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Winning the war on talent: how can SMEs succeed?

Small businesses are often seen as a career stepping stone, rather than a place to stay and develop. How can SMEs change the narrative?

Winning the war on talent: how can SMEs succeed?
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  • Contributed by Mark Rowland
  • June 27, 2019
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Farha Jamadar was still a trainee at Todd Doors when her manager left the company. She was left working largely on her own, managing the entire accounting function, with occasional support of a part-time worker.

“It was incredibly daunting,” she says. “I was being asked questions left, right and centre, and initially, I wasn’t able to answer them.”

She stayed, weathered the storm, and progressed quickly into the finance manager’s role. If she hadn’t, the company would have been without a finance team.

Such is the challenge of the small or medium business – if you’re down one member of staff, you really feel it. You’re also competing with a lot of other companies for the best talent, and without the resources of larger companies to attract them. You’re also often looking for a specific kind of worker:

“Within a small team you need someone who is an all-rounder, with experience in many aspects of the finance function, especially in business,” says Jamadar. “However, most candidates come from one department and don’t have experience in other areas. Qualifications are essential but experience always trumps this as they can hit the ground running. Sometimes the role can be either too much or the employee wants to move to a bigger team.”

So how can SMEs make sure that they can compete for talent, and above all, keep them once they’re on board?

Rotate to create development

Duncan Brodie worked in senior and FD roles both in practice and in finance teams, before moving on to consult accountants on managing careers and building great teams. He says that the biggest problem SMEs face when attracting and retaining staff is a seeming lack of progression.

And it’s true – there aren’t as many places for people to move within small teams. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t provide staff with the opportunity to develop. Firstly, you could adopt a work rotation/swap programme that allows staff to learn new skills and try out different responsibilities. “If you can get people to rotate their jobs so that they’re learning different things, it can help to solve that problem [of a lack of development],” says Brodie.

Take the time to work out what people are good at – people will be better at some things than others. “One common mistake is to try to get people to do things that they’re not very good at. If you can actually encourage people to be your ‘go to’ person on different things, they feel valued. The ones that want the variety and growth, give them the chance to move around.”

Communicate your culture

When it comes to bringing in new talent, you can make an impact by giving your job ads some personality. You want to paint a really positive (but realistic) picture of your team and your company, to give a flavour of what it’s like to work for you.

“Talk about your culture and the way you like to do things,” says Brodie. ‘If you’re a really innovative team, then talk about that. Once you’re interviewing people, remember that people are making a choice as much as you are.

Brodie believes that there’s a lot to learn from the way fintech companies present themselves. Many run wellbeing weeks, have ‘bring your dog to work’ days, and offer fruit (read about one fintech company’s cultural perks below). “They’re small things, but they add up. People like to be associated with that sort of thing.”

If you have aspirations to grow, communicate that too. “You need to sell your vision; the journey that you’re going on,” says Brodie. “It gives people a bit of a choice: they can go to work somewhere stable or they could go to your company and be part of something a little different.”

Find out what your points of differentiation are, and don’t be afraid to share them. You want to create an environment where it’s very easy for people to fit in.

Put ‘fit’ over technical skills

For smaller teams, it’s a good idea to hire more for ‘fit’ with the team rather than technical ability, Brodie explains. A lot of recruiting teams put a lot more emphasis on the technical aspects of the job role, rather than the person themselves. That’s a risky strategy – skills are important, but the success of your team rises and falls on the chemistry and collaboration between the people on your team.

“If somebody’s got a technical deficiency, you can probably plug that. If somebody’s got fundamental issues with their personality, you’re never going to change that. It’s very hard to knock that sort of thing out of people.”

If you can get someone that can get on with the people they work with, they’re more likely to stay. If they understand their value and the part they have to play, they are much more likely to go the distance.

The fintech way

Funding Circle, a peer-to-peer lending company based in London, is known for being a great employer.

They do this through a combination of things: there are the office perks – table tennis and pool, free breakfasts and very good coffee – but there is also an openness in communicating a sense of purpose and value among staff.

Co-founder and UK managing director James Meekings puts in the time to communicate the vision and value of the business to everyone that works for Funding Circle, and staff are given the opportunity to visit small businesses to see firsthand the difference that they’re making to people’s lives. “It’s magical when you see how we’ve helped them grow,” says Meekings.

Mark Rowland is a freelance journalist


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