Isn’t it so tempting to relax on a luscious bed of status quo? Projected growth looks promising; profit margins are healthy; employees are happy; customers are happier. However, in the age of Industry 4.0, who can earnestly still afford to live by the motto “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? A period of relative prosperity like this is precisely when organizations should consider launching a cross-training program, addressing critical concerns like succession planning as part of a more intentional direction to future-proof the organization.
Defined as teaching an employee skills needed for a job other than his/her own, cross-training could help your organization do the heavy lifting of succession planning by installments, so to speak. It means convincing Erin, your UX designer, to learn the ropes of project management or asking key people in sales to take courses in cloud computing or data story-telling. Consider it non-stop professional reinvention for a future that will be dominated by disruptive technology like machine learning, the Internet of Things, and quantum computing, among others.
Cross-training isn’t just about reskilling or upskilling people. It means — when done right — developing people to lead in a whole, new way and to thrive in a future that demands 21st-century competencies. And this is exactly what successful succession planning is all about too. Of course not everyone who gets cross-trained will get a promotion in the next six months, but it’s possible. And for many talents, that professional grooming for “what may come” inspires motivation to last till the next fiscal year. The unavoidable truth is, some companies only start cross-training once a key employee sends in his or her resignation. But you don’t need the flashing, red lights of “urgent and important” to force you to start cross-training. Here are 3 ways institutionalized cross-training eases the unwieldy work of succession planning:
- Successors are more ‘rounded.’ What happens when employees have the luxury of having had experiences critical to broadening their perspective? Not just of their work, and that of others, but of the organization as a whole? Note here that we’re talking about perspective and not merely skills. The result is, they are more of “developed” leaders as opposed to merely “transitioned” ones. Regular cross-training would’ve exposed them to more cognitive diversity, to different frameworks, models of problem-solving, and existing sub-cultures, not to mention the chance to build relationships across teams.
Having such experiences gives them a more nuanced view of the organization that is so crucial for any leader. A 2011 PWC report on succession planning says that organizations that pull off succession planning successfully see it as a “development process” and not just a “replacement process.”
- You find ‘diamonds in the rough.’ GE’s 5-year intensive executive program is a rotating on-the-job training for entry-level GE talents that ships them to different locations in the world to learn and adapt quickly to real-world audit, technology, and operations. Call it management training on beast mode. Then again, not everyone is GE. But once an organization makes cross-training practically mandatory, the hidden gems, for example, in the finance department will start standing out. Often high potentials immediately apply what they’ve learned. They don’t just become an even greater asset to the organization, it gives you the chance to list them under your “emerging leader” category.
What management often forgets is that one person’s promotion or resignation will set off a domino effect all the way down. It means more people below him or her moving up. And in many cases, that’s a huge leadership vacuum to fill, especially if you weren’t on the lookout for potential leaders on all those tiers below.
- You are forced to start now. A telling 2018 Deloitte study on effective succession planning showed that 86% of leaders believe leadership succession planning is “urgent” or “important” but only 14% thought they did it well. These figures don’t even shed light on how many organizations fail to even make any form of succession planning.
A precious few admit that the behemoth subject of succession planning often falls into the cracks, along with other important but (seemingly) non-urgent matters like getting an environmental audit and designing a smoother employee onboarding process. Even fewer are willing to do something about it, despite the host of challenges doing so will address.
According to Inc.’s encyclopedia entry on the subject, cross-training boosts employee morale, increases productivity, and reduces turn-over. When an organization devotes the time, energy, and effort to coordinate operational gymnastics just so employees can take time off to learn, employees feel valued and are doubly inspired to give back to the organization. These are aside from the more long-term benefits like properly grooming heir-apparents to the corporate throne and building learning cultures that invest in people. Need we say more?
By Nirva Delacruz