Why You Want to Lead a Team with Transferable Skills and How to Build One

When companies talk about talent development, retention, and succession planning, words like “cross-training,” “knowledge transfer,” and “redundancy” tend to crop-up. I’m a big fan of these techniques, as they work in organizations large and small. By developing a workforce this way, companies create employees with overlapping skill sets, skills that may be applied intra-departmentally or inter-departmentally. Almost no one at an organization will argue that this kind of overlapping is a bad thing. It doesn’t create “fat” in an organization but rather the opposite – a fail-safe. In fact, when a company faces imminent downsizing, having cross-trained employees assists with continuity and minimal disturbance to daily productivity.

So why is it that when it comes to the hiring process, too many companies seem to overlook the value of transferable skills? I recently wrote about what I see as a significant problem in today’s hiring process that is leading to unintended consequences with new hires: HR recruiting software’s algorithms scan for keywords but people’s capabilities – particularly transferable skills capabilities -- aren’t always evidenced by the keyword matches found in their resumes. If the recruiting personnel tell the software to only seek certain keyword matches – like job titles or years of experience – the company might not even ever interview an extremely qualified individual. That’s the problem with algorithms:  they’re only as good as what they’re programmed to do, and as we used to say in computer coding class:  GIGO (garbage in, garbage out).

Think about professional sports teams, for instance.  Everyone knows of stories of the high school track star that ends up playing professional football because of their speed; or the college quarterback that ended up playing professional baseball. In these instances, the teams recruiting these players saw their transferable skills as assets they could apply and improve upon. Pro sports teams constantly take risks based on transferable skills, so why doesn’t corporate America?

Hiring for Transferable Skills has Multiple Benefits

When your company deliberately seeks out and hires people with transferable skills, a number of gains can be achieved:

  1. You will be hiring an individual proven to be trainable and coachable;
  2. You will be hiring someone with enough vision and initiative to see the application of their skills to a different job, a good indicator of problem-solving and critical thinking abilities;
  3. You will already be hiring an interdisciplinarian, someone ready-made with a skill set that might come in handy someday in your company or in the various roles in your company that this person can play;
  4. You will be hiring someone who from Day One will feel challenged and encouraged by the opportunity to succeed at something new. In other words, they’ll be engaged, and what company these days doesn’t want engaged workers?
  5. It will send other positive signals to your workforce that your organization can benefit from: that you’re open-minded; that you’re willing to give people seeking forward progress a chance; that you see value in change, not sameness; that the potential exists for workers to pivot internally should they want or need to which means your employee might be less likely to leave without asking about an internal transfer first.

You will also benefit from encouraging the development of transferable skills within your existing team: it helps fight employee burnout and boredom. According to the 2016 Udemy Workplace Boredom Study, 43 percent of U.S. office workers are bored, and bored workers are twice as likely to leave a job as an engaged one. The study also found that 80 percent of workers feel that learning new skills would keep them more engaged.

Build It, and They Will Come

Companies with a commitment to workforce development consistently make Fortune’s list of Top Best Places to Work, and in so doing, these companies continue to attract top talent. Millennials, in particular, are attracted by companies that offer training and other promises of employee engagement. Even besides traditional training programs, though, you can build a team with great transferable skills by:

  • Creating cross-functional awareness - Invite members of the company from outside the team to come and have an open dialogue about what your team does and what this person’s position does. Learn from the exchange and encourage the outsider to make suggestions based on what they see with their own set of fresh eyes. Consider it as a mini-audit and consultation your department doesn’t have to budget for!
  • Encourage employee-initiated cross-training - if anyone from your team expresses an interest in growing their skills in an area of the company they’ve been exposed to, help facilitate their cross-training by finding them a mentor or devising a simple plan they can follow. Having your blessing goes a long way to sanctioning their interest and the future interest of other team members.
  • Incentivize referrals – 85 percent of most jobs are filled by networking, so why not get your team some skin in the game and offer them a bounty for their qualified referrals? Indicate what skills you’re looking for…even if the candidate comes from outside the industry or outside the standard norm for the open job position.
  • Embrace your inner maverick – Keep your people intrigued: make a point of always having a person or two on your team that doesn’t seem to belong based on their past background but who you know really has the right skill set to be an excellent asset to the team over the long-haul.

If you want to lead an ever-evolving, engaged team, don’t just rely on an algorithm to find you the best job candidate. Push your hiring managers to look beyond the surface and you’ll find some great candidates with transferable skills to benefit your team and your organization.