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Retain the Best with Flexible Staffing

By: Bruce Tulgan,

While interviewing professionals in the merchandising organization at a large retail store chain, my team found that many people were frustrated with the rigid, hierarchical, one-size-fits-all career path. There were nine levels in the hierarchy, and it was as strict as any I’ve ever seen. In one interview after another, individuals spoke fondly of the organization and of their merchandising profession, but it was clear that they hated the career path available to them.

One person after another told us, “I’d love to keep working here, but I think I’m going to be moving on soon.” So, we asked each person, “Is there anything that would convince you to stay?” And one person after another said the same thing, “Well, if I could join the SWAT Team, I’d probably stay.”

“The SWAT Team…” we inquired, “What’s that?”

The SWAT Team began like this. Several smart managers had been confronted one at a time with some very talented people who wanted to opt out of the merchandizing organization’s rigid career path. Each of them had different needs and desires, but they were all sick of going to the same place every day, during the same hours, and doing the same work in the same position in the hierarchy. Each person was looking for a greater mix of responsibilities, exposure to different aspects of the business, new learning opportunities, contact with people other than those in their immediate department, and some more control over their own schedules. And none of them really cared about moving up the ladder (although they recognized the fact that it was seemingly important to the organization.) They all were looking to grow their careers, in their own directions, and in their own ways.

How did their managers respond? Rather than saying, “That’s just not the way we do things around here,” their managers decided not to lose these people altogether. The solution was to employ those individuals as a “reserve.” Each person was taken out of the traditional career path, but they remained exclusive employees of the retail chain. Instead of going to work for other companies to reinvent themselves, they were now given the ability to do that within the organization they were already employed by. They were put on unassigned status and they would remain available to fill gaps in the staffs of the nine different divisions internally as those gaps occurred.

When those staffing gaps did occur (which was quite often,) these unassigned individuals were sought after and much appreciated. After all, they more or less already knew what they were doing. Available employees would be called in when needed and, like a police SWAT Team, take the pressure off. That’s how the SWAT Team got its name.

In no time, those in the SWAT Team, that band of roving unassigned talent, became some of the most valuable people in the merchandizing organization. When we asked managers if there was one thing they would do to improve their staffing situation, almost every one of them said, “We need more people on the SWAT Team.”


Now when talented people want to opt out of the traditional career path, this retail chain has a great career option for them and a great way to retain them. What started as an ad hoc solution to retain a handful of talented people grew into a successful solution to deal with a whole range of flexible workforce issues.

In addition to helping this retail chain manage its unpredictable staffing needs and providing talented people with more flexible work arrangements, the SWAT Team promotes knowledge sharing and best practice migration across divisions because members have such broad exposure throughout the company. This exposure, and a proven ability to adapt quickly and achieve tangible results (required traits on the SWAT Team) also puts members high on the list of managers seeking core team members for their divisions.

That chain has successfully created a high-profile, high -prestige, highly flexible, highly rewarded alternative to the old-fashioned career path. And they’ve met some of their most pressing staffing needs in the process.

About the Author:
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an on-line training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009; revised and expanded edition 2016), It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007), Winning the Talent Wars (2001), FAST Feedback (1999), and the classic Managing Generation X(1995). His work has been the subject of thousands of news stories around the world. He has written pieces for numerous publications, including the New York Times, USA Today, the Harvard Business Review, Training Magazine, and Human Resources. Bruce also holds a sixth-degree black belt in classical Okinawan Uechi Ryu Karate Do. He lectures periodically at the Yale University School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Dr. Debby Applegate, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning biography The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher(2006) as well as Madam: The Notorious Life and Times of Polly Adler (forthcoming).

About RainmakerThinking, Inc.:
RainmakerThinking, Inc. is a management research, training and consulting firm and the leading authority on generational issues in the workplace, founded and run by best-selling author and internationally recognized management expert Bruce Tulgan.

Since 1993, their research has included hundreds of thousands of participants from hundreds of organizations in a wide range of industries. RainmakerThinking continues to pursue three ongoing longitudinal studies: The Generational Shift in the Workforce (since 1993), Leadership/Management/and Supervision (since 1995), and Human Capital Management (since 1997).

Based on this ongoing research, RainmakerThinking has provided assessment, training, and consulting services for more than 400 different organizations ranging from the United States Armed Forces to Wal-Mart.

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