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Spin Cycle: Rotational Programs

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You start in finance; then six months later you’re in marketing. Before your first year is over you’re headed into sales support. Jarring transitions, sudden changes—is this any way to get ahead? For MBAs in rotational programs, it can be.

In the past ten years, rotational programs have sprung up as pipelines for talent, quickly grooming new employees for leadership roles. Placing hires in multiple roles over two or three years offers an enticing trade-off: exchanging short-term stability for a thorough grounding in company operations.

Think of it as the difference between learning a single task on an automobile production line and getting a sense of how the entire car is assembled. “I’m much more valuable to the company than when I started,” says Jon Biorkman, a 2007 University of Southern California MBA who joined General Electric’s Experienced Commercial Leadership Program (ECLP)—one of the most well-established rotational programs out there. Working in GE’s commercial finance division, Bjorkman has rotated through strategic marketing and capital markets prior to his current spot in sales. The experience, he says, has given him “a better understanding of the different areas of our business, the functions they do, and how they play together.”



Even though the rotational concept is a fairly recent creation, it has been around long enough to create networks of alumni. “There are 130 in each ECLP class,” says Biorkman. “You can get information on whatever you’re looking to get into almost immediately.”

In some rotational programs, a chief recruiting incentive is flexibility: Much more than a traditional job offering, they give a new hire leeway to chart his own course. Daryl Peagley, currently in his third rotation in Thomson Reuters’ Management Associates Program, is seeking a career in international media and technology, a goal the cross-disciplinary nature of the program is helping him achieve. Thomson Reuters also provides a third-party executive coach to participants; the coach has helped Peagley choose the optimum order for his postings, delaying an international assignment until he had worked in corporate strategy. “I wanted to have the opportunity to see how TR implemented strategy from a more holistic level.”

Some rotational programs require participants to relocate every six months—situations that can try the patience of even the most nomadic MBA. Sanmitra Deo, a member of GE’s ECLP Class of 2006 found herself in four cities over two years. “The biggest challenge was the impact on my personal life,” says Deo. News of the upcoming move didn’t come until the last month or so of each rotation, and Deo, then single, found it difficult to establish outside relationships. (“It’s amazing how unattractive you can seem when you’re going to move every five months,” she says.) Now that she’s working for GE Healthcare in Wisconsin, she’s found a degree of stability that eluded her in the program—a long-term relationship and a baby on the way. And despite the disruption it caused in her life, she’s glad she endured her two years in ECLP.

The scary part of rotational programs is the possibility that you’ll rotate to nowhere: that no permanent post will materialize when the merry-go-round stops. But finding the proper berth for participants is the job of these programs: They’ve been designed to turn participants into valuable company assets. Erin Dillard, recruiting director for GE’s
ECLP—and a program alum—estimates 99 percent of its hires land permanent jobs at the end of the two years. And Harrah’s President’s Associate Program allows participants to jump off if the right position pops up.

In fact, the current economic climate might make this a perfect time for rotational programs. “When everything is going well and people are making money, you don’t learn as much,” says Robert Althuis, a 2004 ECLP alumnus who rotated through GE Commercial Aviation when the airline industry had taken a post-9/11 hit. When the chips are down, Althuis says, “it’s a great time to learn the business.”
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