Regardless of industry, rarely a report on greatest challenges to business is produced without talent and more specifically attracting and retaining talent, being mentioned as a major difficulty for businesses – especially SMEs.

Perhaps because of the difficulty of attracting the right people, it has become a growing trend to grow from within and there is a lot of merit in this, especially where personal development plans incorporate formal as well as on the job coaching and up-skilling. However, many companies fall into the trap of automatically filling vacant roles with those coming up through the ranks without ensuring that all the key skills, competencies and attributes are in place – or at least identifying which areas staff may need additional support with to become fully accomplished in their new role.

For example, how many times has the star sales person or creative lead or project manager been promoted into a role on the basis of their sterling performance (and often length of service) to a role where they are now responsible for the leadership and development of a team of people, only to spectacularly fail at this new level because while they may be great at selling, managing people is not necessarily their forte and, what’s more, they are now able to spend less time doing what they are good at!

Alternatively, especially small companies who can least afford to make a mistake with their hire, will look outside – but only as far as their friends, family and network of acquaintances are able to recommend. Pulling in talent from a very limited network is also not always very productive – unless your network is a high performing one. American entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn suggests that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.

By limiting your hiring pool to ‘similar’ types of people therefore you will end up hiring similar to what you already have – which is clearly not conducive to growth and progression for any company.


So, what are the 5 key steps business leaders can take to improve their talent pool?

  1. Clearly define what you need; what are you missing; what would add value to your organisation and your clients?

This means not just pulling out the job spec on the system and putting it online or out to a recruitment consultant…but really thinking about the skills, experience, competencies or characteristics you are missing and looking to fill. Craft individual job specifications to meet individual roles – even where some of the basic characteristics of the role may retain commonalities across your team.

Also consider your company goals and strategy. For example, if you are looking for growth, change and innovation a ‘big picture’ person; someone who is agile and who embraces change will be more effective that someone who prefers structure, rules and conformity.


  1. Consider the best approach to find who you are looking for. One size does not fit all!

It can be tempting when time is tight to send the brief straight out to an industry recruiter who will no doubt have a queue of people looking for jobs just like the one you are advertising right? Well in some circumstances yes…. but this comes with a caveat and is dependent on how much time you have invested in building a relationship with the recruiter so that they truly understand your company, your clients, your products and services, your culture, your goals and your business challenges. And, as time is something SME’s don’t have in great supply – it is a rare case when such a relationship is developed. So, you end up spending anywhere between 15% and 25% on the annual salary of the post you are filling (at £45k per annum this comes in at anywhere from £6,750- £11,250 just to process some CV’s- for one job!).

There are of course well-known recruitment portals that are much more cost effective, both general and industry specific, but the advertising formats available are prescriptive and there is little room for you to show your personality. It’s a bit like asking someone on a date without having first sent them a picture or chatted for a while. And then of course, you have the job of wading through and responding to those ‘catch all’ CV’s that bear no relevance to the role you are advertising. Again though, for some roles, where generic skills are the order of the day, these portals certainly have their place and, you could benefit from the right skills, but different background – which in turn can help foster innovation!

Peter Watson from Award Winning Digital Marketing Agency ‘Distract’ advocates ditching HR recruitment budgets altogether and suggests that with successful marketing a company should never need to advertise either via a recruiter or recognised portal. His own company has a strong following – thanks to regular blogs & vlogs (all compiled by staff at all levels) and attendance at events where his team most definitely espouse the values of the company. When Distract has a vacancy, they simply post on their social sites. The responses they receive are from relevant individuals who are already champions of the company and hence come at a much-reduced risk.


  1. Remain focused on your requirements throughout the process!

It is easy to get swayed by well written CV’s and/or recruiters’ recommendations. We have all heard the ‘oh he or she is lovely, they will fit in so well with your team’. Yes, this may be the case, but do they tick each of the ‘must haves’ in the scope you crafted when considering the vacant role. And the reason it’s so important to craft the job scope BEFORE even receiving a CV is called interviewer bias. We all suffer from it. The candidate went to the same school or University as you; they worked at a well-known and respected company; they belong to the same groups as you – they must be good right? Not necessarily.

The best way to remain focused is to have the CV’s critically analysed to match the actual language used against what is being said. I am regularly asked to critique CV’s for my clients, one such candidate who came ‘highly recommended’ for interview, in their mid-twenties, amongst a myriad of discrepancies described themselves as entrepreneurial and a strategic thinker – but this entrepreneur was seeking a junior marketing role. In addition, the candidate mentioned attention to detail as being a strength but then misspelled a previous employer’s name. The candidate wasn’t shortlisted!

And to ensure you don’t stray in the actual interview itself, ensure there are always 2 people within the interview and use pre-crafted competency questions – set against the criteria you scoped previously and stick to the questions. An example of competency questionnaires that have been successfully used in the past can be found here. And just to be sure that interview bias doesn’t creep in, have the interview notes analysed by a third party.


  1. Be authentic!

It’s very, very easy to want your company to be seen in its best light and, when you are desperate to fill a position its even easier to promise the earth to the ‘perfect’ candidate sat in front of you. But the point is, the candidate is not perfect if you must stretch the truth to get them to accept the role. You need someone who will love you warts and all, knows the challenges, the pitfalls and is in it for the long-haul anyway.

I have seen countless miss-hires where the candidate has lasted anywhere from 1 week to 6 months because the job was either too mundane and hands on; or remote work is at best tolerated and not the norm as was suggested in the interview; or working late is a regular occurrence and not just an occasional blip; or being in charge of a team simply means passing the bosses orders downwards – no real leaderships skills required!

Want to know how much this sort of error costs you? Well, double the recruitment costs (because you will have to re-hire); your time and the time of those in your team who have helped the newcomer settle in; the disruption to the team and potentially your clients. Is it worth stretching the truth?


  1. Understand the time/money vs knowledge paradigm and give your recruit the best chance of succeeding!

In fairness most companies start off with good intentions, but the smaller the organisation the harder it is to not only organise an appropriate onboarding schedule in the first place but then to stick to it. Client work will always come first and then there are holidays and sickness and often, by the end of week one, Joseph or Josephine will just be in at the deep end, firefighting with everyone else. This is certainly not helped when the scheduled for Joseph or Josephine comprises back to back meetings with key people around your company and no time in-between to assimilate what they have been told, put it into context or test out the stories through reflective observation. Let’s get this clear, the time invested in a well thought through induction will reap massive benefits for all concerned.

So, what is a good induction? Well, ideally it will take place over a period of 3-4 weeks and should include space between meeting new people and new learns; it should include social and cerebral activities and not just be a round of endless talks; presentations, handovers and training sessions. It should provide regular opportunities for two-way feedback, questions and for the new employee to be able to share with their new colleagues what they bring to the party. What is their background; what skills are available for the team to draw from? How can the company use this fresh knowledge and skills to its advantage?

You may think you are paying for a month of zero output – but as Candice Elliott reports for ‘Listen Money Matters’ knowledge is more powerful, and I would add – hence more valuable – than money!


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