The mobility challenge

Members of dual-career couples understand that they’ll need to make multiple moves across functions and geographies if they want to ascend to senior roles—and they’re not averse to that. But having to drop everything and move at a moment’s notice forces them to choose which partner’s career will lead and which will follow. These days, fewer couples are willing to make that trade-off.

Take Melissa and Craig, both of whom were managers in their companies’ “future leader” programs. They had long harbored dreams of working abroad, but when Craig was offered a “now-or-never golden opportunity” in London, he turned it down. “Melissa could probably have found a job in London, but not at the same level and on the same track,” he told me. “Equality is important to us, and we know that senior careers are uncertain. So we want to hedge against risk by balancing our careers. We need to move in a more planned way.” Eventually, the two did make an international move. First they agreed on a destination—Dubai—and then they launched parallel job searches. Melissa’s interest in moving to the Middle East landed her an internal transfer and a boost in responsibilities. Craig’s company was less keen on a transfer, but he found an exciting new role with a competitor.

Craig’s company lost a talented manager to a rival not because he wasn’t mobile but because it couldn’t match mobility options to his needs. Even if he had accepted the London job, his employer might have paid a price in the long run. Expatriate assignments and geographic relocations are often
cut short when an executive’s partner struggles to adapt to a new community, for example, or can’t find a suitable career opportunity. Because Craig secured a good job in Dubai, Melissa’s expat assignment was more likely than many others to succeed.

The mobility challenge is exacerbated when organizations expect several moves in a short time frame, which is not unusual. At one global chemical company, for example, a new management acceleration program moves people through three functions—and to three locations around the world—within a year and a half. “You move every six months,” the head of talent explained. This rounds out participants’ experience and knowledge in an efficient way. But, she added, “it certainly doesn’t work if you’re in a dual-career couple or for anyone who doesn’t want to drag their family around the world….So it stops a lot of great talent from even applying.”

Even when managers are not enrolled in formal rotation programs, many companies expect their best people to spend no more than three years in any role before moving to a new challenge. Those who don’t progress at that pace will look stagnant and perhaps be shown the door. “I’m dealing with a very talented woman who is going to lose her job,” the vice president of HR at a global logistics firm lamented. “She’s at the end of a three-year role, and she cannot relocate because of her husband’s career. Rather than being flexible and saying, ‘You can still live in Charlotte and commute to Atlanta three days a week,’ her manager is saying, ‘No, it’s all or nothing. We’ll just have to let her go.’ It’s frustrating. Retaining senior female talent is a key priority for us, but the business is stuck in this rigid way of operating.” I heard stories like this from about 40% of my research sample. It sounds crazy to set an arbitrary three-year limit on someone who is doing excellent work. But most companies assess executives on potential as well as performance—and people who don’t want to move are dinged on potential, because they’re perceived as lacking ambition. Thwarted advancement is the most likely outcome, particularly for junior and midlevel managers. But at senior levels, where fewer lateral moves are available, there’s a great deal of pressure to “move up or out.”

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