The Benefits of a Job Exchange Program

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One of the best ways to develop a broad and deep set of leadership competencies is to move around in a variety of challenging and diverse jobs.

two human stick figures with a red arrow and a green arrow between them pointing in opposite directions
Credit: Viktor88 / © 2019

It might sound like a reality show—say, Manager Swap—where staff members get new managers and watch them adapt to entirely different environments and personality styles. But in reality, one of the best ways to develop a broad and deep set of leadership competencies is to move around in a variety of challenging and diverse jobs. If you are lucky enough, you can do this in your own organization through a job exchange program.

In 2018, I participated in a job exchange at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). The services operations manager and I (the technical operations manager) exchanged roles for what was initially a six-month job swap. This experience turned out to be a rich and rewarding professional development opportunity.

The idea of a job swap seemed a bit intimidating at first. I had been in my role in the UNB IT department for six years, leading a highly technical team of developers, systems analysts, and network analysts, along with staff in the data center facilities unit. The CIO challenged me and the service operations manager to exchange roles. This meant that I would manage the "softer side" of the IT department—the client-facing side. This included service desk, deskside support, desktop management and repair, mobility, and the professional services teams.

As I considered the exchange, I realized that I had very little face-to-face interactions with some of the staff members who were located off-site. Some of my "new" staff members and I were feeling a bit apprehensive about the swap. The manager exchange program would have to be carried out thoughtfully and with extensive communication between myself, my counterpart, and the affected team members.

There was no doubt that as managers, we were up to the challenge, but we had to make sure that we laid the groundwork before the exchange began. Preparing well ahead of time was not just for our benefit. Doing so would help us to build awareness early on and ensure that we and our team members started the exchange with a solid foundation.

Why Participate in a Job Exchange?

Implementing a job exchange program results in a number of benefits, including the following:

Promoting Innovation

Having someone new in a position helps to promote fresh ideas and encourage thinking outside the box. This benefits the person who is in the position and the organization. This new perspective will undoubtedly foster new ideas among team members.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Having people in new positions in the organization helps them broaden their outlook so they can see the bigger picture. Moving out of their comfort zones can make it easier for individuals to connect with the organization's strategic objectives.

Role Backup

Having employees work in other roles for an extended length of time ensures that there is backup if someone takes a long-term sick leave or vacation, or suddenly departs the organization. This also can help to eliminate a single point of reliance. Having a shared experience can be helpful when a specialized, hard-to-fill position within an organization needs to be filled.

Networking Opportunities within the Organization

Participants in the exchange have opportunities to work with people they may not deal with otherwise, both within and outside of the organization. Networking with different professionals provides opportunities to gain fresh insights into the broader organizational perspective.

Skill and Knowledge Transfer

Through the job swap, participants learn about different aspects of the organization and are given the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge in areas they normally would not be able to. Participants are also able to use their new experiences and ideas when they return to their previous position.

Staff Retention and Motivation

Providing staff with the opportunity for a job exchange lets them broaden their experience without moving to a different department or organization. The experience could also benefit the organization by helping to retain employees who may have been heading out the door if not for the renewed and fresh perspective on the organization they gain as a result of the exchange.

Planning for the Exchange

The services operations manager and I started planning for our swap in fall 2017. One of the first questions we had to answer was: Why are we doing this? This was an important question to ask for two reasons: the answer would provide a gauge for us to measure the successes of the exchange, and it would help us to explain the reason for the swap to staff members on both of our teams.

For our exchange, we came up with five main objectives:

  • Break down the silos between teams
  • Improve internal communication
  • Provide professional development for staff members
  • Provide personal/professional development for ourselves
  • Improve our understanding of the anatomy of the organization

Planning for the swap is critical for success. The goal is to make sure that each person has the tools and knowledge to carry out the swap effectively. In my case, I met weekly with the manager I was going to swap with to discuss issues such as operational procedures for each other's teams and the existing service level agreements that were in place for the off-site staff members who worked for faculties and other departments. Of course, we also had to discuss any current HR issues that we were dealing with. However, we were careful to ensure that we brought our own perspectives to these issues.

Tell Everyone. Then Tell Them Again. Then Tell Them Again.

About two months before the swap took place, we started informing our teams about it during staff and one-on-one meetings. We wanted to make sure everyone heard about the swap in a variety of ways, over a long period of time. This also ensured we stayed ahead of the coffee room chats, so that when people talked about the swap, everyone had the same information.

One of the main points we stressed was that all affected staff members were more than welcome to provide input, both good and bad, to the CIO. We wanted to make sure that if anyone had any hesitations about the swap, they would have a chance to voice their concerns. Staff members were encouraged by both of us, the directors, and the CIO to bring forward any concerns in any way they wanted: through face-to-face meetings, with written comments, or in an anonymous way.

Making the Exchange Successful

The following points may seem obvious, but they are crucial for a successful job swap.

Be Flexible

You should begin the new role with an understanding that it will not go the way you expect it to—especially early on. When I started in my new role, I found that I had preconceived notions about how certain areas of my new department worked. I quickly learned that I was wrong. So, I decided that before I made any of the changes I had planned for some areas, I would let things go for a while to examine all aspects of the issue I was facing, especially since some of my new staff members were apprehensive about my making a lot of changes.

