The blue-chip blues

Written by Jeff Dennis

News flash! The biggest challenge facing entrepreneurs is hiring and retaining great people, and it’s only going to get worse as the boomers retire and there aren’t enough qualified people around to fill their shoes.

Okay, you knew that already. But my experience suggests something you might not know: it takes a special breed of employee to thrive in an entrepreneurial environment.

It’s a fact of business life that most employees fare better in — if not prefer — the confines of the corporation. There, reporting hierarchies and duplication of roles mean that staff can make meaningful contributions to the company’s success when working within the limits of detailed job descriptions, constant managerial oversight and endless bureaucracy.

That’s not the case at entrepreneurial firms, typically startup or fast-growing enterprises whose hallmarks are a lack of structure, a dearth of human and financial resources, and frequent changes in direction. What these firms need are staff who can succeed despite the turbulence of the entrepreneurial environment. Many business owners figure this out the hard way, only after hiring and firing corporate types who can’t get with the program.

Of course, it’s not enough to be aware of the problem; you have to know what to do about it. Here are the qualities I look for in job candidates who’ll thrive in an entrepreneurial business:

1. Resourcefulness. Entrepreneurs rarely have the infrastructure, resources or information needed to achieve their goals. They need employees who can make do with what they have. For example, I Love Rewards Inc., a provider of loyalty programs that I advise, has a public-relations committee that’s staffed by employees from various departments rather than a dedicated PR department or an outside supplier. Clearly, the I Love Rewards team is making do with less; I suggest you ask job candidates how they’ve done similar things in the past.

2. Take-charge attitude. Entrepreneurs running fast-growth companies must delegate to their employees — often junior people — but can’t do much hand-holding after that. Thus, the ideal employees are self-starters who take ownership of everything they do and cut through the obstacles in their path.

3. Unending energy. Entrepreneurial firms cannot afford to have a 9-to-5 culture. Their ideal employee has loads of enthusiasm and energy, and consistently generates better than expected output. Not only do they want to contribute to the bottom line, they also feel the need to see the results of their contributions quickly.

4. Growth potential. Entrepreneurial companies are like a human-resources vacuum — there are always leadership roles to fill. The best staff are willing to accept higher levels of responsibility than one might expect from someone with their position, title, experience level or salary. They act as a strong role model, by training and coaching others, and assume supervisory responsibilities — again, much earlier than the norm in a corporate environment.

5. They are team players. In big companies, middle managers and detailed job descriptions alleviate the need for individuals to understand their role within the corporate whole. (If their performance is somehow lacking, then surely someone will tell them!) Because entrepreneurial companies lack that infrastructure, staff must understand the big picture and how their actions contribute to the cause.

6. Multi-tasking ability. Fast growth means few entrepreneurial enterprises can afford to pigeonhole employees in narrow job descriptions. They have the ability to perform multiple roles until the incremental duties and functions assumed can be assigned to co-workers in newly defined roles, and they have the willingness to do the grunt work that’s usually the domain of low-level employees. They’re jacks of all trades, and happy about it.

7. They are improvement-oriented. As companies grow, employees must also evolve. If you have staff who challenge existing procedures and systems, suggest changes frequently and are dedicated to self-improvement, they’re the right people for your entrepreneurial firm.

Since entrepreneurs operate on meagre budgets, we can’t compete for people on price. We have to provide our staffs with something that big corporate employers cannot. So, here’s another news flash: your business is exactly the kind of firm that the entrepreneurial employee wants to work for.

Unlike big companies, entrepreneurial businesses can provide opportunities for employees to improve their leadership abilities, exercise their creativity and manage themselves. Sell those opportunities to prospective employees, and they’ll take a shine to your company. To ensure the admiration lasts, solicit and act upon their ideas, give credit where credit is due, and point out errors and poor decisions quickly and clearly — even if they’re your own.

As I review these traits, I realize that any employer would be thrilled to have one of these stars on staff. But when a growth company and an entrepreneurial employee get together, it truly is a marriage made in heaven.

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