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Are Boomerangs Your Best Leadership Strategy?

To develop future leaders, the best approach may be to toss them away and catch them when they return.

John Boudreau

John Boudreau

A skilled operator can make a boomerang perform amazing feats. It can be tossed a long distance, precisely travel a planned arc and then return to exactly the right place: the hands of the thrower. Its value is realized only when it’s thrown away. To someone who does not understand that, or lacks the skill to make it happen, it seems quite logical to grip the boomerang tightly and use it as a hand-held club.

In the same way, companies typically rely primarily on long-term employment to build skills, talent and leadership. Even if a company gets lots of its work done with contractors or part-timers, the basic assumptions often reflect a traditional “buy and hold” employment model, particularly for high-potential employees destined for top positions. Yet, when you see long-term employment as only one option, you may realize that tossing away your best talent may be your most formidable development strategy.

In September 2013, when Microsoft acquired the handset and services business of Nokia, the main storyline was about the potential synergy of vertically integrating the phones that rely on Microsoft software and the maker of that software. Buried several paragraphs deep within many of the articles about the deal was a potentially much more significant fact: Stephen Elop was among the 32,000 Nokia employees that would join Microsoft in the $7.2 billion cash transaction.

Before moving to Nokia in September 2010, Elop had served as president of Microsoft’s Business Division for two years. In other words, Elop was a “boomerang,” tossed to Nokia only to return to Microsoft just as the CEO, Steve Ballmer, announced his retirement. Was this planned? Steve Ballmer said that the first calls he made outside Microsoft to discuss his retirement were to Elop and the chairman of Nokia’s board, Risto Siilasma. Some reports suggested a “Trojan Horse” strategy after uncovering clauses in Elop’s employment contract that created a personal incentive to engineer just such a sale.

Peter Voser, the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell from July 2009, retired in May 2013. Voser had more than 25 years of experience at Shell, having joined the company in 1982. Historically, Shell’s top leaders spent their careers at the company. But unlike many Shell leaders, Voser’s career there was not continuous. He spent two years as the CFO of power and automation company ABB, from 2002 to 2004, before returning to Shell as CFO.

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