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Posted by on Nov 25, 2013

Essential New Leadership Habit: Develop Cross-Functional Skills and Build Personal Networks

LeadershipHabit1_SocialNetworkFederal leaders are dealing with uncertainty and change. To thrive, leaders must adapt quickly to the “new normal.” To share our take on how to do this; Management Concepts recently compiled 5 Essential NEW Leadership Habits for Federal Leaders. In case you missed it, download the complete list here

The first item is “Develop cross-functional skills and build personal networks.”  So, what do we mean by that?

Develop Cross-Functional Skills
In “the good ol’ days,” employees climbed one organizational ladder vertically, rung by rung. They rarely collaborated with colleagues outside their functional areas and focused only on skills relevant to their job title and the next rung of the ladder. Moving up was an eventuality for most and salary increases were reasonable even for those who stayed put. Several factors have influenced a significant shift in the career growth paradigm:

1. Welcome to the Transformation Age: The “information age” is as over as the Stone Age. Information is now transmitted and optimized through technology. Even the coined “knowledge age” doesn’t capture the need to constantly adapt volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (V.U.C.A) environments.  Some argue for the “talent age,” but that still doesn’t capture the need to transform oneself, constantly adding to one’s skills and knowledge. The most common usage for the “transformation age” is in reference to IT. My perspective, however, is that our new Transformation Age is about continuous personal transformation and the greater your ability to transform, the greater your ability to lead.

2. The Boomers Aren’t Leaving: As described in an earlier Management Concepts blog, the retirement wave isn’t happening – at least not yet. The result is decreased upward mobility due to fewer vacated positions. Simply put, a detour may be your shortest path to the corner office.

3. Those GYPSYs: Although you can argue about the accuracy of the term GYPSY, which means Generation Y Protagonists & Special Yuppies, GenY is destined to have more career changes than any previous generation. Although it’s debatable whether GenXers have seven careers, GenY is likely to have many more than that. So, although I don’t have a strong opinion about the whole GYSPY concept, I do believe GenY will be nomadic in their careers. As that generation moves, it creates instability in the system and the system will need to adapt. Members of other generations will need the ability to work with GenY employees with divergent functional backgrounds.

So, how has the paradigm shifted? With few available vertical promotions, leaders will need to transform themselves and their teams to make lateral moves. (Side note, human capital professionals love this model because studies have consistently shown that the more divisions of an organization that a leader has worked in, the more successful the leader). This creates a variety of “career paths” to your desired destination rather than a “ladder.” Rotating through different parts of the organization also provides protection against over reliance on skills and abilities that could be outsourced or become obsolete. You can always call upon an old skill. Your most valuable skill, however, is the ability to develop new ones.

You will need cross-functional skills to lead cross-functional teams and it is crucial for leading more than one function. Cross-functional teams used to be defined as consisting of individuals from different functions.  In the transformation age, however, cross-functional teams will be defined by the functional backgrounds of the team members. A key change will be that team members will all be expected to have some overlapping core skills, rather than skills solely from one area.

For example, human resources will need much greater quantitative capabilities. Likewise, technologists, and those who traditionally relied on advanced “hard skills,” will especially benefit from developing their “soft skills,” like interpersonal communications, writing, and negotiating. Moreover, as functions blend (e.g., Analytics in HR), you need the skills to manage multiple divisions both separately and together to prevent working at cross-purposes and capture real benefits from synergies.

Lateral moves are the best way to develop cross-functional skills and perspectives. Leaders need to let go of the notion that lateral moves are career limiting and identify career-enhancing lateral moves for themselves, for their teams, and for individuals who could join their teams. In the corporate sector, many leaders and recruiters have adopted the idea of a T-shaped person to describe the kind of cross-functionally capable employees they seek. The vertical bar of the T represents the skills and expertise in their field and the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and apply knowledge in areas other than one’s own.  To succeed in the future, Federal leaders should become, and hire, more T-shaped people.

Build Personal Networks
Relationships have always been critically important for successful leaders. In an era of budget cuts and increasing expectations, they are more helpful than ever. Creating mutually beneficial partnerships with other divisions, other agencies, the private sector, and non-government organizations can be a crucial source of information, support and funding for a Federal agency that has been asked to “do more with less.” Personal networks are also a great way to identify your next lateral move.

Leaders often tend to focus on building either their internal network or their external network. Both are equally important. As the field of Social Networking Analysis (SNA) in the workplace has grown, more and more data has shown that robust organizational social networks drive success of the organization. They also, however, drive success of individual leaders. You can accumulate a great deal of influence and reputational capital through a social network at work. Just be sure your social network is about more than the Redskins and how the kids are doing. Use your network to share ideas for innovation and increased efficiency. Your network is a great tool to get your ideas noticed and implemented.

Leaders must occassionally get out of the office to build networks and promote the work of their missions.  Attending networking events, tradeshows, and training helps you and your employees to make connections that can really pay off.  You can also build up your outside the office social network from inside the office.   Participate in blogs and online forums to get the word out and (virtually) meet people with common interests and goals.  Twitter chats sessions are a great way to build reputational capital, not just followers. Regularly post articles you found insightful on LinkedIn with your own perspective. Review books about your industry on Amazon. And, of course, it never hurts to blog. You never know where the next fruitful partnership, or great new hire, might come from.

Tying Cross-Functional Skills to Personal Networks
Building cross-functional skills while developing a strong social network creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts. For example, it can be incredibly difficult for an organization to launch a new website without excellent working relationships and collaboration between the leaders of the IT and marketing communications departments.  In a high-profile public-facing project that requires both teams to coordinate the release of highly-detailed deliverables, it really helps when functional leaders understands the other team’s processes and culture.  A  Communications Officer who has some background in IT can help the teams collaborate schedules and budgets more effectively.  And, likewise, a PR and communications-Savvy CIO can help more effectively manage expectations of the public and other stakeholders. (I promise this is not another jab at

How does your organization view career pathing? What does cross-functional team mean to you? How strong is your professional network? We’d like to hear from you. Please comment below.

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