Hiring good people is never easy, and it appears to be getting even more difficult: With the economy picking up speed, small businesses now say that finding the right employees has emerged as the number one challenge to their continued expansion. That's the first time in a decade that hiring has been identified as the top barrier to growth, according to the 2016 American Express Open Small Business Monitor.
Even if you have great employees today, a related challenge is helping them develop their skills as the company grows and operations become more complex. Sometimes even the founder of the company may find that his or her skillset isn't what it needs to be.
A trio of successful entrepreneurs addressed the many interrelated challenges of hiring, retaining, and developing employees at "Power to the Small," a panel discussion sponsored by Windstream, a provider of advanced network communications and technology solutions.
There was general agreement that one key is to hire people based on their ability to develop and grow alongside with the company. One way to do that, suggests Toa Green, founder of Crank and Boom Craft Ice Cream, is to hire people based not only on the specific skills and experiences they can bring to the job, but also on their creativity and long-term goals. So she designed a job application that includes questions such as "What is your dream job?" and "What are your hobbies/passions?"
"People with big dreams and strong passions tend to be the most successful in our company," Green says. "They know how to work hard for something. I like to paint the picture for our team that their time with us, at least for most of them, is a path to something else."
Carey Smith, CEO of Big Ass Solutions, a maker of fans and related ventilation equipment, believes in hiring people for their curiosity and sense of humor, because he believes those traits are strongly associated with flexibility and initiative. His employees, who often come to the company straight out of high school, rotate across different positions, an approach he says has worked out well.
"They don't know what they're good at until they work at something for a while," he says. "I also believe in hiring people for their next job. The jumping-off point in our company is receptionist. If you're the best receptionist, you won't stay a receptionist for long because you'll get a higher-level job."
One employee who came to Big Ass Solutions as an intern less than a decade ago now leads a $70 million division, and another who started as a temp in manufacturing is now in charge of quality control on a product line.
But the ability to switch to new positions isn't limited to junior employees. Smith hired an experienced writer who later told him she wanted to work in the company's blossoming international operation instead. As much as possible, Smith avoids hiring external candidates for senior positions, preferring instead to develop current employees, because they understand the company's culture. "When you hire people who have worked for larger companies," Smith says, "they're used to being in silos and being constrained. They don't think outside the box."
Entrepreneurs also need to be open to their own deficiencies as their company grows, according to Michael Tetterton, CEO of Creative Lodging Solutions, which helps companies save time and money on hotel reservations, hotel invoice consolidation, and travel programs.
Often that is an issue of time rather than ability. He recalls that he and his CFO initially took joint responsibility for a key task: conducting client reviews. But they each had so much on their plate that they never got around to it. Finally, they gave the job to another worker who, Tetterton says, handled it much better than either he or his CFO would have.
"Giving up control is tough when you're a Type A individual," he says. "But I've surrounded myself with good people, people I trust with my life. They're very open about coming to me and saying, 'You're doing this well, but you don’t do this well.'"
He adds by being open to his own shortcomings, he's made his company stronger--and created opportunities for other employees to expand their roles and make bigger contributions to the company's success.