Career Management: Should you Relocate?

It used to be if a hard charger wanted to advance in a company, moving to another location every 2-3 years was an accepted part of the unwritten deal. IBMers used to joke that IBM stood for “I’ve been moved”. In fact, if you were not being asked to move, it was a sign that you had fallen off the fast track.

One company I know of had a leadership development strategy that in practice was referred to as “2x2x2”. That is, in order to be prepared and considered for a top job, a rising manager had to work in at least 2 different countries, 2 different businesses, and 2 different functions. From a leadership development perspective, it was a great strategy. We know that the most effective way to develop leadership skills are full-time job changes, followed by challenging assignments. Large, diverse companies, with multiple locations and lines of businesses provides a manager with all kinds of opportunities to stretch, learn, build new networks, and broaden functional capabilities.

Of course, there have always been inherent challenges with this kind of a leadership development strategy. Executives often don’t want to give up there star performers. They also aren’t always willing to take the risk of taking on someone else’s star performer that doesn’t have the typical experience (and if you’ve ever been burned by agreeing to take a “star” that really was a “slug” you’d be gun-shy about making the same mistake again). Job changes can be disruptive, for the manager and the business. But somehow we’ve managed to deal with these challenges recognizing the longer-term benefits and the greater good.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed a shift in high potential manager’s willingness to take a developmental job change if it means packing up and relocating. And I’m not talking about moving to Afghanistan here, these are often very desirable U.S. communities. Managers are willing to pass up promotions, larger and more prestigious assignments, and the opportunity to be considered for larger roles. The reasons are often a spouse’s job, family in the area, or just liking where they are. This unwillingness to move is creating serious talent shortages. I’ve talked to some of my talent management colleagues, and it seems this is becoming an issue with a lot of companies.

So what are the answers? Here are a few ideas, although I’d love to hear from anyone who has other ideas on how to address this challenge.

1. Examine your relocation package. The obvious answer, but a manager should at least be made whole for any move and possibly come out a little ahead to compensate for the disruption and risks.

2. Identity high potentials at lower levels, where there’s often more willingness to move, and start developing a deeper, larger pool of leadership candidates.

3. Openly discuss what it means to be a “high potential” with your candidates. Talk about what the company is willing to do for them, and what they need to be willing to give back in return. If relocation is part of the deal, then address the pros and cons head-on, early, instead of bringing it up for the first time as a part of a job offer.

4. Sell the benefits of relocation. While a move to a strange place can be disruptive, it can also be a big adventure. I’ve had managers tell me that their experiences in China or Europe, with their families, while initially difficult, turned out to be the best years of their lives. The family bonded like never before, they were exposed to new and rich experiences, and it forever changed their perspectives.

5. Collect examples of positive relocation stories. Often we only hear about the horror stories, and those stories become company legend. Recruit managers who have benefited from moving and ask them to be ambassadors for relocation.

6. Be a chamber of commerce for the communities you are trying to attract talent to. I’ve heard of managers being unwilling to move to awesome communities because they just don’t know enough about them.

7.Don’t ignore the spouse and the rest of the family. “Trailing spouses” can make great employees. Can you make a job offer to the spouse? You could end up with a great “two for one” deal (with ½ the relocation costs!).

8.Consider temporary moves. A 6 month assignment can often be as developmental as a two year assignment. Can the manager try it out and commute back and forth, giving them time to get used to the new environment and then make a decision?

Again, please comment if you have additional ideas on this challenge.