Build A Deep Talent Pool In Your Utility

A job-rotation program can help you stay in the game when employees retire, take extended leave or find new jobs.

In sports, successful teams benefit from developing a deep bench — a core group of well-qualified backups who can keep a squad competitive in the event of unexpected events, such as player injuries or trades. Ideally, corporations and organizations shouldn’t be any different. 

So how can your organization make like a first-rate sports team? The answer is both simple and cost-effective: develop a job-rotation program, also known as cross-training. 

It makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider that your company is a lot like a sports team. Your employees are effectively free agents, free to leave at any time — and in today’s business environment they often do, especially if they’re younger millennials who are apt to change jobs more frequently. And just like athletes, your employees could miss time from work because of “injuries,” such as prolonged illness. Or an employee may be taken out of the starting rotation, so to speak, due to maternity or family leave. 

“Because employee mobility is so much higher these days, you need to have people who can fill in if someone resigns unexpectedly or is out sick or on family leave,” says Dr. B. Lynn Ware, the president and chief executive officer of Integral Talent Systems Inc., a talent-management consulting firm based in Mountain View, California (

“You need bench strength — other people who can step in and do the job, providing customers with continuity of service.” 

Cross-training used to be considered more of a leadership development tool that could give high-potential managers experience in all areas of a company or organization. But Ware says that over the last several years, she’s seen more and more companies interested in implementing cross-training programs for all levels of employees. 

“There’s so much change going on in organizations these days, with all the technological advancements and [socio-economic] disruptions, that it makes sense to have employees who can do many things as opposed to specializing in just one area,” she says.

As further proof of their burgeoning popularity, Ware notes that of the nearly two dozen different topics she covers in webinars, cross-training is one of the two most popular sessions. And when you stop and consider all the benefits, it’s easy to see why. 

First of all, cross-training can reduce employee turnover by increasing job satisfaction. Cross-functionally trained employees typically aren’t bored silly because their routine and responsibilities can vary. As such, cross-trained employees are also more engaged and productive, Ware says. 

“There’s a very strong correlation between employees who feel they’re getting professional development and higher rates of engagement and lower turnover rates,” she explains. “And that, in turn, leads to better customer satisfaction and higher productivity, and all those factors drop to the bottom line. We all know what it takes to do enough to keep our jobs. But motivated employees are more willing to work more hours — go the extra mile.” 

Cross-training is also gaining traction because more and more employers are hiring greater numbers of millennials, a large generational cohort of 20-somethings that will become a large part of the workforce in the years ahead — particularly in mature industries, Ware points out.

“Millennials are attracted to organizations that focus on skill and employee development, which are top motivators for them,” she says. “In fact, those factors are often more important than pay to millennials. They like to take a ‘tour’ of a company and examine different roles and careers. So companies with job-rotation programs will stand out from the competition and help attract quality employees.” 

Cross-training is also effective for companies that utilize extremely proprietary processes that require specialized skill sets that most people don’t possess. “If you can’t find a lot of people off the street who have the skills you need, then job rotations are a great strategy,” she adds. 

Such programs also give employees a better understanding of how different functions and departments work — how all the pieces that make up organizations fit together. After employees work in other departments and see what those jobs entail, they often have more empathy and appreciation for colleagues in those areas. As a result, they may be less frustrated than before when things go wrong because they realize all the things that go into making things happen in other corners of the company. 

“The broader an employee’s perspective, the better corporate citizen they’re going to be,” Ware notes. “They may even be able to provide new insights and solutions to problems in other departments because they come in with a fresh perspective. Overall, job rotations give organizations lots more internal capabilities.” 

There are many details to consider when starting a cross-training program from scratch. But in broad brushstrokes, here are some points that require primary consideration:

1. Back to basics. Ware suggests that companies begin by following the 80-20 rule, which states that roughly 80 percent of effects stem from 20 percent of the causes. In other words, about 20 percent of an employee’s duties are mission critical, while the remaining 80 percent are miscellaneous in nature. As such, cross-training should cover only the most important and most frequently performed core tasks.

2. Coherent communication. Make sure the reasons why you’re implementing a program are well known and properly communicated internally. If not, you run the risk of employees coming up with reasons on their own, which typically don’t mesh well with the organization’s goals or strategies. 

“Emphasize the team aspect — that this will give employees the ability to fill in for each other and meet goals collectively,” Ware advises. “Millennials are especially attuned to working this way — they’re used to working in teams. You also need to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the trainers and trainees.”

3. Fill the gaps. Figure out ahead of time how you will compensate for the absence of employees who go off for training. Some companies swap two employees from each department; one person from marketing gets cross-training in sales and vice versa, for example. 

“Other companies have floating employees who can pitch in,” Ware notes. “I’ve also seen companies hire retirees part time who used to do the job [that’s temporarily being vacated].” The average length of a structured cross-training assignment is about nine months, but stints will vary in duration according to how formal/informal the training program is and the complexity of the jobs being learned. Again, focusing on the five or six most critical job skills is paramount, she adds.

4. Walk before you run. Before implementing a full-scale, all-encompassing program, develop a short-term prototype program and see how it goes, then adjust things accordingly before rolling out a larger-scale version, Ware suggests.           

It’s also important to measure whether or not the program is successful. One way is to measure organizational outcomes, such as lost customers or sales figures; if customer loyalty increases or if sales rise after a cross-training program has been around for a while, those metrics indicate the program is working, Ware says. 

“You can also measure things like employee retention rates,” she adds. “Or do an employee survey and see if people who participate in cross-training programs score higher in engagement and job satisfaction. Use whatever metrics you usually use to measure organizational outcomes and success.”

And while you’re at it, measure the depth of your bench; you may need a bigger one for all those newly qualified starters-in-waiting.


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