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Leverage Your Company’s Small Size for Huge Talent Advantages


Part 2 in WhiteWater’s Small to Medium-Sized Business Success Series.

Big companies can sometimes feel like corporate vacuums, sucking up all the talent and resources, leaving the crumbs for small to medium-sized businesses.

But in the wake of the Great Resignation, and in a very tight labor market where the talent competition is intense, savvy SMBs can use your relatively smaller size to attract and retain the best. There’s a ton of research showing how low engagement is, with most studies placing it at just 15-30% of employees in most organizations. SMBs have a terrific opportunity to lead in a way that truly engages people and attracts talent.

It just takes a little focus and effort to leverage your natural advantages to shape and nurture a culture that builds employee satisfaction and engagement.

It goes beyond pay.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found money isn’t the only consideration for job-seekers. While 63% of workers who quit a job in 2021 cited low pay (63%) as a top reason, this was tied with a lack of opportunities for advancement. And, at 57%, feeling disrespected at work (57%) was a close third.

Respondents who quit and are now working elsewhere were more likely than not to say their current job has better pay, more opportunities for advancement, and more work-life balance and flexibility.

While large companies can often offer more money, better benefits, or the prestige of a blue-chip organization, a new generation of workers, and indeed many senior people who’ve become disenfranchised working for big business, are looking for something different, something more.

They're looking for meaning. They want to do work that matters, to be part of a company where they can grow, and feel respected and seen. For SMBs, this is a golden opportunity to become an employer of choice.

Entrenched policies and practices often encumber large companies. The large size that makes them great can also make workers feel lost and disconnected. The bigger a company gets, the greater the potential for slippage in the culture and inconsistent, even inconsiderate, treatment of its team members.

Small to medium-sized companies have a much better opportunity to get it right.

As Lessons on Resilience for Small and Midsize Businesses, a 2021 piece in Harvard Business Review, notes, this is an area where SMBs can shine. “With fewer layers between leadership and frontline workers and fewer corporate policies, it should be possible for managers to find tailored approaches for their teams.”

Define your purpose.

The pandemic made us all reflect upon what matters most, causing us to consider our values and choices. It made us painfully aware of life’s precariousness and prompted us to want to live more fully, including in our work.

“Customers and consumers want to be associated with companies that are making a positive difference,” notes McKinsey’s 100th COVID-19 briefing note, from April 13. “Companies can accelerate inclusivity and sustainability by having real awareness, committing to change, rewarding the change, and providing coaching and development to make the change happen.”

In Just Lead Dammit!, our proprietary leadership development program that’s based on decades of experience with hundreds of SMBs, one of the top seven factors that must align to create a motivating, engaging environment is having a cause worthy of commitment.

What’s your purpose-driven ethos?

Be caring.

Caring is at the absolute core of what it takes to attract, retain and unleash the full capabilities of your team. It is far easier and more effective to align people to the cause when you know you care about them and their success. It allows for more effective dialogue and ever tougher conversations when they know your full intent is about helping them and your organization to be the best they can be.

Further, the emotional toll of the pandemic resulted in more emotional openness, and an increased understanding of the importance of de-stigmatizing and supporting mental health. A recent story in Inc. cites a Monster survey that found that 90% of college grads think it's important that they feel comfortable discussing mental wellness at work. And 84% say companies should invest more in mental wellness resources.

Create a caring culture with space for mental health conversations and resources to provide mental health care when your team members are struggling.

Prioritize diversity.

That Inc. article also lists diversity as a top concern for recent grads, with 33% saying they wouldn’t take a job at a company that lacked a diverse workforce, and 26% reporting they wouldn’t go to a company without women and members of other minorities in their leadership.

For SMBs that want to build resilient, sustainable organizations with an engaged, fulfilled staff, you need to be intentional about articulating your values and culture. You also need to spend some time creating the systems that will make it real.

Be flexible.

In the move to remote work and the semi-return to the office of new hybrid models, it’s become clear that most employees value flexibility. They want to be treated like adults, not monitored like children.

Flexibility correlates positively to engagement and productivity as well as retention. As the HBR piece notes, “up to 30% of office workers say that they would consider leaving their current job if not given the opportunity to work from home at least some of the time.”

Invest in the technology and develop the processes, including mechanisms for communication and connection, to make flexibility a core part of your employee value proposition.

Nurture your talent.

As the Pew Center research and McKinsey briefing note I cited above both indicate, engaged employees want the chance to grow and advance. As a medium-sized business, effectively developing and retaining talent can ease many other challenges beyond turnover, including maintaining institutional knowledge and succession planning.

You need to create systemized ways to grow your people and their careers. Build in upskilling, reskilling, and professional development. Make progress plans and check-ins part of business as usual. Not only is it a strategic way to increase your internal resources, but it also makes your team members feel valued and more connected.

Giving people the tools and resources to perform and a significant role in the show are so important, they are pillars in our Just Lead, Dammit! methodology. (Along with those mentioned above, the others are shared values, responsibility and the freedom to act, accountability and, finally, passion, optimism, pride and energy.)

What is your SMB doing to position itself positively to attract the talent you need to succeed? Drop a note to let us know what’s working and what you’re struggling with, and if there are other topics or challenges you’d like us to tackle in future posts.

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