Monday, 23 April 2012

Caretaker roles - done right they are a win-win staff development tool

I'm coming to the end of a very chellenging and enjoyable six months, a period during which I've been partially covering for a vacancy more senior than my main post. Football fans might like to compare it what Stuart Pearce has been doing for England.

I've not been fully acting up or doing the full range of tasks that the new postholder will be doing, but I've really noticed the step up I've had to make a successful stab at it. It's not been a secondment either, as I've retained my current role as well during this period. This post aims to reflect on the benefits of the process, and also acts as a personal bookend to this period for me.

The scenario was this: a vacancy appeared at the head of a large group in our Library. Senior positions like this take time to fill and something needs to be done to cover the vacancy until the post is assessed, advertised and filled. Every situation is different, but often managers choose to temporarily give someone some extra responsibility to help fill the void. This is what I was asked to do in October last year.

At the time I said yes, but was wary about what this would all mean. From the Library senior management's point of view I guess they saw this as a large-scale piece of delegation. Some of the same rules as normal delegation apply - ultimate responsibility is yours, give the person the info they need, let them know where to find you and then stay out of their way - but there are other factors too. The result of this action can be a temporary promotion, in effect, and this can develop an ambitious person (like me, let's be honest!) but this needs to be carefully managed from above, and also takes a big commitment to learn from the person taking the work on.

You shouldn't under-estimate the latter point - I probably did. It's not so much a case of being let loose with some responsibilities as being given the chance to learn what those responsibilities really mean. The best thing about was that it was in a controlled environment, with a fixed end. This was a temporary scenario so the risk that anything could go awry with this arrangement was minimal.

I've concluded from my time in this scenario that temporary promotions / extra responsibilities can be a very good thing, from both pragmatic, operational needs but also from a staff development point of view. Here are some conclusions:

Managing expectations is critical:
I didn't get carried away and that will really help me get back into the swing of my main role. My boss was great at setting the right boundaries for me here. The temporary nature of such a scenario gives you a great environment to learn in. This has allowed me to try on for size the kind of role I didn't know if I wanted before I waded in, without overwhelming me.

Embrace the opportunity:
Finding the confidence to start working at a new level is hard in a new post, as this wasn't much different. I focussed on thinking that they wouldn't have asked me if they didn't think I could do it. Secondly, I was not there to do the full-fat version of the job from the off - the job needed a caretaker, so the best approach was to not be intimidated and get stuck in!

Pay it forward:
You can use the opportunity to delegate work yourself more effectively. I've been delegated to so many times that I've learnt most of the tricks now, and I was able to use this period to give my team some new work too.

It might lead to something new!
At the beginning of this process I did not think I was going to be a potential candidate for the post I was helping to cover. However, as I settled into some of the new responsibilities I started wondering about it and found I was more confident about my ability to work comforatably at that level. In the end I gave it a good go and although I didn't get the job I think I got closer than I thought I would, and I certainly hugely benefited from the experience of the last 6 months - before that I probably wouldn't have even applied.

My bosses were able to take the time needed to fill the vacancy they had in the right way, without rushing or compromise. I've learnt absolutely loads, and I am definitely going to be better at my old job because of the experience I've gained. I'm also more employable as a result - there's no doubt my cv is bolstered, and that I'm better prepared for whatever comes next in my career.

If you are a manager with a vacancy to fill then if you use this tool correctly you can buy yourself some time, develop a member of your staff and keep the show on the road. If a vacancy appears where you work, you've got bosses you trust and they ask you to take on some extra responsibilities then say yes!