Posted by: DrAlanRae | November 13, 2008

Attracting, leading and keeping talent

Here’s the next thrilling extract from 21 Business Stories

One of the difficulties that a growing company faces is attracting and keeping the staff it needs. For a company to grow past about 10 it needs a management team. In Mike Southon’s book “The Beermat Entrepreneur” he describes a cornerstone model in which you need visionary plus 4 cornerstones who are experts in sales and marketing, finance, operations and content. This would provide a core management team able to drive business growth up to about 70 employees when either the business will cash out or a middle management will need to be engaged.[1]

However, this is probably well beyond what most of us have in mind. However, there is one key point about engaging these core staff in Mike’s view and that is equal share holdings. I have to say we have only in one of our companies done that although the first one was quite close. Our current business is actually a family one with 4 shareholders which has to make provision for succession planning.

My experience teaches me that good people are attracted to working on good projects that will help them develop as individuals. This is particularly true in IT where it’s critical for people working in the field to keep their skills refreshed, but it’s also true in other areas where one’s career is often built on a portfolio of CV building projects. So if you have a compelling vision that promises a series of interesting work projects, then you will find it easier to attract the staff you want.

Don’t however forget the Values dimension. However cynical the media are, my experience is that the overwhelming majority of people want to work on things that are worthwhile – that have some meaning – that make them feel good about themselves.

There’s actually quite a shortage of this type of work, so if you can provide it you’ll have an advantage in attracting and keeping the staff that you want.

You can keep them also by providing them with things they can’t get elsewhere. When we were running our AutoCAD dealership, Ai Systems, we had a gang of young salesmen and techies. These guys defined themselves to their chums by their wheels. Most competing companies would give them a standard company car (it was a perk worth having in those days) but we had the bright idea of offering a bit more flexibility.

As in – here’s the company car – it’s a Renault 21. It costs us £300 a month in leasing. If you want something different you can have it – we’ll pay £300 a month and you find the difference. So we had BMWs, Renault hot hatches, and toy Jeeps in the fleet. The guy with the toy Jeep took his girlfriend out on the beach at Southport and got stuck with the tide coming in. He did manage to get it out in time but he was more scared of facing Isobel than drowning. The guy with the hot hatch clamped the steering wheel so some bright spark sawed it off (this was Merseyside after all). However they stayed with us to the end.

It’s important in a small company to develop a sense of community. This means that you have to be seen to be fair all the time and that you need to build in excuses to organise team celebrations. The celebrations are the easy bit. Work out an excuse for everyone to go out and get drunk together. About 3 times a year is enough. We had a rule that if the company sold £100,000 of kit in a month which generally happened 2 or 3 times a year we would have a company outing. Sometimes we went bowling; sometimes it was beer and pizza (we had a great pizza restaurant locally) once we went on one of those laser guns in smoke filled rooms jobs. Doesn’t matter. It just makes people feel involved.

Being fair is harder. But you have to do it – because then if someone is not performing you can let the logic of the situation speak for you. Look, you might say, I have a responsibility to keep all these people employed. The company can’t live with the level of sales you’re producing. How do we make it easy for you to find another job? People were generally glad I’d brought it to a head. After a few months, I often got referrals from people I’d had to sack. It’s not a good feeling but if you have behaved consistently previously it’s much easier. So it means that if someone is not pulling their weight you have to confront them out of fairness to the other people who are putting in the energy.

The final advice I would give is always look out for projects that will further the agenda of the individuals concerned.

I learned this during a stint as Regional Chair of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. We had to re-design the regional web site. My first thought was that I should do it – after all it’s within my expertise. My second thought was – No – if I do it myself I’ll just get in my own way and be the bottleneck on my own project. I know – I’ll ask Thom to do it – he’s just gone independent and needs the reference. He did a great job. Next I thought – what can I give the others to do. So I got Peter to develop a regional events programme and David to liaise with other professional bodies. Both things that suited their personal agenda. Result – I had nothing to do and won an award for Best Managed Region.

It just shows what you can get away with. If only I applied the same approach in my day job.

[1] Link to Mike’s book here



  1. Nice site. Theres some good information on here. Ill be checking back regularly.

  2. Excellent content…keep up the good work!

  3. Hi there, it’s really good to see a well written blog that’s insightful as well as entertaining. cheers!

  4. Leadership Skills…

    One of my all-time favorite quotes about Leadership is from Thomas Edison: \’Hell, there are no rules here — we\’re trying to accomplish something!\’…

  5. Good article. I also believe that every good company needs one or two boundary stretchers to keep people on their toes and to challenge the status quo. If you don’t nothing changes so you stagnate. This quote sums it up for me:-

    The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
    George Bernard Shaw

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