02/24/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

About Leadership: Changing Jobs

Someone once asked me why I thought I had been successful in BP, and upon reflection I said that it was because I wasn't ambitious. I loved the first job I had, and thought I could be perfectly happy doing that job for a long time. So when the vice president to whom I reported suggested a different job to me, I was surprised and pleased, but I didn't think it was something that I had to have or that I deserved as a reward.

In a company where people destined for success change jobs regularly, it is possible for individuals to get very confused about what they are doing at work. Am I here to do this job, today's job, really well and achieve something of importance, or am I here waiting to get the next job, which is a step on the ladder to the ultimate job I really want?

This is particularly true because of the historic distinction of line roles and staff roles -- or jobs where you are supervising people, running a business, achieving financial goals, versus jobs where you are supporting someone, working in a corporate role, strategizing, or planning. I saw many bright people, put into staff positions, bide their time until they could get back to what they thought was a real job. They had been given a job that had a huge opportunity for learning, and they wasted that opportunity.

I think it is a pity that we give bright people very little preparation on how to make the transition from one sort of role to another. And this is especially the case for the line-staff switch. I have done this switch several times. The first was when I was in a university position, as a dean responsible for half a dozen departments, lots of students, etc. Every day was filled with events and meetings and problems to be solved. Then one day I switched to a role that was completely a staff support role for the senior leadership. And the calendar was empty. How do I fill my day? What do I do? The answer emerges, but gradually.

And again, in BP I went one day from having 425 people reporting to me to having a share of a secretary. When you have 425 people, no matter how good the organisation and the other managers, every single day there is a staff issue that needs your attention -- whether it is finding a next job for someone(!) or a staff member who wants leave to try out for a football team, the death of a child in a traffic accident, or someone found drunk under the diesel tanks (all of which I actually had to deal with).

And then suddenly all your time is your own, in a manner of speaking. Actually, all the time is the company's, but you have to decide how to fill it.

I think that this is a very disorienting transition for most people, especially the first few times. By the third time I did this, it was great. I had a lot of things I wanted to think about, and do, and at last I felt I had time to think, to plan, to work on ideas.

So a short plea, that among all the sorts of management courses we offer, one little segment should be devoted to this problem of staff versus line roles, and how to be effective in both. Leaders offering someone this sort of job change should please think a little bit about what sort of coaching is required, and how to set objectives for the new job.

One other observation about changing jobs: It sometimes happened in BP that people were moved far too quickly from one job to another. This is a disservice to the corporation, unless it is an emergency situation, and it is a disservice to the individual. If it happens more than once to the same person it can have long-term, negative consequences for their career. They are denied the opportunity to build a track record, and become a person who fills a management role that has suddenly opened. To stop this, an HR leader with a strong voice needs to be able to say "No, we will solve this another way."

Jobs are opportunities for learning, both about content and process. The content learning curve is steep in the first months; for most people it slows but never stops. It includes content about the business situation, about its technical underpinnings, about the competition, and the forces that drive the market. But it also includes knowledge of the people in the team, their strengths and weaknesses; the network of people inside and outside the corporation with whom one needs to interact effectively. What a pity to invest in building this content knowledge and not take the rewards of that investment.

Process learning comes more slowly, and more steadily. Each of us has to have the opportunity to experience novel and difficult situations at work, do our best to deal with them, and learn from that experience how to do it better the next time. Much of this is transferable from job to job; there is great value to being able to repeat the experience to get the learning deeply internalized. Almost all of us have, at some time or another, tried to learn a physical technique or a sport, and would accept without question that the 'process' needs to be practiced over and over again until it can be done with little conscious thought.

So it is with management, and the techniques for doing it effectively. When we take a person from one job to another too quickly, we immediately give them a big content learning requirement, and process learning is pushed to the side. There is little time to practice, correct, and practice again. The result is senior managers who know an inadequately small amount about many things, and whose skills at dealing with people and themselves are also poorly developed.

About Leadership: About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium-sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?