Small companies face a unique problem as they try to minimize turnover and hold onto their best and brightest employees. Namely, they don’t have enough places to put them. In practice, it looks like this. A small company hires a young, ambitious person to do a certain job or perform a certain task. This new go-getter tackles the work energetically and masters it in relatively short order. Now he or she is looking around for the next big challenge, and therein lies the problem . . . there isn’t one. In a small company, the corporate ladder may have only a few rungs, so a talented, energetic, ambitious employee may very quickly get as far up that ladder as he or she can go. Large companies can have similar problems, but they have the scale to deal with those problems more effectively than small companies can. For instance, at a large company, when a budding superstar runs out of dragons to slay in Department A, we can move him or her to Department B or C or D or E where presumably there are still a few troublesome dragons to be dealt with. In most small companies, that sort of opportunistic career path simply does not exist. So what does a small company do to hold onto its best and brightest? For more on this, please continue reading below.
“Create a company that’s a great place to be from.” ~ Patty McCord
The bad news for small companies is this: you probably can’t hold onto the best and brightest . . . at least not all of them. If you’re good at recruiting, many of them will pass through your doors, but most of them will be on their way to someplace else. They will see you as a place to get some experience that will look good on their resumes. If you’ve been in business for more than a few years, you already know that this is how it works. Some big companies, as a matter of policy, won’t hire kids right out of school . . . they don’t want to deal with untrained, inexperienced rookies. So by default, small companies are the training grounds for big companies. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.
As a small company operator, you really can’t buck the system. You can’t go head-to-head with the big guys and try to match their compensation packages, their benefits, and their opportunities for advancement. That would be crazy, so don’t even try. If you do try, you will fail.
No, your only real option is to accept your role as a training ground for bigger companies, but figure out a way to make that role work for you. Here’s how:
- Learn to recruit well. The best and the brightest won’t stay with you over the long haul, but while you have them, you can get a lot of benefit from them. You can give them big, important assignments to complete, and they’ll be glad to undertake them because remember, they want impressive accomplishments to put on their resumes.
- Learn to be a good coach or mentor. You probably won’t have a formal training program in place for your new recruits, so instead, give them the benefit of your own experience. Check in with them regularly to see how they’re doing with the tasks they’ve been assigned to do, and make sure they’ve got the support they need to complete those tasks successfully.
- Make sure they understand how the business works . . . not just the part they’re working on, but all of it. Teach them how all the various activities within the business contribute to the final products or services the company offers.
- Teach them responsibility and accountability . . . two vital concepts that most college grads have not fully internalized before they begin their first job.
Seems like a lot of work to train people who will ultimately use that training to benefit a bigger company than yours. So what’s in it for you?
First, you’ll get the services of some young, ambitious, energetic, and talented people who won’t stay with you for long, but at least you’ll have them for a few years. However, you won’t get them at all unless they believe the experience and training they get from you will be their stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Second, you’ll get a steady stream of goodwill ambassadors going out into the world and telling the world, not only about your products or services, but also about what a good place to work your company was during their formative years. As your reputation as a good place to work spreads, your ongoing recruiting efforts will only get easier.
Third, and perhaps most important, as this parade of young, ambitious, energetic, and talented people passes through your place, you will be able to snag a few of them. Most of them, as we’ve said, will be on their way to someplace else and will just keep right on going. But a few of them might decide that being a big fish in a little pond is better than being a little fish in a Fortune 500 pond. They might decide that getting in on the ground floor and helping to build something is, in its own way, pretty exciting stuff. Or they might like the idea that, unlike their Fortune 500 brethren, they have direct access to their CEO.
It makes no sense to go against the flow and try to hold onto all the talented people you attract. That’s a fool’s errand and it won’t work. So your only option is to accept your role as the training ground for Corporate America and follow Patty McCord’s advice to, “Create a company that’s a great place to be from.”