Push your limits: the benefits of cross-functional training

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I was having lunch once with one of my friends who is a data architect and an accounting intern who really impressed us. Not only was she a strong accountant and a delight to work with, she was an Excel whiz kid who had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge surrounding data and IT.

As we ate, she asked us both what she could do or what subjects she could study that would help her to safeguard her career in the long term. What was funny was that he and I had the same response without consulting one another and working in very different fields. It’s about cross-functional training.

Being from Montréal, I will use our beloved hockey team, les Canadiens, as an example. When the team trains, they don’t only play hockey all day, every day. For sure, they practice skating and shooting, but they are also in the weight room. Even though hockey typically involves short sprints, an anaerobic cardio activity, they also practice longer, less intense cardio endurance activities such as running or biking. Every team and every athlete knows that cross-training makes you stronger, fitter and ultimately better at your primary activity.

The same is true in your career. Of course, you need to have a primary focus: my friend was a data architect and I was a recruiter. But we also were involved in projects that exposed us to other aspects of the business. We were chosen for our respective projects because at an earlier point in our careers, we had taken an interest in different things and our curiosity pushed us to learn more. Years later, it was paid off because our prior “cross-training” made us stronger, fitter and more well-rounded employees.

If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that life is full of surprises. No one has a crystal ball and no one knows where their career or their industry will be in five or ten years. While this can be scary, it doesn’t have to be. The good news is that we live in a time when we have access to information like never before and anything we are curious about can be learned.

During our December reflection, I think some good questions to ask yourself are:

  • What have I always been curious about?
  • Is there someone I know whose job I have wanted to understand better?
  • Is there a subject that I have always wanted to learn more about?
  • Is there a book or a documentary I have been meaning to check out?
  • Is there a project that I can get involved with that will give me more exposure to other departments in my company?
  • Is there a project that I can propose that merges my interests and will add value for others?

Even something simple like going to lunch with a colleague from a different department and asking them about what they do and what their team does can spark your imagination.

Don’t worry if you don’t immediately see the link between your subject of interest and your career. What matters is that you are interested. This will help you to push your limits and find a way out of your comfort zone. Take the example of Sunday Riley. She studied chemistry at the University of Texas and worked in a cosmetics lab. Because she had a natural interest in beauty and skincare, she was able to bring an added value:

“Whenever there was miscommunication between the scientists and the marketing people, I was able to say: ‘I understand what they’re saying.’ “

In 2009, she launched her own company and her products have become game-changers in her industry, rivaling well-established brands. What gives her an edge in this competitive landscape is that she uses her knowledge of chemistry to deliver the results customers want, and uses sustainable technology which consumers favour. On the surface, chemists and marketers are two very different groups of people, but Riley was able to merge the two and succeeded in carving a niche for herself. She is more professionally satisfied as a result.

Coming back to our accounting intern, I share her story because I think the question about how to safeguard our careers to ensure longevity in these changing times is an extremely relevant one. I know that she has a bright future ahead of her because she is already naturally synthesizing the worlds of accounting and IT at her young age.

As we move forward in time, it will be easier to automate routine functions or move jobs overseas, but we will never be able to duplicate the human element. The people who can see the links between seemingly unrelated fields for the benefit of their team and their company are the ones who will bring added value and will be difficult to replace. The kicker is that these people will actually being more authentic versions of themselves because they are exploring and learning about subjects that truly interest them. I want to make sure that you can count yourself among these people.