In the sports world, cross-training is training in sports or activities outside the
athlete’s core competencies. For example, runners learn about weight
training. Basketball players do yoga. Swimmers add cycling. These athletes
learn new skills to use the effectiveness of one training method to negate
In business, cross-training is about creating redundancies. Having highly
trained experts for each part of your business all year long is essential. But
what happens when someone must take leave, gets sick, or accepts another
job? Cross-training key individuals in more than one area protects your
company from unexpected vacuums. When done correctly, it may also allow
your employees to use the skills acquired while learning another position to
negate the shortcomings in their own field of expertise.
Develop Recognition and Coverage
Cross-training in business takes care of two essential needs; recognition and
coverage. When team members learn another area of skills, they also
understand and value other jobs’ importance and value. While this may seem
like a soft benefit, it’s critical to a high-performance team. For example, it’s
natural for an employee to think that other departments are easier to
manage, especially if they are managing them well (because they make it
look simple). But with cross-training, employees begin to understand and
internalize what works and what is problematic in various roles.
Secondly, redundancies provide coverage. With cross-training in place, your
business won’t slow down as people come and go. For example, if your sales
manager leaves, a marketing director with cross-training could cover those duties until the firm finds a permanent replacement. Likewise, if your CFO
needs to take a leave of absence, a CEO with cross-training can keep things
running until they return. When key senior personnel expands their vision
and responsibility beyond their areas of expertise, they are well-placed to
take over in a crisis. And that means that you, the owner, can continue to
focus on building your business.
What are Muddy Water and Clean Water Fish?
Cross-training protects your business, but it can also help you identify critical
issues in your workforce. As you start creating teams focused on
redundancies, you will discover that you have two types of employees. I call
them muddy water fish and clean water fish.
Muddy water fish thrive when the waters around them are cloudy. They can
work in chaos and can move forward even if they can’t see the way. For
most companies, muddy water fish are critical employees in the early stages
of development. When the company is just starting, clear paths and well-
defined processes are rare. So muddy fish are an asset in the early stages.
Clean water fish work best with maps and plans. They like to see the future
and know what’s next. In earlier stages of your business’s growth, that need
for process may have been annoying or even impossible to satisfy. However,
clean water fish are process-driven individuals who make good candidates
for redundancies. They like to share their process. They like to create order,
and they want contingencies for every eventuality.
If you’re staffed with muddy water fish, they may resist redundancies. They
push against process and planning. Many of these types of employees resist
attempts to create methods, regimens, and order. As the business owner,
you’ll have to convince your muddy fish to swim in clean waters. If they
refuse, it’s time for you to reassign or find a replacement.
This Means Owners Must Also Become Clean Water Fish
Most entrepreneurs start as muddy water fish. Very few entrepreneurs have
a detailed 5-year plan that they follow to the letter. Instead, startups usually
avoid rules or regimens so they can adapt to a variety of market situations.
Early on, muddy water entrepreneurs surrounded themselves with like-
minded employees who were equally comfortable with ambiguity.
However, when it’s time to transition to the next level, it’s also time to foster
a shift in the corporate mindset. It’s time to say goodbye to the rebellious,
nothing-to-lose attitude that launched the firm. While muddy water fish are
great for startups, they can hinder an established company.
That means it’s time to review your team. Can your muddy water fish adapt?
Some of these employees fight cross-training and leave voluntarily. They’ll
see that your business is no longer a good fit for them. You may have to fire
others. But muddy water fish still have a place in departments with built-in
chaos and change such as R&D, sales, and marketing.
Build Security with Cross-Training
Yes, some employees will embrace cross-training, and others will run from it.
But creating redundancies is one of the only ways to develop corporate
security. If your company wants to experience fast, profitable growth, you’ll
have to protect against obstacles that stall your expansion. And unexpected
vacancies in critical positions can be significant obstacles. Without cross-
training precautions in place, a single resignation could stop development in