Transforming Leadership Education Through Exchange Programs

Richard Cai and Friedrich Lindauer

We see scores of self-help books, motivational articles, and management forums elaborating upon the to-dos and how-tos for leadership. They all, more or less, articulate the same messages:

  • Be agents of change
  • Build one-on-one relationships with your people
  • Be diplomatic, rely on tact, and rein in your urge to deliver blunt feedback
  • Be credible; you are being watched
  • Communicate effectively and consistently
  • Motivate and reward your employees
  • Manage conflicts with wizardry

Yes, of course, these are tried and tested approaches.

Yes, we all agree that they bring effective results!

And yes, they not only help in building good leadership skills; they also help in the overall development of the manager. However, how many management initiatives help managers adopt these methods?

The case for education

Clearly, not everybody comes with inborn communication skills or the art of conflict management. Management skills need to be acquired through multiple instruments such as certification, training, and advanced education – programs designed to enable managers to enable their teams.

While education equips a person with tools for success, the most important question is: does it enable you, as a manager, to fulfill your role as a leader in practice? For managers to become enablers, they need to educate themselves beyond going to trainings and experience practical applications of the things they learn. The learnings gleaned from management books look good in theory but need to pass the litmus test of being deployable in real-world situations.

The case for exchange programs

Education is not only updating knowledge through learning material, info sessions, and training. Education includes on-the-job opportunities such as shadowing and coaching. One very creative and daring instrument is the expert exchange program – which isn’t considered enough when discussing manager enablement programs.

Typically, an exchange program involves two managers swapping of roles or teams (or both). To draw from a real-world experience, we tested this approach in our own teams. In Q3 of 2017, we joined the exchange program, swapping our teams for a two-month period: Friedrich moved to human capital management (HCM) from financials and Richard moved to financials from HCM. This was step 1.

Step 2, the day-to-day implementation of the program, was the most significant part. It required each us to let go of our existing teams and responsibilities and embark upon an adventurous journey into unknown territories and situations. Right from the start, we were tasked with handling completely new people, topics, and processes. From the first day, we learned that what worked in our original teams did not necessarily work within the new contexts.

Small things that became clear right away were the differences in complexity and composition of our new assignments. The priorities were different and so were the expected results, as were other layers of criteria such as location, local laws, and industry-specific best practices.

We learned that the exchange program is not just education, it is also an eye-opener. We experienced the adage: Do not judge a man until you walk a mile in his shoes. This line not only underscores the need for empathy but also hints at the need for diversity in experiences. This led us to step 3 – the learnings!

Learnings and accomplishments

Breaking the rut of siloed thinking

In many hierarchical companies, it is natural for organizations to think of their own units and put their interests ahead of others’ priorities. Although practical and legitimate, this might not be the best approach in terms of all factors, such as budget. The exchange program asks participants to consider the context of others and helps them develop empathy. This is not forced. It comes from a feeling of ownership and the ability to see problems from the inside – which you were not privy to previously. The exchange program can be very effective in succession management or preparing you for the next step of your career. You can also ramp up in a new topic through the exchange and expand your portfolio of offerings as a contributor.

Acquiring new perspectives

When you take on the mantle of the new team, you can see many things from a different angle. You gain new perspectives and have the opportunity to learn from the other team’s best practices, which you can then apply to your own team when you return.

Viewing problems from the outside

Not only can you gain new learnings from your new team, you can continue learning from your own team after stepping away. Yes, you read it right! As soon as “his” problem becomes “mine,” there is a shift in perspective that helps you understand the situation. You learn it is easy to critique something from far away. However, conversely, when “my” problem becomes “his,” the detachment from the situation can actually help find solutions. You can see the overall situation only when you step out of it.

Embracing the success factors

  • Do your homework by acquiring knowledge about your new business domain.
  • Trust your exchange partner to provide full transparency about his or her department.
  • For your part, ensure that there are “keine Leichen im Keller,” which is similar to the English phrase “no skeletons in the cupboard.” Let your exchange partner know all relevant details – warts and all.
  • As this program requires the participants to move out of their comfort zones, ensure you are willing to learn.
  • Get your team in order before you hand it over as a mess to your exchange partner. Imagine what you would do if you were to let someone else live in your house. Consider it as an “Airbnb” for business departments.
  • Have a culture that can foster this kind of growth and that can accept potential upcoming issues.

Adopting the how-tos

  • Make yourself unavailable for your original team.
  • However, be available for your exchange partner.
  • Take the risk of not being the expert. Expect a steep learning curve. Learn fast. Ask, ask, ask. Especially ask why.
  • Take over tasks, take over responsibilities, make decisions. Try to solve the issues of the new department – get fully involved.
  • Understand the limitations of the exchange program. For example, if stakeholder management goes far beyond the boundaries of the exchange program and could be business critical, know when to raise the flag.
  • Communicate to all involved parties, such as teams and stakeholders.
  • Have one-on-one meetings with all team members and key players.
  • Exchange your calendars. Exchange your rooms, even if it means relocating to a new city!

Preparing for the challenges

  • If there is no trust, it will be a challenge to execute the exchange. If there is a trust deficit, invest in building this first.

Sharing the benefits of the exchange experience

One prerequisite of participating in an exchange program is that the organization offers the openness, freedom, and culture to match anyone with anyone. A “post-requisite” would be that you conduct “lessons-learned” exercises – both from the leader’s perspective and from the department’s perspective. Take inputs from all stakeholders. For example, after our exchange program, our HR wanted us to share our experiences with them so they can invest in this program throughout the company. We were able to share our learnings with them and also highlight the key benefit of enabling two people at no cost.

As an instrument of building leadership, the exchange program is a win-win – it not only benefits the participants but also the entire unit.

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Richard Cai

About Richard Cai

Richard Cai holds the role of Vice President of SAP Globalization Services, leading SAP HR software localization development globally, and managing a product team across Germany, China, Brazil, India, Russia, and UAE. Prior to the current role, he was responsible for business planning and quality governance for the SAP globalization portfolio, product development, and services. Richard spent 12+ years in the field, leading the front-line business for SAP’s consulting organization with direct P&L responsibility, specifically managing both professional services sales and delivery of SAP applications, technology, and industry-specific solutions. He also successfully established the 3rd-party software reselling business in the Field Services organization in the Greater China region. Richard has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and a master’s degree in Technology Management.

Friedrich Lindauer

About Friedrich Lindauer

Friedrich Lindauer (Fritz) is Vice President and Head of the Product Unit Financials at SAP Globalization Services in Germany. He began his career at SAP as a developer and later headed various international teams. He has been responsible for creating SAP software solutions in the area of SAP Netweaver, Electronic Data Interchange and Financials. Fritz has over 25 years of professional experience, having worked and lived in Germany and the US. He graduated in Medical Computer Science at the University in Heidelberg, Germany.