The Tour of Duty in The Alliance Framework is a commitment by both an employer and employee to completing a mutually beneficial mission objective. Generally, a Tour of Duty spans a three to five years, but the duration can vary for many reasons. The point, though, is it’s a pretty significant amount of time: the purpose is to make a big impact, and that usually takes a few years.
We advise a lot of early stage companies whose future is very unpredictable: three to six months is often the realistic time horizon anyone can think about. For both the employer and employee, there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty, and frankly, a lot of people cannot handle it.
So how do you implement Tours of Duty in such an environment, where it seems unrealistic to make commitments beyond a few months or less?
Let’s say an employee of a start-up expresses this to the CEO.
“As an employee who really wants to be part of this company’s success, I have a concern. I really need management experience for the sake of my career growth, and I’m concerned whether I will get that here.”
The CEO feels that there are too many uncertainties with the business to make any kind of commitment at this point. He really likes the idea of a Tour of Duty and wants to keep this employee engaged and committed, but he doesn’t want to make false commitments.
Is a Tour of Duty possible and is it a good idea? My answer is: definitely.
Here’s how to think through it: what the CEO can say, and how a Tour of Duty can be crafted despite the uncertainties.
1. The most important trait to the employer-employee relationship is trust, and the way you build trust is through honesty and open communication.
“I have six months to get version 1.0 out the door, and then I have three months to get another founding round or we run out of cash. That’s the reality of the situation. Everything is dependent on those things happening.”
2. Identify alignment and acknowledge misalignment, or potential misalignment.
“We are aligned through the next few months: we both want version 1.o rolled out and to raise another round. Of course the company needs it, and it will be a career boost for you to have been a part of that success. If those things don’t happen, I realize we’ll be misaligned: we certainly won’t be in a position to hire anyone.
“I think you have potential to be a good manager and I’d be happy to give you that opportunity. I don’t know when we’ll expand staff to give you that experience, though.”
3. Suggest a realistic commitment.
“What I can commit to is this. Let’s get through version 1.0 and hopefully a successful fundraising. I will then give you some team lead experience for version 2.0. If you’re successful, you’ll be manager material, and though I don’t want to lose you, if we haven’t grown sufficiently, I’ll help you find a management job elsewhere.”
4. Craft a Tour of Duty.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll write an brief Tour of Duty: you likely want more details in a real one.
Mission objective: Complete Version 1 (duration: 6 months); Support fundraising (duration: 3 months); Successfully lead a team for the version 2.0 release (duration: 15 months).
Results for the Company: Version 1.0 successfully rolls out on schedule; company raises next round; company has a new team lead and potential manager when needed; company successfully rolls out version 2.0.
Results for the Employee: Experiences the completion of a version release and successful fundraising; succeeds in leading a team for the next version release and demonstrates management ability.
Even in a highly uncertain situation with some formidable constraints, with honesty and open communication, Tours of Duty are possible and helpful. Of course, circumstances may make a Tour impossible to complete: indeed they can fail.
However, for both successful and failed Tours, being honorable to one another, makes you become allies. And that’s a huge win.