Blog Post

Prepare for Talent Curveballs With Cross-Training

Suzanne Lucas

Founder, Evil HR Lady

The biggest reason we hire people is because they have skill sets that meet our current needs. But business needs change and, perhaps more frequently, employees' lives change: people have babies, get married, move on to new opportunities.

It may look like you have every skill your department needs on paper, but when you face these changes, you'll need people to do tasks and projects they weren't hired to do. This is not an "if" situation; this is a "when" — so, what can your organization do to handle these inevitable moments with ease?

One of the best ways to prepare for talent gaps is to offer training opportunities across departments. While cross-training, or employee rotation, is often recommended as a retention strategy, it's also a great succession planning strategy. By arming employees with a variety of skills, you simultaneously arm your company to handle the talent curveballs thrown your way. Here, five tips for setting up effective employee rotation:

1) Realize Limitations

It might seem like a good idea to teach your accounts payable clerk how to do the tasks of your chief scientist, but unless your training program allows employees time to gain a Ph.D. in chemistry, you're going to have to teach people somewhat familiar skill sets. It's much easier on you and the accounts payable clerk if you keep cross-training relevant to their current strengths.

Of course, you should also remain open to employees' interests when it comes to cross-training: Your junior accountant might actually make a great sales associate.

2) Make Time for Cross-Training

If you never give your employees time to train and learn, then cross-training is a moot point. Rotational opportunities should be a priority for everyone, which means managers need to be flexible if their employee is doing a rotation or if someone new comes to their department for cross-training. To integrate cross-training into your company culture, consider making it part of every department's and employee's performance goals.

3) Identify Key Tasks

Everyone has responsibilities that aren't time critical. Of course, everything needs to get done, but not everything has to get done every day — and different types of work require different types of time management. When you plan for cross-training, make sure that employees are not only training their team members about general tasks, but also sharing time management tips for those tasks.

4) Plan for Key Tasks

After identifying key tasks and priorities for each position, identify who can do the tasks if the main employee is out. You may think this is impossible — who else can handle critical legal documents if you only have one attorney? If you don't have another employee who's interested in learning about business law, consider building a relationship with a law firm as a backup. Will this cost you? Yes. But will it be better (and cheaper) than dealing with panic if your in-house attorney suddenly quits? Yes.

This certainly creates a little extra work, but it also plays into the succession planning you should already be doing in HR. If your IT manager's appendix bursts and no one else can restart the server, you don't want to say, "Gee, we probably should have cross-trained someone to do this critical task. Instead, we have to wait for the anesthesia to wear off."

5) Keep an Eye Out for Surprises

You may find out that your HR manager has a special knack for payroll, or that your payroll manager is fantastic at screening candidates when she cross-trains with your recruiter. Nobody should feel that their job is in jeopardy when you cross-train, but you may find out that certain people have talents and interests they didn't know they had. Keep that in mind for succession planning.

It may be impossible to have every task and department perfectly covered, but as you begin this process, you'll develop a business that can handle the unexpected. And that's well worth the effort.

Photo:Creative Commons

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