Why there’s still space for career development in a startup

While many prefer working for an SME to a large multinational, being part of a smaller team can mean restricted career development. How can managers meet the aspirations of staff when job opportunities may be limited?

Why there's still space for career development in a startup

A business is only as good as its employees. With the right team in the engine room, an SME can go from strength to strength off the back of everyone’s dedication and work ethic. One problem, however, is that after you have assembled your team, how do you ensure you keep them? Recent data shows that one in five people quit their job due to a lack of career opportunities, and with 51% of employees only discussing their future once a year with managers, it is easy to see why.

One problem facing SMEs is that while they may have staff who want to take their career to the next level, the business may not be big enough to accommodate their ambition. This is an issue Gareth Jeffrey has considered at great length as operations manager of   alldayPA, the professional call answering service. He has discovered that talking to staff and involving them in the bigger picture can bridge the void created by a dearth of opportunities. “You can’t promote everyone every other week, and some smaller businesses physically won’t be able to promote someone until they are generating enough revenue. What you can do, however, is consult them on business decisions and give them greater responsibility to encourage them to be more proactive in other areas of the business,” says Jeffrey. 

Demonstrating you have faith in employees and placing trust in them can help drive the business, he adds. “The more employees you have like this, the faster you will grow as a business and be able to offer opportunities for career progression.”

The key to keeping employees engaged is communication, says John Styring, CEO of IglooBooks, the publishing firm. As well as a company policy that requires senior managers to know the names of all 106 employees, IglooBooks’ people plan was created in an attempt to establish a clear pathway of professional development. Comprised of formal and informal talks, the scheme looks at training and goal-setting in order to meet employees’ aspirations. 

Established in 2003, IglooBooks now trades in 55 countries and boasts a turnover of £23m. Styring credits the rapid growth to the firm’s workforce. “For me, the key to fast growth, from out-performing your targets and meeting the demands of bigger orders, is all dependent upon your staff,” he says. “Maintaining and growing morale is key, as the bigger your company gets the more important staff become. The key to managing growth is managing your workforce. I found that as growth intensified I was spending upwards of 30% of my time on personnel,” he continues.

While communication is key in making sure you understand your employees’ career needs, adopting a philosophy of promotion from within can do wonders for a workforce’s drive. The idea that a promotion opportunity will go to an existing member of staff is a great incentive for workers. After several promotions since joining alldayPA at entry level, Jeffrey knows exactly how effective this approach can be. “Focusing on promotion from within will go a long way to keeping staff motivated and secure in the knowledge that they need not look elsewhere to progress in their career,” he says. “I know how motivational that carrot can be, and it means so much more when you work your way up a company that you have helped to build.”

It’s time to discuss the elephant in the room: money. Big corporates have much deeper pockets than a fledgling business. But while bonuses and other employee benefits will put smiles on faces in the short-term, businesses need to do a lot more than just offer monetary gains to make an employee feel like they are progressing. On the contrary, Jeffrey says that blanket financial bonuses can often be counter-productive, and that you need to treat every employee as an individual. “Talking to staff and working with them to hone their skills in the areas that they want to improve is crucial to make them feel valued. When you’re working with employees in skilled positions, allowing them to broaden their skillset is often more valuable than financial reward.”

What’s more, while SMEs may not always have the resources or opportunities to offer fresh roles to staff, the very nature of their size does give individuals the opportunity to shine.

Not every business, however, is able to offer staff career development. Due to its business policy, Red Setter, the business development and PR consultancy, hires senior marketing professionals at the heights of their career. While this has many obvious benefits, the drawbacks are that there is little room for progression, especially due to the flat management structure. To compensate for this, the company takes steps to help its staff develop as people and make their work-lives as happy as possible, explains Claire Blyth, director at Red Setter.

“We feel it is important for staff to be happy and healthy at work – therefore we have posture consultations, provide optional weekly Pilates classes and receive weekly fruit deliveries for staff snacking,” explains Blyth.

“We also understand that senior professionals often have family commitments outside of work, so we have a flexible working policy. If a team member wants to work from home a couple of days a week, we make sure the right technology is set up to make that possible. For us, flexibility is not a benefit we give our employees; it is simple business sense.”

On target

Tim Lovell, Matchbox London

As CEO of Matchbox London, the content marketing agency, Tim Lovell is well aware of the importance in retaining the best employees. Introducing a Results Only Working Environment (ROWE), enabling staff to be paid for results instead of hours worked, has meant the company has stayed competitive against bigger companies, while recording some impressive staff turnover statistics. “Introducing this ROWE culture and using complementary tools like Podio [a project management software system] has helped us attract and retain the best talent,” says Lovell.

“Consequently, we’ve reduced staff turnover to zero in the past two years. This has been great for team spirit and has saved us significant costs by reducing overheads like recruitment and training of replacement staff,” he adds. While the ROWE model has helped Matchbox London keep hold of important staff and lower costs, by giving employees more freedom Lovell has also been able to ensure intangible assets such as intellectual property stay within the business. In this digital age of hot-desking, remote working, flexitime and telecommuting, incorporating a ROWE policy may help in retaining staff, especially if the results Lovell is seeing at his company is the norm. “My team are very happy with an empowerment to focus purely on results, while being trusted completely in the delivery of their work,” he concludes. 

James Dyble
James Dyble

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