IT job swapping at FedEx for fun and profit

IT managers spend six months in each other's shoes

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' 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 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 "6x6" 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."

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