Beware of Temporary Assignments to “Special Projects”

ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Maureen was thrilled to be hired into the world’s third-largest travel-services company as a Senior Vice President of her own division, with profit-and-loss (“P&L”) authority. Finally, she would have, in effect, her own distinct business to run, and could show the world her ability to make a mediocre-performing business into a rising-star enterprise. This was surely a solid stepping-stone to her eventual goal: consideration for a CEO position.

However, within six months of her arrival, in the midst of top-level discussions of reorganization, there seemed to develop a territorial battle related to Maureen’s primary areas of responsibility. Her CEO came to her, privately, and asked her to consider “a tremendous opportunity”: heading up the corporate-wide Six Sigma Initiative, the quality-driven discipline and methodology that has revolutionized many American corporations. Maureen was told that she was the CEO’s personal choice, she would have company-wide authority, and her selection had the complete backing of the Board of Directors. It seemed to her that turning down the CEO and Board would not be wise; and the opportunity to learn the entire organization seemed tantalizing. Maureen accepted.

Two years later, after successful incorporation of the Six Sigma Initiative, she received the bad news: there was “at this time” nothing available “at her level.” She was presented with the company’s standard severance package.

LESSON TO LEARN: There are many people out there – especially in information technology – who today wish they’d never been chosen to head up their former employer’s Y2K efforts. That’s because many of these people lost their jobs shortly after the year 2000 began, without a major Y2K problem. They’d expected that this seeming “special assignment” would be a feather in their cap, especially if things ended successfully. And most were surprised how much this “special assignment” hurt their careers.

Why? Two primary reasons: First, the “benign” reason: distance from perceived value, in general, and revenue stream, in particular. Simply put, being taken out of the mainstream of a company’s operational activities can make you, over time, something of an outsider, and more importantly, an outsider whose continued employment does not seem necessary. For example, you may have done a fine job of overseeing the relocation of the division headquarters from Duluth to Denver, but once the division is up and running in Denver, there may not be another job for you to transfer into. Once “out of the loop,” you may find it hard to get back in. Bear in mind that those with most job security are those who are close to a revenue stream.

Second, the “malignant” reason: one way to get rid of a perceived political foe is to give them a supposed plum, out-of-the-way assignment. Special assignments have a way of coming to completion, or eventually losing their funding. It’s a common political ploy. In order to terminate a political foe, you generally need one of three things: (a) bad performance; (b) misconduct; or (c) position elimination. Of these three, the third is the easiest to bring about. If you take on a “special assignment,” and that special assignment is de-funded, or completed, or re-assessed as a lower priority, you may find it to have been a bad career move.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO: You shouldn’t simply avoid all special assignments. To the contrary, they may represent opportunities. With this in mind:

  • Consider carefully whether it’s wise to take the special assignment;
  • Make sure the special assignment has secure political support, and secure long-term funding;
  • Most importantly, “fold your parachute first.” That is, negotiate and confirm in writing specific assurances that you will have a “chair” to sit on when “the music stops.” A re-entry plan is essential to acceptance of “special assignment.”