment Circumstances

A secondment happens because a person has:

  • a) applied for a position possibly unbeknownst to their current employer,
  • b) the ongoing-employer encouraged the person to apply, or
  • c) the person was requested by the seconding organization.

There is a subtle difference between these circumstances. Henry was encouraged to apply to the Bank position by the GoA. Thus his boss (his home Ministry) is behind him 100%.  In contrast, I have found myself in both circumstance a) and c). In 2003 I had sought out an opportunity to work in Munich Germany – type a). Unfortunately the employer at the time did not grant me a leave of absence and as a result I quit that job to go to Germany. In 2010, the IAEA sought me out to assist with an accounting project – type c). In this case, I was able to secure a leave so as to take the secondment. What changed in the intervening seven years? I had a better understanding of how to sell the value proposition of the leave to my ongoing employer.

To support this value proposition, it was critical that the IAEA email/write to my boss and describe the circumstances behind why they specifically wanted me and the value to the GoA of my involvement. This provided credibility to the experience and started the process of making my experience a larger organizational experience.

Before – Start with the End in Mind

Henry, assuming you have the full endorsement from your Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM), it is now time to start planning for your return from your secondment. Steven Covery calls this ‘starting with the end in mind’. Envision the first day/week/year of your return from the secondment and define how you want to be thinking about success for the experience. To help you with this visioning, enlist the aid of your boss (and your boss’ boss); ask questions such as:

  • What are the three critical things you want me to accomplish while on this experience?
  • What is the number one problem for our organization the seconding organization can help us with?
  • If you were me, what would be your personal and professional priorities for this experience?

You don’t have to accept all of their advice but you should accept those that align best with your own ambitions, interests or priorities. The benefits for you to start with the end in mind includes:

  • It reinforces the fact that you will be returning to the ongoing employer.
  • It begins the process of making your secondment a shared experience with the organization.
  • It helps you to define the ongoing value proposition themes.

I have been focusing on your employer Henry but don’t forget to do the same thing for your friends and family. What does your wife want to have accomplished in the same time period? Can you offer to host family members so as to share the experience? Can you take your children and can they take part in the international school experience? For myself, here are the goals I had when I went to Vienna:

Goal 1: Family & Health

  • Setting up circumstances to share this experience with my wife and son
  • Maintain my health so I can continue to be productive
  • Experience the Austrian cultural life as much as a non-German speaker can

Goal 2: Exit Gracefully the IAEA

  • Contribute positively and effectively to the project
  • Over the course of the year, complete about 90 ‘things’ well to support the project

Goal 3: Re-Enter the Government of Alberta Gracefully

  • Re-charged, reset and ready for new challenges.

Goal 4: Prepare for Future Opportunities

During the Secondment

In a very short period of time you will be living the dream – the secondee in Washington DC. Then, in a few months the honeymoon will end. At this point you will start to feel (at least a bit) depressed, in limbo, out of touch and isolated. Fortunately the cultural difference between Washington DC and Edmonton are not as extreme as say Edmonton and Haiti. Nevertheless, more than likely you will be living in a small apartment, working in a small cubicle for seconded staff*. And the permanent staff members and those around you will have their own lives and families to go home to.

* small aside, I had a great office and room-mate while working for the IAEA – nevertheless I have worked in some crappy places as a consultant.

So feeling tired, out of sorts and a bit crummy is normal; expect it, deal with it and get over it. A two-year secondment means that you will have 780 days on the ground. 780 is not a large number and it will go by fast. Nearly 25% of the time will be the weekend or statutory holidays (and you will be working a few of these, trust me). 10-15% of these days will be vacation/leave (guard these jealously!). Now you are down to 500’ish work-days. Be clear with your new boss what you want to/can/must accomplish in those 500 days.

Just as important, for the weekends and leave days, what do you want to accomplish? Do you want to visit every memorial/museum in the city, drive the entire east coast of the United States, explore the Southern United States – set a goal and have a great time accomplishing it!

At the same time though, don’t forget about your ongoing employer. While I was in Vienna I tried to provide a monthly ‘blog’ to my home Ministry. Generally I would alternate between a technical themes (e.g. on accounting, governance structures, etc.) and personal matters (e.g. Christmas markets, cycling or Vienna wall murals). Contact your communications person and establish a writing schedule, possible themes – and then stick to them! Amongst other things, it will force you to better understand your experience, your organization and it will give you some great memories (see the links at the end of this Blog).

After the Secondment

Here is a curious fact Henry – a week or so after finishing the experience, it will be as if you never left. If you don’t plan your return carefully this fact can lead to a sense of loss or make you question why you went in the first place. In contrast a well-planned return can give you a sense of closure, purpose and context for the experience. Here are some suggestions for a ‘gracefully re-entry’ to your Ministry:

  • Keep your goals up to date. The will evolve and change, that is okay, but keep focused on why you took the secondment in the first place before, during and after its completion.
  • Keep in touch with your boss, organization and co-workers. See the blogs discussed above but include a few phone calls to your boss, emails to co-workers, etc. to stay in touch.
  • Share the experience by presenting it. Plan to do a series (e.g. 2-4) brown bag lunches on your experience. Space them out every 2-3 weeks. During the presentation don’t forget to profusely thank your boss and the organization for the experience.  I have included links to the three presentations I did below.
  • Stay in touch with the Bank and its family of employees.  They are part of you and your network now.  And of course, if they need a good accountant who writes blogs, I can send you my resume….

So Henry, that is my advice in a nut shell. Your secondment experience will go by fast! Best wishes to you and your wife and make the best possible use of your 780 days. Also, don’t forget to include me on your blogs about your experience!

 Sample Blog and Presentations

(Links fixed, 2013-11-27)