In order to relieve their apprehension, I made sure that proposed changes were presented to staff members so that everyone had a chance to discuss them and an opportunity to provide input beforehand.

Collaborate and Communicate

As much as you want to make your own mark on your new team, you need to regularly communicate and collaborate with the person you swapped with. We agreed at the beginning of the swap that, while we would likely make some changes, we would not attempt any major changes. However, we also agreed, especially at the beginning of the exchange, that we would bounce ideas off each other. This was especially useful when dealing with staff-related issues, as it helped us to avoid unforeseen pitfalls while we adjusted to our new work situation.

Keep in mind that eventually you will be going back to your old role; communicating and collaborating regularly will help when you return to your former position. Keeping up to speed as to what has been going on with your old team (even at a high level) is key to a successful transition back to your old position.

When meeting with your counterpart in the exchange, be careful not to take over as you talk through issues, especially at the beginning of the exchange. You need to let the other person work through the issues—you're there only as a coach at this point. The other person may fail, or you may fail, and that's okay. You'll both learn from it, and in the long run, you'll both be better at your jobs because of the experience.

Setting Expectations

It is imperative that staff members know what you, as the boss, expect from them. This provides your team with a clearly defined purpose, which you should reiterate with your team so they know what to expect from you. During my first team meeting after the exchange started, I reminded the team members that I was there to learn from them, to help them learn the technical side of the organization, and to facilitate better communication between the technical and service teams.

Fixed Duration

The last point in helping to make the exchange successful is that there needs to be a clearly defined end date for the exchange. By having a set timeline for the exchange, you can establish realistic goals, as you know how much time you have to achieve them. The timeline for my exchange was originally six months, but five months in, it became evident that the timeline was too short. Our CIO suggested we extend the timeline for the job swap to twelve months. This gave each of us exposure to the start of both fall and winter terms and the challenges that go along with them.

Setting a fixed duration also helps you to plan your transition back to your previous role.

The Exchange Experience: Integrating Yourself into Your Team

A simple way to start integrating with your new team is to switch offices with your counterpart. While this may seem like a lot of unnecessary work, especially if you are switching within your own department or if the swap is for a short period, it is worth it. It sends a message to your existing team that you're fully committed to your new role, and it also ensures that your new team members will come to you when they need help. If your counterpart is in his or her old office, team members will go there out of habit (or familiarity), which is not fair to anyone.

In my new role, some of my team members were not physically located in the IT department. The service desk staff are located in the center of campus, while deskside support staff work in separate faculties and departments. I started working two days a week in the main library where the service desk is located and held my one-on-one meetings with the deskside staff in their locations. This seemed to work quite well, as it helped me to become better acquainted with the teams. It also gave me insight into what off-site staff members dealt with on a day-to-day basis.

Measuring Successes

We had five main objectives for the exchange: breaking down silos, improving communication, providing professional development to staff members, achieving personal and professional development for ourselves, and gaining a better understanding of the department.

In my experience, some of the objectives were easier to measure than others. It is safe to say that I gained a better understanding of the department as a whole over the course of the twelve months. I also had many opportunities for personal and professional development.

The more difficult objectives to achieve were breaking down silos, improving communication, and providing staff professional development. We began holding information-sharing sessions with the teams, focusing on specific topics. This gave service staff members an open forum to ask questions, evaluate documentation, and get to know their teammates better.

What we experienced is probably not surprising: our five objectives could not all be completed within a year, as they must be worked on continuously. Having participated in the exchange, my counterpart and I could now work on these objectives from both perspectives—by coaching our teams to look at any issue they are dealing with from the "other side of the coin," so to speak. For example, I am now better prepared to coach the technical team to look at things from the client's side, such as replying to tickets in a nontechnical manner or understanding how difficult it can be for the tier-one staff to determine what team (e.g., network versus systems) to direct a reported issue to for resolution.


Participating in a job exchange is a rewarding experience not only for the individuals taking part in the exchange but also for the teammates or staff involved. The positive changes that occur as a result of the exchange cascade throughout the organization.

In order to be successful in a job swap, you have to go into it with a helpful mindset. This means meeting with your counterpart regularly, formally and informally; sometimes a text message to bounce an idea off the other person is all that is necessary. You also need to learn to let go and let the other person deal with stuff from your old job (yes, that can be hard!). Remember that your counterpart is dealing with the same challenges you are.

You will make mistakes, but they can lead to successes down the road. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking that you can get everything accomplished that you had hoped. But that does not mean that the work has to stop; you now have someone who has walked in your shoes, and you can work with each other to continue the good work each of you started during the swap.

I have touched on only the surface of this experience. Thinking back on the exchange, I found myself dwelling on some things that I did not accomplish. However, as this year has progressed, I see initiatives that I had started now coming to fruition. Thanks to the close work between the service operations manager and myself, the walls between our teams are slowly coming down. Teams are communicating more, and we're working on developing regular in-house professional development opportunities to bring the teams together more. Each day, someone on my team reflects on a situation that they learned from during the exchange. It is now almost a year since the exchange ended, and we're still discovering positive changes that have resulted from the seeds that each of us planted.

For more information about enhancing your skills as a higher education IT manager and leader, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Professional Development Commons blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Career Development page.

Blair T. Sawler is Technical Operations Manager at the University of New Brunswick.

© 2019 Blair T. Sawler. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.