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Life swap: Getting the most out of secondments

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International secondments

Secondees used to be a quick-fix for departmental needs but now employees are setting their sights overseas, even on different organisations, to experience new cultures and bring new business ideas and skills back to their firm. But while there are mutual benefits to loaning out staff, Louise Druce discovers that goodwill and trust need to be accompanied by robust policies.


Secondment used to be seen more as a quick-fix solution to gaps in departmental needs but now ambitious employees are happily loaning themselves far overseas to experience other parts of the organisation or even transferring themselves temporarily to completely different companies.

According to a CIPD survey, secondment is one of the top 10 most commonly used career management practices and 67 per cent of respondents considered them to be effective. Needless to say, secondment programmes come packaged in trust and goodwill from both employer and employee, so there is no danger of staff dipping a toe in the water and then completely jumping ship to another role.

The benefits can outweigh the risks. Employees opting for secondment can learn new skills and have their eyes opened to new cultures and business ideas that can be brought back into their own role. Meanwhile, bosses who take on new interns can also learn new ways to get the job done and inject fresh thinking into their company.

Long-lasting bonds

Plus, the relationships built during the secondment can build strong, long-lasting bonds that improve communication and give colleagues an empathy with each others’ different job tasks, even as they progress up the career ladder.

“It changes peoples’ lives in unexpected ways because they see a different culture and have a different understanding,” says Jean Stephens, CEO of RSM International, a worldwide audit, tax and consulting network that has recently formalised its international secondment programmes to staff within its 73 member firms.

“You have a knowledge transfer but, also, building relationships between people and firms is absolutely instrumental in the ability to serve our clients at the highest level. People on secondment love it from a personal and professional basis. Going back into their firms afterwards makes them able to add value so they tend to move very quickly within their firm.”

Clients are also rewarded with both speed of service as the firm becomes more tight-knit and can quickly locate access to the right person to deal with their needs, as well as the comfort of knowing that more intimate relationships between staff means a more consistent, high level of service. “They’re more than just names on a contact list,” Stephens adds. “We’ve met them, we know them and worked side-by-side with them. Clients like that because it adds value.”

Integration and growth

RSM offers three main types of secondment: short-term, long-term and strategic. The short-term schemes typically last less than 12 months and are similar to training programmes that enhance specialist skills, cover busy periods or complete special projects.

A long-term secondment would usually last around 18 months to three years and have a different set of objectives for the secondee and the member firms, such as increasing awareness of international services to all parties, developing and nurturing bi-cultural personnel, enhancing professional development or creating an international interface for cross-border clients.

Seven point plan for secondment success:

1. Have a pre-defined criteria for candidate qualifications.

2. Set clear objectives for each secondment, including identified success factors.

3. Assign mentors to the secondee from both the receiving and sending firms.

4. Create a process for ongoing evaluation of secondees to ensure ease of entry into new firm and success on engagements.

5. Form an agreement in advance of costs for secondments, including tax implications, transportation, accommodation, visas and work permits etc.

6. Set up a pre-agreement of re-entry arrangements upon secondee’s return, including office location, position, secondment completion and return dates, responsibilities on completion, and remuneration.

7. It is helpful to have an ongoing relationship with legal counsel who can assist in the visa and permit process.

Jean Stephens, CEO, RSM International

Strategic secondments, on the other hand, provide the opportunity to work abroad and share specialised skills and experience with RSM firms who have demands in particular areas.

The secondees range from employees who have been with the company for about three years all the way up to senior partner level, which is why each is judged on its own merits and has its own criteria.

According to Stephens, it usually takes more time to bring junior level staff up to speed and train them in the arts and methodologies that can take them straight into a new firm at a productive level, while senior staff hit the ground running. The key is to get the right people that can integrate into the firm quickly.

“It starts with a mentor on both sides to make sure the people are integrating well into the firm, the new culture and the new country,” Stephens explains. “You also need to make sure they still have connections with the home firm so they feel they have a place to go back to.”

The other things to consider can be extensive (see box) including family and living arrangements, which is all laid out in writing for the member firms to ensure success. “The sending firm has to see the value of it and the work that person was doing needs to be covered by the team of people remaining,” she adds. “There is also an agreement that the firms won’t try to ‘steal’ people. That’s the whole purpose of secondment – not to recruit people but to develop and grow together.”

Kevin Chowday, a technical manager who completed a long-term secondment from the RSM Executive Office in London to RSM Asia Pacific region, based in Singapore, said by day two he had already achieved what he set out to do work-wise, being primarily interested in having a more face-to-face, rather than telephone-based role, and assisting the nine member firms in the Asia Pacific with quality assurance matters and alignment processes.

“Working closely with the managers and other staff within each firm, as well as with the partners, is certainly one of the main advantages,” he says. “From a desk in London, it is not possible to meet and work with those who will actually be the people responsible for implementing policies and procedures within a firm. This of course helps to gain familiarity with many different cultures and environments. It also helps raise awareness of the various challenges each firm is facing within their domestic professions and ensuring these are reflected within RSM at an international level when developing new global policies and procedures.”

Moving out and up

Elizabeth Solaru, who now works at executive recruitment firm GatenbySanderson, helped to set up the first leadership scheme of its kind at the Cabinet Office aimed at increasing diversity in the senior civil service. With a background in executive search and selection, and running career develop workshops at business schools around the country, Solaru says her secondment as a programme director with Leaders UnLtd was a great exposure that gave her invaluable skills and insights into the civil service, leadership and assessment training.

“I learnt a lot from the team I was working with and also had the opportunity to contribute at high strategic levels, making decisions on applications to the project,” she continues. “One day you might be looking at the assessment development centre and organising that, the next minute you might be presenting to a disability network about the benefits of the Leaders UnLtd scheme. It brings out different skills and helps you develop new ones. For me it developed my people skills, change management and leadership skills.”

Solaru admits that while she thrived on being thrown in at the deep end, secondment isn’t for everyone, especially for those adverse to change. “When you go on secondment, you are leaving a culture and environment you’re familiar with, where you know how things work,” she explains. “If you’re not familiar with the territory, it can be a bit daunting. But if you like change and like to learn new things, and if you like being brought in because of the particular skills you have, you will find your feet and flourish.”

Solaru also highlights the fact that while secondment provides great mutual opportunities, expectations need to be defined so that employees who may be going on a programme because they are bored with their current role aren’t tempted to take up a more permanent position with the company they move to. Equally, having good policies and agreements in place can help smooth the culture shock of moving to a different location or between the public and private sectors.

Asked if she would consider another secondment if the opportunity arose, Solaru doesn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt,” she says. “I think it’s a great opportunity and a good way of moving out to move up.”


Related article:
Relocation: What is the real cost?


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