Fed-Ex IT managers swap jobs for fun and profit

IT managers at FedEx find that the company’s six-month job-rotation program sharpens their skills, provides invaluable perspective, builds networks, breaks down silos and allows lower-level staffers to shine.

As managing director of shipment data capture at FedEx, Martha Carr had plenty of challenges and ample professional fulfillment. But she wanted new perspectives, more exposure and bigger opportunities. “I felt like I needed an external U.S. experience,” Carr says.

Although international positions don’t come up often, Carr’s bosses gave her the experience she was looking for: They let her temporarily swap jobs with Roger Van Beeck, FedEx Express Corp.’s Brussels-based director of application and architecture for Europe and Africa. “It was the best learning experience I had,” Carr says.

She was able to get it because Memphis-based parent company FedEx Corp. has a formal program for rotating IT managers. The goal is to give workers the experience and visibility they need to advance their careers, says Sherry Aaholm, executive vice president of FedEx Services , which houses most of FedEx’s IT organization. “We want people to know that having broader exposure is what makes you valuable,” she says.

But the rotation program benefits the company as well as the individual participants Aaholm says. Rotations have helped to knock down silos in IT, spread best practices throughout the organization and create opportunities for subordinates to step up.

Employee rotations came out of IT’s “6×6” transformation initiative, which is aimed at making the department more agile, fluid and responsive to business needs. (The name comes from FedEx’s IT governance program, which established six initiatives to be completed by 2006.)

Aaholm says that because she and CIO Rob Carter came from outside of FedEx and had moved through different areas of IT, they understood the importance of being exposed to different technologies, disciplines and divisions. They wanted FedEx employees to have the same opportunities to grow professionally.

So FedEx set up a program that allows IT managers at some point in their careers to take a six-month rotation, essentially swapping jobs with someone else. Some swap positions through an international program; others swap domestic positions, and some high-potential workers participate in the yearlong leadership-building Purple Pipeline Program, which includes a six-month job swap.

And now managers are looking at extending the program down the chain so that lower-tiered workers among the 7,000 IT staffers can also take part, Aaholm says.

FedEx doesn’t know exactly what it costs to rotate its employees, but it calculates the total annual cost of its Purple Pipeline Program, in which 16 workers participate each year, at less than US$15,000.

As for an exact return on investment, Aaholm says, “there are a lot of intangibles that we’re not out there measuring.”

But she says that the payback is clear. “It’s extremely difficult if you stay in one siloed area to get the perspective [you need] for FedEx,” she explains. “That is by far the greatest value of rotating employees: having them get that broad business knowledge.”

New perspectives

Mary Gonzales’ experience is a case in point. She has no doubt that her rotation has produced unmeasurable returns.

As manager of tech services for customer field support in Los Angeles, Gonzales oversees an eight-member team that works with business customers, helping them integrate FedEx applications.

She switched jobs with Philip Rencher, who oversees a team of 10 as the Memphis-based manager of corporate headquarters systems. Gonzales says stepping into her new role in January “was a 180 from my whole experience out in the field.”

In California, she says, “I work with customers and I have customer issues coming at me. [In Memphis], I had to step back and take a systematic approach to my day. There was a process, and I had to learn to work within that.”

Gonzales says her role forced her to learn more about systems development. She also had to learn how to navigate a new political landscape — understanding which managers and teams had what knowledge and responsibilities. Her rotation, which ended in June, has changed how she manages. “Now, instead of rushing forward, I take a step back and evaluate the situation. I get a clearer picture of the entire process,” she says.

As for working in the corporate headquarters hierarchy, Gonzales says she has learned from that, too. “It really taught me to have a strong network, to know where to go,” she says. “In the field, you’re kind of in a silo, but having a broad network allows you to break down those silos and go to the right person to resolve any issue that comes up.”

Rencher, who had worked in a back office for his entire career, likewise had to stretch his skills. “One thing that was different: In Memphis, my team sits right outside my door. I walk to their desks, I ask questions, I have meetings in the pod. In L.A., I was thrown into the field. The team works from home, and I had to learn to manage in a new environment,” he says.

For example, managing by e-mail and phone was new to Rencher. “It gave me a different experience and prepared me for the future, where I might have remote staff,” he says.

International lessons

Carr and Van Beeck also pushed their skills into new territories when they swapped jobs last year. Carr, who had a staff of 45, was responsible for capturing shipment documents worldwide.

About 70 people in six countries reported to Van Beeck, who oversaw about 70 more in India. His work focused on application management for clearance operations, sales and marketing, human resources, finance/billing, supply chain services and transportation management.

Through the rotation, Carr says she gained a greater understanding of working in a regional office, where evening conference calls to accommodate U.S. work hours were the norm. She says she also saw “how difficult Roger’s job is in clearance; almost every country over there has a different [customs] clearance, and he has to pull that together in one system.”

Carr also had to improve her communication skills and adapt to cultural differences, even though English is the primary language in the Brussels office. “I’m used to the U.S. culture, where people give you pretty frank feedback. But in Europe, most people didn’t give you frank feedback,” she says, explaining that she learned to ask specific questions to get the information she needed.

Such lessons helped Carr. She is now vice president of Latin America, Caribbean and FedEx Express IT solutions.

Selling the benefits

Aaholm says no projects have gone down the tubes because of FedEx’s rotation program, but that’s not to suggest that these swaps are effortless.

She says that IT has had to work hard to win over some business partners who were concerned about having to build new relationships with rotated IT workers after they had established trust with their existing IT contacts.

And despite the successes to date, Aaholm says some managers are still concerned that their projects will slip if they rotate a key employee, so she has to “challenge” them to enable the rotations.

Aaholm says that when she pushed for employee rotations, she saw the program not only as a way to strengthen the skills of the participants, but also as a way to bring best practices, insights and fresh perspectives from one division to another.

And despite the challenges, workers are realizing that vision.

When Beth Galetti, an IT director based in Colorado Springs, was planning for her rotation two years ago, she was overseeing a team implementing a new system to handle some of FedEx’s clearance business processes. The system worked technically, but it wasn’t meeting all of the business unit’s needs. Enter Terry Pavey, director of IT at FedEx Express in Canada. When he and Galetti traded jobs, he could see what Galetti couldn’t — that her team was struggling with the project because it didn’t have clearly defined requirements and strong buy-in from the business unit.

Galetti says that when she heard Pavey’s assessment, “it was really one of those ‘aha’ moments.” As a result, in consultation with Galetti, Pavey decided to get the IT team and the business partners together, air their differences and develop a plan to solve the problems bedeviling the project.

Pavey says Galetti’s perspective had an effect on both him and his team. “One of my managers here in Canada who has been a manager for some time is a talented person, but [Galetti] found that this person was excelling in ways I didn’t see,” Pavey says. As a result, Pavey later decided to groom that individual as his successor.

Others agree that teams working for rotating managers can find new opportunities as a result of the program. Walt Abercrombie, vice president of IT at FedEx Express Operations, was Carr’s boss at the time of her rotation. He discussed the six-month swap with Carr’s direct reports, explaining that her absence would give them a chance to demonstrate their leadership abilities.

“They got to walk a little more in the shoes of their boss. They attended meetings and interacted with senior management, increasing their visibility and giving them critical skills to make the next career move,” Abercrombie says. “From my standpoint, it really helped strengthen the bench.”

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