Leaders today are beginning to see an urgent need to optimize their company’s agility and adaptability in the face of unprecedented growth and change. And as any leader knows, a company’s most powerful asset is its employees, from the Board to the front lines. So how can leaders ensure that they are building a workforce with the strength and skill to overcome any obstacle, from steady technological advances to unpredictable “black swan” events that disrupt global markets? The first step is to shift their hiring and employee development strategies away from the fatal “but we’ve always done it this way!” strategy of only hiring and training top-of-market subject matter experts (SMEs), rather than also finding and creating cross-skilled “translators.”
Why Translators Over SMEs?
Traditional wisdom tells leaders that they want the cream of the crop -- that they’re looking for employees with unparalleled skill and knowledge in their field of expertise. But the truth is, being the best at one specific skill set is not nearly as valuable to a company as being great at several significant skills. An employee who commits the vast majority of their time and effort to deepening their understanding of one skill can only provide that one skill to a company, and can only train teams in that one skill. Meanwhile, someone who achieves about 60% proficiency with one skill set (finance, for example) and then widens their expertise by cross-training in another (perhaps operations or IT) can double their contribution to their company and direct reports. Those multi-skilled employees are known as “translators” because of their ability to operate successfully in multiple business silos and transition back and forth seamlessly, communicating effectively in any setting. A leader only needs above-average proficiency in a skill to effectively build and lead an excellent team, monitoring and correcting issues as they arise. So SMEs with near-perfect proficiency in their subject matter do not necessarily provide superior leadership value when compared with less-proficient translators. In addition to their increased communication and cross-training capabilities, translators can also contribute in diverse ways as internal and external vectors of change shift a company’s needs. By the nature of their niche expertise, SMEs are more limited in their ability to contribute in fluctuating environments.
Translators Are Key as Board Members
Demonstrating the value of translators within an organization starts at the top, by implementing a new kind of Board of Directors diversity program. Much like traditional diversity programs, a system that focuses on skills diversity allows for leaders with discrete backgrounds and expertise to contribute valuable perspectives to a Board. New members’ expertise might include AI/tech, supply chain, climate change/energy, global political economics, and other areas that will broaden the way Boards understand the markets, both local and global, in which their companies must succeed. The more varied the backgrounds of Board members, the more obstacles the Board will be able to guide their companies through -- and as the rate and variety of obstacles facing companies increases, Boards will need ever more perspectives to navigate them successfully.
Let Translators Contribute & Let SMEs Grow
Whether a company has hired a new crop of translators or identified high-performing SMEs who are hungry to broaden their skill sets, there are some simple starting points to help them maximize their employees’ potential. For employees who are not translators but who want to be, allow them to move laterally, exploring other business units and training under different specialties to widen the scope of their vision. Create a rotating system that exposes high performers to each silo within the organization, and encourage cross-functional collaboration between teams. For those employees who already have the cross-training and translating skills they need, leaders must find ways for them to have an impact. Create reporting mechanisms that encourage creativity and risk -- let employees add two and two and get five, and see how their experiments unfold, understanding that there is always some risk involved in innovation. Exceptional training and diverse skill sets are useless if employees do not have tangible ways to contribute those perspectives to the organizations they serve.
“But we’ve always done it this way!” This mindset isn’t only fatal when it comes to companies’ operations and processes: it carries over to their employee hiring and training protocols as well. To help ensure that companies are ready to face any of the myriad challenges that may come their way in today’s continually evolving market, leaders must seek out skilled translators as new hires and upskill current employees to fill those roles as well.
***The final installment of this series will focus on the importance of encouraging innovation within an organization.