Winning the War for Talent as a Small Business

Employee Benefits, Small Business, War For Talent

A few months back, I was sitting in the audience of the Dane County Small Business Awards, watching some amazing and deserving growing business owners receive recognition and listening to them provide insight into the issues they were facing as small businesses.

The hot topic was the war for talent, and I’d hazard to say that if the event were to be held today that issue would still ring true. The war for talent is an issue for businesses in every industry, at every size, but for growing businesses out there trying to recruit great talent, it’s never been more important to have an offensive vs. defensive mindset and strategy.

We get it – you have a ton on your plate right now. It’s not an easy time to be an owner of a growing business. But playing defense, only reacting to challenges as they’re thrown at you and not preparing for the new roadblocks that will come into play as you grow, will not help you win the war for talent.

On an upcoming M3 Elevate podcast, a guest shared, “talent is even more critical when you are building a basketball team and not a football team.” His point: so many of us are not looking at an employee roster of 50 or 100. We are looking at a much smaller team, so every new position we create, every open spot we need to fill, feels even more critical.

Here’s where we’re coming from: we don’t have all the answers. But, we have over 50 years of experience working with small businesses and competing in the war for talent ourselves. We’re here to share the lessons we’ve learned and the common threads between our clients’ successes.

How are you finding the best and brightest talent to hire?

Back to basics

If you want to play offense when it comes to talent attraction and retention, you need to go back to the cornerstone characteristics that make a great employee. With the competition so tight for talent, it can be tempting to fill the spot with a candidate who is just ‘ok’. However, as a growing business, you need someone multi-faceted, and likely multi-skilled.

As you’re reviewing your hiring process, my encouragement would be to sit down, take a piece of paper and divide it into two.

On one side of the page, write down all of the technical requirements of the position; i.e. certifications, machinery experience, industry knowledge, etc. On the other side, write down all of the intangible qualities you need from someone to thrive in your culture.

Why? My guess is that most of us won’t struggle with the technical skills side, but forcing ourselves to sit down and think about soft skills, values, behaviors that define an “A player” in your culture, is much harder work. In my opinion, it’s the very best work, as oftentimes it is these values that matter most in an employee’s performance.

When I hire, I call this side of the page my “permission to play” values, because it has been my experience that when someone is lacking in any of these values, their technical skills don’t matter as much, they simply wont be the performer I need them to be. It’s been helpful to me to think about it this way: what would you rather spend time teaching, or, at an even more basic level, what do you believe can be taught? I would much rather spend time coaching or teaching someone a technical skill than trying to help them with their work ethic.

As a growing business owner, your time is your most valuable commodity. How do you want to spend it? A few examples of my “permission to play” values are:

  • Team Player – can this person put the needs of the team before their own? Are they willing to be a thermostat and help set the culture, vs. being a thermometer and just reading it?
  • Hard-Working – does this person have initiative and a desire to help? Will they go the extra mile for the team and your clients?
  • Resilient – when this person experiences a stressful situation do they remain cool, calm, and collected? Do they search for a new solution when their first idea fails?
  • Adaptable – can this person handle rapid change? When curve balls are thrown their way are they able to adjust at a moment’s notice to take care of your customers and support your team?

Sell the world of small business

You’re not the only one fighting for top talent. The same candidates who are applying to your company’s open roles are interviewing with mid-size and Fortune 500 companies. To compete, you need to sell the benefits of working for a small business over a large corporation.

M3 CEO, Mike Victorson, lays out his philosophy around the ‘war for talent’ that so many employers are currently facing in his latest video:

“Love for Your Industry, Love for Your Culture”

To start, there is so much opportunity in small business. So much room to grow. I’ve said before that I wish I had started my career at a small business. You learn the most when your feet are to the fire, and there are always new opportunities and new challenges in a small business. It’s an incredible starting ground for the aspiring entrepreneur or business leader.

You can also sell your candidates on the lifestyle they would experience working in a small business. Where large organizations may struggle to coalesce around a shared mission, vision, or values, small businesses have this ingrained in the culture. Everyone is all hands on deck, wearing many hats, all working toward a common goal. Every feeling is magnified; when we lose, it feels so close and so hard, and when we win it feels like we won the Super Bowl. That feeling of proximity to purpose is enticing to many candidates in the job market.

How are you retaining your current talent?

Listen, then find “the thing” beneath “the thing”

One story from the Dane County Small Business Awards has really stuck with me. After purchasing a small business, the new owners found that employees often seemed tired when they were at work. Instead of trying to come up with a solution to this problem on their own, they sat down and asked their employees about their energy levels and why they seemed tired – and they listened.

The employees talked about how many of them had to work second jobs in order to stay afloat, and how the stress and energy that cost them resulted in them being tired when they came to work this job. The owners stopped and simply asked, how much would we have to pay you to not have to have another job. The new owners realized that by increasing pay they could fully support their employees and make it easier for them to come to work as their best selves.

That kind of investment in your people and insight bolsters retention. Employees who feel that their employers care about them will stick around and help you achieve your goals. If an employee feels disposable, they will act that way.

Love the ones you’re with

It’s much easier to develop the talent that you already have on your team than it is to find entirely new talent. As growing business owners, we know this principle from how we acquire new revenue. We often talk about how our client acquisition cost is much higher than our client retention cost. It’s the same for our employees.

This is also an area that can feel overwhelming. You are wearing so many hats that talent development can feel really intimidating to take on. Our encouragement is that this task doesn’t have to be daunting.

  • Start Small – sit down regularly with your employees and discuss their hopes and dreams, their career aspirations and ask how you can help
  • Goal Set   –  encourage employees to write down two or three goals they have for themselves in areas they would like to grow
  • Connect – set up mentor/mentee connections within your business so you can benefit from the wisdom and experience already on your team.

My bet is that more is possible within the framework of your business in this area than you even imagine, and the returns you will see from those efforts will pay off ten fold.

M3 has spent years honing in on the kind of continuing education and development that our employees need in order to grow and find the next step in their career path within our organization. We have a dedicated talent development team that is always open to sharing best practices and lessons learned with our clients – I’m happy to make the introduction if you’re interested.

Key Takeaways

Every organization has their mind on the war for talent, but the competition is especially fierce for small and growing businesses. By taking an offensive approach to talent attraction and retention instead of a defensive, reactive stance, small businesses can position themselves as employers of choice and win the war for talent.

M3 Elevate is your insurance partner for growth and protection. It’s our prerogative to see the whole picture, to understand the issues you’re facing as a growing business owner (like talent attraction and retention), and advise you on strategies that can help you get to the next level in your business. Reach out to an M3 Elevate account executive today to discuss how our partnership can fuel your growth.

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