When interviewing candidates for startup or small business roles, the most common question that comes up centers around the stability of the business. For some this is a very easy question to answer. They are well funded, turning a profit and being smart about how they grow mitigating the risk of future downturns creating the need for layoffs. For other business, the answer gets a bit trickier. The stability of the company relies on the ability of new employees to come in and make a difference.
A CEO and I were once interviewing a potential head of sales candidate who asked about company stability. The CEO was brutally honest when he answered, “that is going to depend on you.” This is reality for many small businesses who need employees to make a mark quickly in order to move the business where it needs to be.
In these cases, recruiting candidates is tougher. Finding that person who is ok with potential instability and is willing to take a chance can be difficult. In most cases, if the employer is at this stage, they are also not paying top wages or offering other great perks. They have to rely on something else to close the deal with that candidate.
Some use potential equity later down the road, others rely heavily on the opportunity to work on whatever new awesome technology their business specializes in, but the ones who seem to close the deal more often are the ones who offer opportunities for learning and development.
Probably not what you thought, but in our experience, true.
So true in fact that I encourage my startup clients to think about building out learning and development plans before they launch. Before they hire their first employee or quickly thereafter, develop a budget and a guideline for how they will offer opportunities for growth to employees. In this instance growth is in terms of knowledge, not necessarily promotions.
Let me walk you through how this can be done.
We believe that effective learning and development begins in the onboarding process. Throwing employees into the deep end and expecting them to swim is an old-school leadership tactic that simply isn’t effective. Creating opportunities in the onboarding process that allow employees to learn about company culture, vision, mission and motto will help that set that employee off on the right foot. Even if they have to hit the ground running from a tactical perspective, time can still be carved out to learn what matters to the organization and its guiding principles.
Few things are less effective than a brand new sales person heading off into a sales pitch without this foundational information.
Beyond the onboarding process, small businesses should incorporate learning and development on a regular basis. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither hard nor cost prohibitive to do so. The most effective small business L&D programs include a mix of self learning, mentorship and formal education. Here’s why.
Learning and development should be tailored to the individual. At the same time, every business should have educational opportunities that all employees share so as to perpetuate culture and create a common language. The self learning and mentorship can be customized to each individual while the formal education is group training that all employees share.
This group training can be delivered in a variety of formats based on the environment of the company and employee base. Teams with a high number of virtual employees may want to deliver group training in an e-learning format. Small teams who are still in the “getting to know you” phase, may want training delivered in-house by a facilitator who can help them not only understand the concept, but help them work better together.
The bottom line is there is no one size fits all solution for learning and development.
I have a small business client who has been in business for 5 years and has 24 employees. Due to unexpected, but obviously welcomed growth, they found the need to move from a flatter organization to one with a new leadership layer. When the decision was made to promote employees into leadership roles, the founder wanted to make the promotional process a thorough one. Rather than just move employees into higher level roles and hope for the best, he wanted to put them through a bit of training and development and use feedback from those sessions to aide in his decision.
We created four courses to be taken over the course of 90 days. These courses focused on basic leadership skills, employee engagement, moving from peer to supervisor and having difficult conversations. Because an employee’s participation in the course was going to be used as part of the promotional decision, the founder wanted all courses to be facilitated in-person and he attended them all. The criteria to be invited to the course was simple, raise your hand. Any employee who felt like they were ready to take on a leadership role was allowed to attend. Even if the founder felt they weren’t ready, he vowed to keep an open mind and see how they did.
It was an amazing exercise for all involved, including me the facilitator. Eight employees attended signed up for the courses. After each course at least one employee would drop out saying that they knew they weren’t ready. At the end of the four courses, the founder had 4 employees who he now better understood, had seen examples of their leadership potential and commitment to it and, by his own admission, had a really tough decision on his hands. In the months following, other employees have asked when we are holding the sessions again because they think they are ready this time.
Probably the most unexpected result of this process, was that other employees who were either in the training directly or saw the results as those in the training interacted with them, completely approved of the decision on who to promote. They were behind this person 100% even if that meant they didn’t get the job. In a small business, this isn’t always the case as feelings get hurt, people feel they are owed something or they just don’t like the person who was promoted, but with this process, everyone was onboard. The individuals who went through the training felt valued and appreciated for having gone through it and even though only one person was promoted, several leaders emerged from the process.
The cost of putting together these solutions were about half of what the leader expected and the only other thing he had to give was his time and an open mind. He has decided they are well worth it and is incorporating this process into all future promotions.
Training and development makes employees feel as though their employer cares about investing into their future. They become better equipped to deal with their roles and potential leadership challenges. They develop a greater sense of loyalty and devotion to an organization that is investing back into their career. Even the simplest of programs can have this effect.
As time goes on, this will become more and more of a competitive advantage. We are seeing it in our hiring and also in the number of clients reaching out to get assistance with developing these programs. As pay and perks become even more competitive and less of a deciding factor, programs that focus on employee development and training will gain a leg up. It is something small businesses of all sizes should pay close attention to and consider.