Enhance Your HR Effectiveness with Cross-Training

Today’s HR professional must be ready for anything and skilled at many things. Cross-training can help get you there.

By Jennifer Arnold Mar 21, 2017
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Jennifer Pristera has a hard job. As senior vice president of human resources at legal services firm Garden City Group, she and her team are responsible for recruiting and supporting some 700 employees. The work requires placing people in a variety of positions at varying skill levels, from call center representatives to specialized attorneys, and office locations run the gamut from hipster Seattle to a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. "There are micro-cultures at each location," Pristera says.

With such diverse contexts and skill sets, it can be difficult for HR practitioners to lure the right mix of talent while also serving employees and managers effectively. That’s why Pristera recently implemented cross-training for her team. Just as strength and conditioning programs that include a mix of exercises improve physical fitness, this approach to professional development involves moving through HR rotations at each office location and shadowing staff in different functional areas. For example, the HR team for the call center sits in on calls to better understand "what the people they are supporting and hiring go through every day," Pristera says. "They learn the culture and what makes things tick."

Many HR departments face similar challenges—and, experts say, many could benefit from a cross-training program like the one at Garden City Group. In addition to strengthening the businesses that sponsor them and aiding in recruiting and retention, such efforts also boost the careers of participants.

Upskilling HR

While cross-training and other forms of cross-functional assignments have been around for decades, few employers have provided these types of opportunities for human resource professionals. That is ironic because HR is often in charge of career development for the rest of the organization.

Experts say leaving HR out of cross-training is a huge potential loss. "The best ideas can’t cultivate and impact the business if they’re created in a silo," says Ryan Estis, a management consultant and speaker based in Minneapolis. "It is incumbent on today’s HR practitioners to insert themselves."

Indeed, there are many reasons the time is right for HR to embrace and incorporate myriad competencies and roles. For one, top executives are beginning to grasp the importance of finding the right talent—not just available talent—for 21st century business demands, Estis says. Research shows that 60 percent of the North American workforce is underengaged. In addition, only about half of managers and rank-and-file employees report having trust in the leadership of their companies, according to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Meanwhile, as younger employees enter the workforce in droves, they bring with them changing notions of loyalty. The average amount of time that the next generation of workers is projected to stay with an employer is slightly less than three years, Estis says.

"There’s never been a bigger opportunity for [HR] to impact the success of the organization," says Estis, a former chief strategy officer at advertising firm McCann Worldgroup. Cross-training can help HR do just that. Positive outcomes for the business include greater teamwork and efficiency within the HR department, improved relations with hiring managers, better recruiting and retention rates, support for succession planning, and increased employee engagement, experts say.

At the same time, participating in a cross-training program can help individual HR practitioners develop new skills to advance their own careers and gain a broader perspective on HR’s role within the enterprise.


Seize the Duties!

The "other duties as assigned" clause in job descriptions has long been a running joke in HR and other work circles. If you’re not careful, a whole other position can lurk within those four innocent-sounding words. Yet it’s important to remember that "other duties" can bring opportunities as well, so try to see them as informal cross-training possibilities that could:

Raise your profile. Working on something other than your regular tasks exposes you to a new set of co-workers, managers and customers, who will likely be impressed by your enthusiasm, team spirit and ability to learn quickly. This broadens your network and helps build your reputation within the company and the industry.

Impart new skills. Formal training opportunities can be expensive, and your employer may not have the budget for it. Take every opportunity you can to learn new skills and expand your understanding of the business and your role. HR’s responsibility is to support every employee in the company. The more you know about each and every position, the more effective you’ll be.

Allow you to test out an area of interest. Maybe you’ve been thinking that you’d like to try recruiting, or benefits administration, or training and development. Pitching in on a temporary basis within your existing organization gives you an opportunity to learn more about the realities of the role and decide if it’s really a good fit for you.

Make you more marketable. Although your new responsibilities might not be in your job description, that doesn’t mean they can’t go on your resume. Once you’ve learned a new skill, whether it’s how to conduct a behavioral interview or how to use a new software program, it’s part of your skill set—and you can leverage it to move up within your current organization or snag a new position somewhere else.

Start with Your Goals

There is no one-size-fits-all model for HR cross-training; the approach depends on the goals for the business and on the resources available. For example, if your objective is to equip existing HR staff members with the skills necessary to cover each other’s responsibilities during time away from work, the process might be more informal. If you’re looking to build a pipeline of future HR leaders for the company, however, the initiative will likely be more structured and require more organizationwide involvement.

Garden City Group’s program grew out of an analysis of various information such as turnover rates, exit interview responses and employee survey results. "All led to the decision that we needed to continue to develop and invest in our employees through training," Pristera says. For her team, she wanted to develop internal job rotations to increase understanding and efficiency within the HR function as well as in departments with high turnover, such as the call center.

"Having an HR team that can relate and understand the business—managers are very appreciative of that," Pristera says. "They know that we understand the struggles they go through." Cross-training is offered to each HR team member as time allows.

At General Motors (GM), the goal is to develop future HR leaders. As part of its popular Technical Rotation and Career Knowledge (TRACK) program, the automobile manufacturing giant offers two specialized HR paths that include three assignments during a three-year period. Participants of the manufacturing HR path spend 12 months each in labor relations, as an HR business partner and in a production group. The corporate HR path also includes a labor relations stint, as well as a year in global compensation and benefits and a year in either talent acquisition or management. "We are very intentional about the assignments," says Nikki Merchant, HR manager of global human resources and global people services at GM. "We want to make sure that when they emerge, they are ready to run."

Cross-training can help hr practitioners develop new skills to advance their careers.

