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Diana Ong

I met Tanya years ago, at a global corporation where she led a business unit and enjoyed a reputation as a formidable mentor. “The thing I always keep in mind,” she told me with obvious pride, explaining her approach to management as we walked through a bustling open office, “is that these people are the best talent in the business. They could be working elsewhere, if they so chose. And I am sure that many will, eventually.”

I knew that to be true. Competitors poached people in Tanya’s unit regularly. And yet there was no trace of cynicism in her tone. “Each of them is valuable and hard to replace,” she continued, “but I can’t preach them loyalty. They’d laugh at me. I can’t pay them more, either. All I can promise is that while they work here, they’ll grow more than they would anywhere else. And when they leave, they will be leaders wherever they go.”

Some version of Tanya’s promise — working here today will make you a leader elsewhere tomorrow — is at the center of many companies’ talent management strategies. Its popularity has led to the rise of corporate universities and to the corporatization of universities, all promising to turn talent into leaders. It is more than a promise of learning. It is a promise of transformation — that a stint at the organization will change your substance and value, not just your leadership style, in ways that will outlast your tenure in it.

Despite that promise’s troublesome aspects (Jennifer Petriglieri of INSEAD and I have written about those before), it holds strong appeal. Talented people flock to institutions that make it, regarding costs such as tuition fees, long hours, or foregone earnings as investments in their future. But “transformation” remains a nebulous promise at best, and corporate drivel at worst. Who gets transformed, into what, and how? What good is it for people and their organizations?

Jennifer and I set out to answer these questions, together with Jack Wood at CEIBS, in a study of young managers’ experiences at an international business school that we shall call “Blue.” The study, just out in the Administrative Science Quarterly, shows why the promise attracts and motivates the mobile talent that companies covet, and how it binds them to the organization even after they have gone.

Our findings reveal that the “portable leader” is the contemporary equivalent of the “organization man” of old — a cherished, demanding, and problematic ideal that boosts both the careers of people who conform to it and the status of firms that cultivate it.

The pursuit of portable leadership cements the bond between individuals who aspire to it and organizations that promise it, stoking the former’s commitment even if the latter do not offer long-term membership. Elevating as leaders those who are most portable, however, puts pressure on talent to keep moving, and risks devaluing people who do not.

We also identified two mutually exclusive paths that people take to pursue portability. Our study suggests that if firms invest in only one of them, or demand that both be taken at the same time, they will alienate or overwhelm a subset of their most valuable people.

In Search of Portable Leadership

We chose Blue as our research site because it promised to select the best talent and transform them into leaders, and used the methods widely employed in business to do so. Less of a traditional academic setting and more of an executive boot camp, Blue’s MBA program only accepted experienced managers and exposed them to heavy doses of assisted reflection (journaling, coaching) and practice (projects in real companies).

Blue seemed to keep its promise. Applicants competed for a place there, attracted by its focus on both their personal and professional growth. Companies lined up to hire them. In short, Blue was an exemplar of those institutions that host members temporarily yet promise to transform them permanently, developing the kind of leaders that people want to become and other companies want to hire. And its participants were the kind of accomplished, ambitious, and mobile managers for which companies wage talent wars.

We followed 55 such managers for one year. All had invested their own time and money and had little certainty about what the future held after Blue — other than more moves. One, who had worked in two industries and three countries before getting there, told us:

I have always been very fluid. Depending on where the market is heading and the trends we see in business, I am very open to different things. I never feel locked into a specific industry or function. I always think of myself as acquiring skills, not necessarily taking a job. Hopefully, in my skill-gathering I will be able to get everything I need to take on whatever job comes my way.

Careers like this person’s are loosely tethered to institutions and feature frequent transitions, either by necessity or choice. A pejorative picture of the people engaged in such careers portrays them as chronically uncommitted, hopping between jobs and companies, transactional in their affiliations. Employers, in this picture, are little more than service stations, where one stops only long enough to get energy and provisions on the perpetual road trip of a personally crafted and individually driven career.

