When companies are in a start-up frenzy, early-stage staffers tend to wear so many different hats that many entrepreneurial companies forgo job descriptions entirely. Later, as companies grow, employees tend to specialize. But some CEOs argue that it's important for employees to retain a good dose of that start-up flexibility. The better everyone knows everyone else's job, the thinking goes, the better your company runs.

To formalize that flexibility, more companies are cross-training, instructing employees in the essential elements of as many different job functions within the organization as possible -- regardless of whether they are likely to be called upon to actually perform those job functions. The tangible benefits of such training, proponents say, are numerous.

Better employee morale, for one. Kurt Bleicken, CEO of Greenpages, an $81-million computer reseller in Kittery, Maine, puts each new employee through two months of intensive training in all the job functions at his company. So customer-support people get sales training, and salespeople learn about purchasing and credit services. That, according to Bleicken, promotes mutual understanding. "When people are familiar with what the rest of the company is doing," he says, "it breaks down the typical 'us versus them' attitude."

Cross-training helps companies ensure that--

  • Every employee can help a customer. At the Chip, a $4-million computer technical-support and repair company based in Valencia, Calif., everyone is trained in computer repair -- even the receptionist -- so that whoever answers the phone is able to address technical problems. According to president Chip Meyer, that way the company phones act as a de facto help desk for clients.
  • Every employee knows how to sell. For Nick Nicholson, CEO of the Ecology Group, a $40-million recycling and waste-management company in Columbus, Ohio, it's important that each of his employees understands the sales process. So all of his staff members receive sales training, including classes on good questioning and listening skills. Once, a member of his accounting staff was on the phone with a client who had a huge overbilling problem. In the process of clarifying the problem, the staff member identified an opportunity to extend the Ecology Group's agreement with the client, involving more locations and more business. "I don't think he could have done that if he hadn't had sales training," says Nicholson.
  • No employee is indispensable. Kurt Bleicken of Greenpages also uses cross-training to counteract short- and long-term leaves of absence, in particular maternity leaves. So he has two highly cross-trained individuals he calls "Greenpages runners" who can fill just about any position in the company: sales, purchasing, credit services, or accounting. And they can sub for almost any length of time, covering everything from sick days to vacations to extended sabbaticals. Of course, since the runners are by definition generalists, they're not always as effective as the real thing. But especially when you're talking about keeping the sales flow relatively even, says Bleicken, "it's better than starting over from square one."