Forging Alliances between Employees and Employers

The fundamentals of the employee-employer relationship have changed over the past few decades. Employers no longer even pretend to offer job security and, in return, employee loyalty to a particular company is rare. Yet employees still want to know where they stand and what their long term prospects are within the organizations they work for. And employers still want to reduce employee churn and find ways to retain great employees as long as possible. The question is: How can we do that in today’s competitive, volatile, shifting world?

The Alliance: managing talent in the networked age

Authors Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh propose a solution in their book, The Alliance: Managing talent in the networked age. Fundamentally, they argue that the only workable employee-employer relationship today is one forged around a mutually beneficial alliance with multiple, clearly defined “tours of duty.”  The alliance itself is a commitment by an employee to add value to the company for a specified period of time and a commitment by the company to add to the employee’s market value over the same time period. Within the alliance, each tour of duty represents an “an ethical commitment by an employer and an employee to a specific mission.” Unlike a tour of duty in the military, where the term originated, there is no legal requirement for either side to deliver on promises made. There is, however, a moral obligation to meet the terms of each tour of duty and to honor the broader alliance forged to benefit both parties.

Alliances are Built on Trust

The words trust, transparency, ethical and honest come up frequently in the first two chapters of the book, as it becomes apparent that these alliances can be fragile in the wrong hands. Both managers and employees who commit to an alliance must recognize how easily trust can be broken and understand that the career and personal implications of breaking trust can be far-reaching.  Although alliances and tours of duty vary in duration, they offer a period of focused stability and reflect the intent of both parties to maintain the alliance as long as it continues to be mutually beneficial. Not a lifetime commitment on either side, but much better than never knowing what tomorrow holds.

Of course, the nature of these alliances and associated tours of duty varies depending on the type of organization and the different positions within an organization. In The Alliance, three variations on the tour of duty are presented: rotational, transformational and foundational.

  • Rotational tour of duty:  Standardized for incoming employees to test future fit with the company or as default for entry level or repetitive roles. After completing a rotational tour of duty, an employee might start another rotation or advance into a transformational tour of duty.
  • Transformational tour of duty: Negotiated individually and designed to transform both an employee’s career and the company in some way through the completion of a defined, 2-5 year mission. Before the end of such a tour of duty, a new tour would typically be negotiated with the same company, unless a decision has been made to transition out.
  • Foundational tour of duty: Negotiated individually with a valued employee who is deeply committed to the core values and mission of the company. The time frame for a foundational tour of duty is ongoing as both parties expect the relationship to be permanent (to retirement).

For many managers the idea of engaging in a dialogue about developing employees in ways that might take them elsewhere flies in the face of everything they’ve been taught and feels like a frontal assault on retention efforts. But Hoffman and his co-authors have one very clear message for today’s employers:

“Permission [to leave] is not yours to give or to withhold, and believing you have that power is simply a self-deception that leads to a dishonest relationship with your employees. Employees don’t need your permission to switch companies, and if you try to assert that right, they’ll simply make their move behind your back.”

The solution is to make top talent stay because they want to stay by forging alliances that benefit both sides and revisiting them regularly as mutual goals are achieved.


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