How to unlock the hidden talent in SMEs

While larger and better-known firms can hoover up many talented candidates, their attitude to skills development can often be overly formulaic and structured. Smaller businesses, by contrast, have the opportunity to move fast and adapt in the way they get, grow and keep their people.

But it’s not all good news… On average, one-in-six employees intends to leave his or her job in the next 12 months, while half will be gone within three years. For those SMEs that fail to rise to the talent challenge, the exodus could be much greater and more damaging. Younger staff, in particular, will move on quickly if they can’t see where they are going in their careers.

Careers – it’s both the challenge to and the opportunity for unlocking the potential of talent. Recent research in the Harvard Business Review shows that it is meaningful development opportunities that largely underpin employee engagement. Credible engagement is never easy, because every employee has different needs. 10Eighty’s own research, however, shows that the prize on offer for a tailored approach is well worthwhile: employees who feel that at least “someone” at work is actively encouraging their development are twice as likely to feel engaged-and much more likely to stay put when that tempting job offer is made by another firm.

So, who should this “someone” be? The answer could (and should) be the line manager. The big challenge, however, is that many line managers themselves feel disconnected from the notion of career development. Too often, they see training and development of their team either as an inconvenient short-term loss of resource or an extra burden on an already tight budget. In addition, they feel under pressure from above to keep their team’s collective heads down to keep producing more with less.

This may feel like a good short-term survival strategy for line managers, but when this happens, staff retention can be reduced to nothing more than a temporary coincidence of interests with employees. Career conversations can then become rather uncomfortable, because they mean peering into an uncertain future, stoking (and possibly not meeting) employee expectations – and actually hastening the departure of key staff.

A more positive way to look at career development is seeing it as a central to the growth of key skills for the business, with the line manager enabling the employee to take responsibility for his or her own career development. To bring out the best in your talent, you need to invest some time finding out about them, then learning to collaborate with them in mapping out a career path. Look at him or her as a person rather than as a role to be filled – how they approach and work through a task will tell you far more about their talents than their job description ever could.

One of the many advantages an SME possesses is the ability to create an instinctive approach to managing talent in this way. They can attract candidates motivated by higher risks in order to gain experience quickly, give more opportunities to learn, with less red tape getting in the way of their great ideas. Talent rarely goes unnoticed when it contributes directly to growth and success. In an SME, employees can be less a cog in the machine and more its engine.

To identify, support and develop talent doesn’t need to be a formal or expensive process – far from it. Rather, developing and recognising talent is a learnable and affordable skill for managers. This isn’t easy to achieve in the modern workplace, but it is possible. Many organisations are as lean as they possibly can be so any method of career development needs to be highly cost-effective, with attention increasingly shifting towards online tools. Technology holds the key to this new career bargain between employee and employer on is based around career development – a bargain that could stick.

A bargain by definition places obligations on both sides: employees who want to be relevant to an organisation, have an obligation to themselves to understand their own values, motivators and talents better in order to put together a coherent career plan. Those that do plan, the evidence shows, are much more likely to achieve their goals. And their line managers are in turn more likely to listen, understand their coherent aspirations and provide jobs to challenge and stretch them.

Good people will always get good offers to leave your business, but when they do make sure that they are as engaged as they possibly can be. When that offer comes, they should be clear in their own minds that their current employer knows far more about their capabilities and promotion opportunities, in a way that a potential new employer could take years to understand. That alone should give them pause for serious thought before deciding to leave.

Linda Jackson is a founding director of 10Eighty, a pioneering consultancy focused on ROI and demonstrable improvements in organisational and people performance. CareerCENTRE™ is an online set of career management tools that help employees, line managers and organisations to understand career values, motivators and skills development needs.