T-Shaped-EmployeeDo you remember how you spent the first month of a new job?

Maybe you were escorted around, from cubicle to cubicle, and introduced to everyone on your team. Perhaps you sat in the back of a few meetings during your second week and kept quiet while you were supposed to absorb all information and take notes.

Many new hires are given a specific on-boarding plan for getting up to speed for their job. Many employees must attend training sessions and safety seminars that pertain to the everyday duties of their job. Then the new hires are thrown to the mercy of their department, learning the process that they’ll eventually take over.

But there are questions some employees might wonder:

  • How does my job contribute to the company’s end product?
  • How will customers use the product?
  • What would happen if I stopped doing my job?
  • What do I need from other teams to successfully do my job?
  • Most importantly, how is what I’m doing impacting other teams within the company?

Being able to communicate across the company is an undervalued key to succeeding in your role.

That’s why enlisting in cross-training exercises for functional departments will give you the tools you need to communicate effectively to these teams.

Zappos has all new hires, regardless of role or rank, infamously go through the same four week onboarding program that involves taking shifts in the call center:

“For example, every new employee that we hire in our corporate office is required to go through 4 weeks of customer loyalty training (answering phones in the call center) before starting the job that he/she was actually hired for. To us, customer service isn’t just a department — it is the entire company.”

Zappos’ heart is their customer service, and so by design it is instilled in all of their employees from day one. This is effectively done by having all new hires learn what it is like to connect with the end-user of their product, even if the requirements of the job never involve answering customer service calls again.

Here are three reasons why cross-training employees can help with communication (alliterations purely coincidental):

1. Create and cultivate company culture

By connecting employees with others in different departments to learn how other teams operate, not only will they learn new things, but they might meet people they otherwise wouldn’t have encountered in their day-to-day work. This is a great opportunity for creating connections across the company.

2. Learn the local lingo

Sometimes teams have developed their own department-specific terminology and acronyms. By learning the language, you are not only able to communicate more effectively, your messages might be received with a warmer welcome.

3. Heart-attack handoff

A business professor of mine used to use this term all the time when talking about team building. If someone is about to give a presentation, and becomes incapacitated (although hopefully not due to an actual heart-attack), do you know enough to carry on his or her work seamlessly? Not to say, you should be spending all of your time learning someone else’s job, but you should at least be in the loop enough that upon short notice, you can help pick up the slack.


A recent Forbes’ article highlights IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s concept of a T-shaped person:

“He describes I-shaped individuals as experts in their area who have an extremely limited ability to collaborate across disciplines. T-shaped individuals, on the other hand, have deep expertise in one area and a working understanding across disciplines, which gives them insight into the bigger picture.”

Having these skills and awareness will overall help you become a more effective communicator across your company. Would you describe yourself and team members as T-shaped individuals?