Our findings paint a different picture. Rather than being neither here nor there — suspended between past and future employers, accomplishments, and ambitions — the people we studied were both here and there. They engaged fully in their activities and relationships at Blue because they regarded it as a microcosm of their outside worlds. One participant offered a telling metaphor of this way of seeing the institution’s value:

You can learn to live in a jungle in three ways. You can read about it in a book, and then go to that jungle and see how you do. You may not even read the book, and go straight to the jungle. Or you can spend some time in a zoo and understand how the animals work, realizing that it is not the real world but learning a bit about a tiger before it’s about to charge at you. Coming to Blue is like living in that zoo for a year.

The more Blue succeeded in positioning itself as a microcosm of many other workplaces, the more people invested in it, worked hard, and assumed that skills and relationships forged there would be useful and last after people had gone their separate ways.

Rather than striving to find, and ease the transition to, a single future dream job, the people we studied engaged in a broader yet more immediate project: crafting a “portable self” that would be valued at Blue and beyond — a self as a leader. “Being a leader” was shorthand for being in charge of one’s destiny, connected and useful to others, even in the absence of the mooring and direction of a traditional career ladder in a single company.

“It’s very comforting,” said one participant toward the end of the year. “If I find myself in a situation where I am just not happy doing what I am doing, I should proactively do something and change.… I have more confidence in my ability to do that, and I don’t think I would have had it going to another company [instead of coming to Blue].” Notice what this person finds comforting: It is not having found a job, but feeling confident enough to leave one. What makes Blue compare favorably with his other career options, in his eyes, is it having bolstered his portability. As another participant explained, “[At Blue] I was able to connect with people throughout the world, and that will give me a sensation that I can always count on somebody.” If you could make it there, it seems, you could go anywhere — and have roots everywhere.

Two Roads to Portability: Hunting & Exploring

The pursuit of portability (cloaked as leadership) took two different forms. Some people, whom we colloquially called “hunters,” had a clear view of whom they aspired to become but saw themselves as lacking the competence and connections that would get them there. “[Blue] will help me understand whether I will be able to realize myself at a senior position in a global organization,” one remarked. Others, whom we called “explorers,” were less sure about what they wanted to do and, at times, who they really were. They saw themselves as lacking the clarity and courage to set a path of their own. One said,

I am hoping that Blue will take me a step further. I don’t know what that step further is. I like to think there is a whole new way of thinking of myself, of thinking of my life, of thinking how I am going to be facing work that is not just overcoming my weaknesses. It is something that I am not seeing right now and I will see after Blue.

These diverging aims and worries were more than private musings. They affected how people in each category saw and engaged with others and the institution — shaping their trajectory at Blue, what kind of portable self they ended up pursuing, and their job search.

The hunters regarded others as role models and sources of feedback, and the institution as a training ground. In their eyes, Blue was valuable because it was similar to, yet more forgiving than, the so-called “real world.” One described it as “a safe place to make mistakes.” Hunters valued and invested in opportunities to practice a variety of skills and different ways of showing up. “It was a really grueling experience,” explained one describing a business simulation, “but in the end the output was excellent. [It] was like looking at a microcosm of how things work and don’t work.’’

The explorers regarded others as a source of friction and support, and the institution as a magnifying glass. In their eyes, Blue was valuable because it was similar to, yet more exposing than, the “real world.” Being “totally exposed,” as one put it, made it easier to learn about oneself. Another explained, “my past hasn’t changed; I am not somebody else. But a lot of things have become much clearer.” Explorers valued, and invested most in, opportunities to reflect on which way of showing up felt truly theirs, and to try, as one put it, “to deliver who I am in a single way to everybody.”

Hunters focused on cultivating flexibility — the ability to get along with different groups and adapt to the demands of many organizations. This is what portability meant to them — to be “more versatile, more international…able to go after everything” as one explained. By contrast, explorers sought to cultivate resolve. Portability, for them, meant identifying their “internal passion,” as one described it, and choosing groups and organizations that would let them express it and cultivate it further. “Several companies emailed me with interesting positions, and I declined all those invitations,” another told us. “I’ve really been consciously trying to paint myself into the corner and making sure that I don’t get those kinds of easy options, because they’re just too tempting sometimes.”

