We’ve all heard it before. Try and keep the best people, and surround yourself with people better than you. This is the secret of success, and apparently people like Branson are masters at it. However, many people have reported that small businesses suffer from ‘resource poverty’ when it comes to people management and business owners simply do not have the time or resource to dedicate to finding, training, developing, motivating and retaining people. Small businesses owners have enough on their plate just ‘doing what they do’ and running the business and have to split time between multiple tasks- often meaning that ‘people’ get overlooked.
The irony is, at the moment there seems to be an army of young people keen to bring their skills to small businesses. I’m currently undertaking a research project looking at the experiences of graduates in micro firms. On the face of it, graduates are keen to work in businesses that will offer them a wide range of opportunities to develop their skills, immediate input into the running the firm, direct contact with owner managers and above all an inspirational workplace. It seems that they don’t think they’ll get this in large corporates. The experiences I have had in helping people starting businesses leads me to tend to agree with this as well. I used to see a high level of people ‘doing time’ in a corporate and then wanting to get out after 5 years or so. Typically, they join the company, pay off their student loan, realize they are not getting the experiences and inspirational workplace they want and leave to start their own venture whilst they are young and still can. More so now, many of the young people I talk to are actively looking for jobs in small firms and they are realizing that this is where the fun is!
The issue is though that many graduates report universities are still educating people for the corporate mentality, and careers services within the universities have been slow to link up with small firms to promote opportunities. One of the best ways I have come across to form a link has been through paid placements at small firms. This is not the typical internship that has often attracted bad press (due to free labour for large firms), but more of a ‘try before you buy’ for both parties. The placements are typically over a summer vacation, and offer the chance for the student to experience life in a small firm, and potentially work on projects that add value, but also see that life in a small firm is not a life for a one trick pony- and there is no place to hide. For the owner manager, they get to see what value employing a graduate might add (which is a considerable investment), and how much time and effort they might need to invest. I’ve seen some great models of success- where even a year or so down the line, the placement graduate has been taken on and is working away in the firm, adding some real value and an injection of new ideas.
There is an unhappy end to this tale. Talking to graduates, it seems that whilst they want to work in small firms, the ‘resource poverty’ I mentioned earlier gets the better of them. They often mention being neglected and left to get on with trying to work out what needs to be done. Whilst we all like ‘self-starters’ and people who can get on with things, graduates are looking for inspirational leaders that they can learn from and run with, helping to achieve the vision of the owner managers. Sadly in many cases, the graduates leave and seek their fortunes in larger firms. It’s not necessarily a case of being more secure- they just want to be looked after a little better. Often a simple case of just a little more direction.
We all know how great it is to work in this sector and we’re passionate about small firms, but we need to retain these people, many of which want to work with us and could make a real difference to the business. There is literally an army of talent out there waiting to be harnessed. Everyone who has ever employed someone really great will know what it means to lose a good employee. I think we need to call on universities (as a start) to work with us to get the best for both small firms and graduates, educating people for jobs in small firms rather than jobs in corporates which are not there in the numbers they used to be. That way, we’ll start to see a change in culture on both sides of talented graduates, working in vibrant businesses, with inspirational owners.