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How a small business can attract and retain top talent


By Susy Roberts, founder of people development consultancy Hunter Roberts

The might of the global corporates can be hard to beat when it comes to incentives. Generous pension schemes, health insurance, expensive gym memberships and lavish meal allowances are simply not feasible for many small firms to offer, at least not if you want to make a profit. But there are ways of attracting and retaining top talent, and small firms can often provide a personal touch that the corporates would find hard to match.

Know no boundaries

To an employee, the ability to be involved in more than one aspect of operations extends a wealth of experience that’s impossible to gain in a large corporate. In an SME environment, an ambitious young leader can explore business from an HR, finance, sales and marketing, and even boardroom perspective. They will learn a huge amount more than one who’s in a more rigid structure, with clear performance management processes and career levels to go through before they can even think about an upwards move.

Personalise the package

One thing corporates can’t easily do is single out employees for special treatment. Rigid structures and meticulously applied HR processes make it difficult, if not impossible, to truly tailor training and development to individual needs. 

For a small firm with a smaller workforce and fewer rules, it’s much easier to identify and nurture those who demonstrate a particular skill or show huge potential. I recently worked with a 27-year-old woman who had comfortably achieved every goal she’d been set within her small organisation, so was made a director and allocated a generous number of shares. 

Then there was the 29-year-old who had taught herself Microsoft programming in her spare time; her employer identified her potential and sent her on every Microsoft course he could find, including a three-day conference in Amsterdam. She’d shown she was keen to learn, and her boss had empowered her to improve herself in a way that would be useful for the business.

As a small firm, you’re also in a much better position to identify the individual needs of your employees and give them a package that will make their working life attractive. Whether that’s homeworking, late starts, early finishes or increased flexibility during school holidays, your closeness to your employees allows you to have a more personal relationship and ensure their needs are met.

If you love someone, set them free

There’s always a very real risk that the person you’ve nurtured and invested in will take their skills and experience to a rival company. But this doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. There are limits to how much you can learn in a small firm, particularly if the employee has been in the same company from the beginning of their career. 

I have a client who encouraged his high-flying protégée to flee the nest, and gave her paid time off to find a job within a larger company. He’d recognised that she wasn’t achieving her full potential, and wanted her to gain experience in a larger organisation so she could potentially come back at a later date to take the business forward. 

Similarly, if you’ve identified a bright young talent but there’s nowhere left for them to go, tell them. Offering vague promises of promotions that fail to materialise will foster mistrust and resentment, and they’ll soon get tired of waiting and look elsewhere. If you’re honest and give them a helping hand up the career ladder, you’ll benefit from an enhanced reputation as a business and as an employer, and you’ll have a loyal ex-employee who may just return when the time is right.

Plot your potential

Taking a structured approach to talent management can help you to identify those who are ready for a challenge – and those that are holding you back.

Using a simple nine-box grid system, work out which employees fit into each category, for example the high-performer ready to move into a new role; the high-performer who doesn’t have much potential for improvement but is a real steady Eddie – every business needs those; the average performer who doesn’t seem to be moving on and needs help to progress; and, importantly, the low-performer who shows no potential, who need to be managed out.

Of course, just as with any investment, there are risks involved in spending time and money on people. You can’t protect yourself from all losses, and there may be the odd unscrupulous employee who takes advantage. But when you consider the needs of your employees and give them the tools they need to succeed, you’ll find that they’re few and far between.