Becoming both resolute and flexible — anchored in your true self and adaptable to different circumstances — sounds ideal in a fluid labor market, and Blue emphasized the combination in its marketing and curriculum. But, surprisingly, none of the managers we studied tried to pursue both aims. What sounded good on paper was not appealing, or even viable, in practice. Hunters saw little value in the introspection Blue encouraged, and explorers regarded the pace of practice there as little more than a distraction.

While many people spoke of suffering from fear of missing out in the wide and hectic world of Blue, they in fact deliberately, if not consciously, checked out of a significant part of the opportunities and relationships that the institution provided. On the surface, this might seem dysfunctional, a strategy that eroded the return on people’s investment. A deeper analysis, however, revealed that it served a specific function. Casting themselves and others into distinct, contrasting types helped people focus on one clear set of aims and fears, reducing the ambiguity that was a constant feature of the institution and of their careers beyond it. It gave people a sense of direction, if not a clear destination, and a set of supportive connections. People might have been portable, but they were neither aimless nor alone. And that made all the work Blue had demanded worthwhile.

“Before, I thought I was more tied to people and to places and to organizations, and now I think that I can go anywhere,” concluded one participant. Another said, ‘‘[Before Blue] my company was more in power to make the call on where I should go next, whereas now I think that I have power back, and I can make choices of where I am going to go.”

These sentiments were widespread in our sample, and reveal the benefits of pursuing and promising portable leadership. For an individual, the appellation can serve as protection against the uncertainty of contemporary careers, and as preparation for the fluidity of labor markets. Organizations that offer to grant it, like Blue, become attractive, selective places to be. The more the people we studied identified with Blue’s promise of portability, the more committed they were to their work there — and grateful, too. In an age of talent shortages and distrust in institutions, what organization wouldn’t want to attract the best people and stoke their commitment and long-term allegiance?

The Complications of Developing Portable Leaders

While one needs to be cautious in generalizing from our kind of study — an in-depth examination of a single organization — our findings offer useful insights for the leaders of organizations that seek to attract and develop talented managers pursuing mobile careers.

The findings explain why some people might dismiss the same learning opportunities that others find valuable, and expose why mentors must go beyond broad appeals to relevance. The hunters we studied called learning relevant if it was immediately useful; the explorers, if it was surprisingly revealing. Assuming that all talent seeks flexibility will alienate those who yearn for self-discovery, and vice versa. Leadership development initiatives should offer and support both paths, letting individuals choose theirs.

The study also casts light on why many companies invest in leadership yet experience a shortage of leaders. If the pursuit of leadership is about aligning one’s present work in the organization with one’s future work elsewhere, what gets neglected is the future of the organization. Encouraging portability could also backfire on individuals: Other research shows that star employees tend to underperform after they move to new firms. Yet companies that invest in developing leadership with a focus on retention and internal advancement might not be as attractive to ambitious talent. The leadership developed there just might not feel portable enough.

Organizations that sustain the perception of portability, our study suggests, generate strong identification — an allegiance that can outlast people’s tenure there. The stickiest companies, in the end, may be the ones easiest to leave. This central finding is seemingly paradoxical and raises further questions. If the portable leader is the new organization man, does this new ideal lead to bias against talent that is less mobile, or that at least appears tied to one function, organization, or geographical place? Do organizations that hold out the promise of portability — making mobile working lives more bearable, less lonely, and more focused by increasing talented managers’ confidence, ability, and opportunities — inadvertently discourage the development of commitment to a single place, purpose, or organization? If so, that could be dangerous to the organization: These are just the kind of commitments that make leaders trustworthy.

Executives like Tanya, whom I cited at the beginning of this article, use the promise of portable leadership to attract talented people to their companies, motivate them, and build valuable networks of alumni outside the firm’s walls. The challenge for those executives and companies, however, is fostering portability without devaluing loyalty, and making sure that as they develop tomorrow’s leaders, they don’t shortchange their own firms.

Original Article