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Cross-Training for the Career Win

A seasoned high school soccer player who has excellent shooting, passing, dribbling and heading skills walks into your office looking for a personal trainer to help her boost her game. To reach the next level—say, collegiate-quality—making her ball skills even better may not be what’s most important. To further excel, she will need to hold her own at control, speed, agility and strength. If she improves these abilities and combines them with her already exceptional ball skills, she’ll have the tools to become a strong, well-rounded college recruit. This is an example of strategic cross-training.

It’s no secret that cross-training is an effective way to exercise, and to ensure that participants don’t plateau and programs don’t become stagnant. Generally speaking, people are linear learners: really good at one format or skill. However, we all overlook related activities that could advance our performance. Cross-training keeps both the mind and the body active. Why not apply a cross-training strategy to the business world? You could boost your performance from good to excellent by encouraging employees to develop a complementary skill to support their strong leadership qualities, in the same way you’d balance the athlete’s training in the example above.

Say, for instance, that one of your instructors is dynamite at programming group exercise classes for active older adults, but retaining participants is proving difficult for him. Adding another specialty certification—say, in senior fitness—will expand his resumé, but it won’t necessarily bring in members. Instead, encourage him to learn a complementary skill, like inspiring others. This will give him the knowledge to keep participants motivated and engaged.

Competencies and Complements

Research conducted by Zenger, Folkman and Edinger (2011) shows that when people apply the cross-training strategy—“developing skills that complement what [they] already do best”—they win. This investigation found “16 leadership competencies that correlate strongly with positive business outcomes, such as increased profitability, employee engagement, revenue and customer satisfaction” (Zenger, Folkman & Edinger 2011). Here are the 16 competencies:

  1. displaying high honesty and integrity
  2. exhibiting technical/professional expertise
  3. solving problems and analyzing issues
  4. innovating
  5. practicing self-development
  6. focusing on results
  7. establishing stretch goals
  8. taking initiative
  9. communicating powerfully and broadly
  10. inspiring and motivating others
  11. building relationships
  12. developing others
  13. collaborating and fostering teamwork
  14. developing strategic perspective
  15. championing change
  16. connecting the group to the outside world

All of these attributes are important to becoming a successful fitness professional. Imagine how much your facility would improve if all your employees strengthened just one leadership skill through a simple cross-training platform. So how do you start? Follow the steps below.

Step 1: Identify Strengths

Although career coaches and organizations use many formal strength assessment tools—for example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the DiSC® assessment and the Birkman Method® assessment (see Resources below for more information)—you can also use an informal method to gather data. First, decide whether you want to analyze your team as a whole or each employee individually. Then, evaluate your team’s/employee’s performance in each of the 16 core competencies. Solicit input from managers in other departments, from interdepartmental employees and even from facility members. Other effective ways to collect information are direct conversations, staff meetings and a short survey. Gather and examine the data, then create a list or table of outstanding strengths, reasonably strong strengths and weaknesses.

Step 2: Select a Current Strength to Develop Further

You could focus on improving weaknesses. Let’s say self-development is a common weakness in your team. You might schedule special training, relevant continuing education, professional conference incentives and so on. Choosing strengths, however, puts a positive spin on the process. “For the greatest success, for both the employee and the organization, follow the path of natural interests and passions,” advises Karen Knauf, president and work-life strategy coach at Aspired Performance, based in Austin, Texas. “Analyze both the needs of the organization and the genuine interest of the employee to determine where there is a match,” Knauf continues. “From this information, determine which strength, if improved, could create the greatest amount of positive influence for the organization, individual and/or team.”

Step 3: Choose a Complementary Behavior

Once again, suggests Knauf, “Choose to develop a complementary strength that not only is needed by your organization, but also is something that your team or employee is passionate about. Next, apply a cross-training strategy: Determine what complementary strength you wish to enhance, and then work to improve those basic skills. For example, if your team is already at the top of its game at ‘technical expertise,’ then working harder on technical expertise may net only small improvements. If, instead, you complemented your team’s skill set with specific, focused improvements toward ‘building relationships’ or ‘displaying high honesty and integrity,’ you would net significant positive impact for your department and organization. With these complementary improvements, your team may be perceived as more effective in sharing and executing technical expertise.”

Imagine the possibilities if you have a well-educated, honest, scientifically sharp team of personal trainers who also excel at building relationships with members. This is a fitness manager’s dream team.

When working with employees on an individual basis, always consider each person’s unique set of strengths in relation to the work environment. “You might expect that all successful personal trainers have a level of technical proficiency in their field, and yet we might say that no two trainers are alike,” observes Knauf. “In the same way, consider that all successful general managers have leadership abilities, but imagine the many, many ways to lead!”

When you combine complementary skills, you create an “opportunity to make extremely powerful combinations that make your employees indispensable,” declares Knauf. “For example, consider instructors who display strong business acumen, and [also display a lot of] compassion for others. They are then encouraged to take more initiative, and as a result they develop and implement a successful program to address the fitness needs of injured veterans.”

What is a complementary skill? In short, it’s any business-minded characteristic that corresponds to current leadership-competency strengths and is a boon to organizational success. Think of the skills that are needed to excel in the fitness industry: exercise science knowledge, motivation, a results-driven attitude, communication, honesty, etc. To get more ideas, review Folkman, Edinger and Zenger’s (2011) complete list of complementary behaviors at www.harvardbusiness.org/making-yourself-indispensable. (To download the article, you will need to sign up and provide a company name.)

Step 4: Create an Action Plan

When deciding what to improve, be creative and think outside of the box. For example, link the core leadership characteristic “technical expertise” with the complementary skill “building relationships.” Ways to do this include enrolling in a business communication course, attending networking functions at fitness conferences, committing to listen to clients before speaking, learning effective ways to stay connected via social media, spending one day per month working alongside the membership sales staff—or even a combination of these. The options are endless, and they reflect a deeper layer of skill development.

Step 5: Evaluate Your Plan

Just as a trainer evaluates a client’s progress, you must also evaluate your cross-training plan. Assessing your plan at 6 months and again at 12 months should give you a good idea of its effectiveness. For simplicity, tie individual cross-training plans to annual performance reviews. Again, evaluate team and/or individual strengths, and solicit input from appropriate third parties. Compare and contrast your newfound information with the original data. Be sure to revise if necessary.

In reality, creating your dream team is always a challenge. Some employees will be more open-minded and more willing to learn than others. An introverted yoga instructor may never feel comfortable or confident networking and building relationships. However, you can certainly enhance your staff’s current skill set to boost employee production and performance. When implementing a corporate cross-training program, choose wise, realistic goals and give employees ample time to make behavioral changes. It may take time and a little courage to apply new knowledge or to step outside a comfort zone.

Additionally, Knauf cautions, “Be careful not to try to develop too many competencies at once. This can dilute efforts and outcomes.” Focus first on one or two complementary strengths. If you deem your plan successful, then choose another core competency and reapply the cross-training strategy. Continual implementation of a well-developed, unique, corporate cross-training plan can help progress your employees, department and entire organization from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

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