In addition, TRACK participants are matched with mentors who remain connected with them throughout the program and, often, beyond. "Everyone benefits from a partnership with a more experienced colleague," says Benjamin Allen, program manager of global talent and development in GM’s human resources division.

GM had been offering rotations in 11 other departments for two years before the HR paths were unveiled. In 2015, as GM’s senior leaders began analyzing the HR function and planning for the future, they recognized some gaps. "We had some bench strength needs," Merchant says. Based on TRACK’s success in other divisions, the team decided to expand the program to HR.

Paving a Path

Structured, multiyear rotation programs like GM’s often focus on early-career professionals recruited from the company’s pool of interns or among MBA students at universities across the country. (GM’s corporate HR path is aimed at interns; the manufacturing HR path is available to experienced hires.) Experts say these types of career development offerings are critical to recruiting the best and brightest candidates, particularly among the Millennial generation.

Indeed, even though younger workers are more likely to job-hop than those from older generations, Estis says, they tend to stay longer "if you demonstrate a career path and give them exposure to other skill sets."

Experienced HR leaders agree. Information technology giant IBM has offered an HR track in its comprehensive three-year Leadership Development Program (LDP) for decades. "It’s a good model for recruiting," says Laura Casale, program manager for HR and general manager of the company’s LDP. "That’s what candidates are looking for. They want a chance to experience the company."

IBM currently recruits LDP participants from its intern program; Casale says a path for existing employees is in development.

Cross-training opportunities can also influence corporate culture and support team building. At GM, "We want [TRACK] to be a great experience to build a cross-functional network," Allen says. The initiative at Garden City Group has helped build camaraderie both within the HR department and across locations. "It really helps us as an overall HR department and helps us create one consistent culture across the organization," Pristera says.

Resources for Smaller Employers

Of course, not every employer can invest in multiyear training. "At larger companies, there is a lot more ability to move people around," Pristera says. "At a midsize firm [like Garden City Group], where we earn our revenue through billable hours, it’s hard.

But even small organizations can reap the benefits of cross-training by adapting some of the components of larger programs to better fit their needs and resources. "My advice would be to start small," Pristera says. Creating a simple cross-training initiative within the HR department presents opportunities for staff both as trainers and learners, while also increasing efficiency.

For opportunities involving other departments, senior management’s backing is critical. "Make sure there is top-level executive support," Casale says. "A commitment needs to be made."

But, again, the first step can be a modest one: "Just ask for the HR team to go work in different offices, to come in and learn the business," Pristera says. "Then build it from there."

Every employer can find ways to identify and develop talented employees for future roles. GM’s TRACK program includes opportunities for participants to come together for training events, presentations from outside speakers, and small-group forums with senior leaders. "We offer opportunities for all 12 [TRACK] functions to come together twice a year for events and activities," Allen says.

Some of these experiences can be modified based on available resources to cross-train employees and help them better understand the business. For example, try organizing lunches or trainings with external guests or informally pairing employees with mentors in different departments to expose your team to new skills and ideas.

HR leaders can also find nontraditional ways to provide cross-training opportunities to their employees. Leveraging remote-work tools such as videoconferencing may allow an HR staff member to virtually experience a typical workday for an employee at another location. "Technology affords organizations with a lot of opportunity to develop skills and competencies in a more efficient way," Estis says.

Use Data to Build Your Case

To get senior-level support, you’ll need data to make a business case. Experts say there are a number of metrics that will get the C-suite’s attention—and that can be demonstrably improved by a commitment to HR cross-training.

Turnover rates and employee survey responses are two key data points that can help show both the need for and the impact of a cross-functional approach. "Show you’re part of the business," Pristera says. "Provide data and show how [cross-training] will help drive the business forward. You need to help [senior managers] understand the cost to the business when employees leave. Once you get your CEO or CFO to really see those numbers, they’ll be on board."

Cost savings on HR outsourcing or temp hiring may also help make the case. If members of the HR team are able to take on each other’s duties, they are better able to provide uninterrupted overall support when individuals take vacation or family leave or abruptly depart from the organization.

‘Provide data and show how [cross-training] will help drive the business forward.’ 
—Jennifer Pristera, Garden City Group

IBM has years of data from its Leadership Development Program for HR that show the positive impact of its initiative. "Overall, we track what graduates of the program are doing, their accomplishments, promotions and awards," Casale says. "We have found that [LDP participants] progress more quickly than others." IBM’s HR leaders also look at recruiting and retention statistics. "Our recruitment rate is pretty high, and we have great retention with the program," she says.

GM’s HR TRACK has only been in operation for a little over a year, but the initial measures are encouraging. "It is quite new for us, but we’re looking at [participant] engagement scores, attrition and data on acceptances from offers," Merchant says. "In the future, we’ll be looking at additional data," such as the progression of program graduates into leadership roles.

At Garden City Group, cross-training has resulted in improved retention in the HR department. "We have almost a year’s worth of data, and we’ve seen a significant drop in turnover," Pristera says.

Of course, as with any human resource initiative, evaluation should be ongoing. IBM recently held a "thinking session" with current LDP participants to review and revise the program’s experiential development component. The recommendations that resulted prompted efforts to simplify the program’s structure and led to more cross-business interaction, according to Casale.

Both GM and Garden City Group regularly survey program participants to seek feedback and ideas for improvement.

After decades of managing cross-training programs for other parts of the business, HR professionals should now take advantage of this powerful tool for themselves. Whether you’re an HR manager looking to have a major impact on your organization or an individual contributor seeking opportunities to expand your knowledge and skills, cross-training will make you a stronger leader.

[SHRM members-only resource: HR Jobs]

Jennifer Arnold is a freelance writer and editor based in Jacksonville, Fla. This article relates to HR Expertise, one of the nine competencies on which SHRM has based its certification. To learn more, visit www .shrmcertification.org.

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