What makes a great small business employee?

A boss talks to an employee

Successful small businesses are only as good as the people who work in them. But finding great staff is not always easy. You need people that can step up to the challenges facing your business but who are also prepared to muck in - it's all about attitude, as Rachel Miller finds out

Corporate recruitment processes - with HR departments and outside consultants - are beyond the budget of most small firms. That's undoubtedly a good thing. Finding your own new recruits, listening to your gut instinct and spotting talent among your network of contacts can allow you to find new employees that will really fit in and add value to your business.

But what makes a brilliant small business employee?

The right attitude

"I hire for attitude and hope the skills will follow," says Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation. At Enterprise Nation, Emma has recently recruited a new team member that she had met at a few events. "We had a gap for someone with the right kind of attitude and we've created the job for them. Small businesses need people who can move at the same pace as the company and be as ambitious as the business owners. In a small team, you are working on a mission together. You can't afford any slackness."

A flexible approach

When you work in a small business you might be pitching to a client one minute and washing up the coffee cups the next. "The simple fact is that staff in a small firm will have to turn their hands to many more tasks than they would in a large company," says Rob Scott, managing director of specialist sales recruitment firm Aaron Wallis.

"People who have been in big companies can really struggle in a small firm," he adds. "They are expected to do everything. If you take on a big hitter from a large firm, you are going to have problems. If that person is a sales executive, for instance, they will have been used to working with support teams that may have helped them get leads, open doors, do tender returns and put together presentations. In a small business you have to do everything."

John Sollars, managing director of printer consumables supplier StinkyInk.com, agrees. "It's like life after being in the army," he says. "In a large organisation you know where you fit. In a small firm you need to be flexible."

A positive personality

Friendly, enthusiastic, open, self-motivated - all these are important traits in a small business employee. However, employing people that will fit in is not about finding "yes people" - you need employees that are prepared to stick their neck out, offering new ideas and even sometimes challenging the status quo.

"Small business employees must be enthusiastic," says John Sollars. "In a small business, everyone is involved, they have to take ownership. Take customer service - in a firm like ours, anyone could pick up the phone and I insist that all my staff have a go at customer-facing roles."

Taking responsibility

One thing's for sure, there's nowhere to hide in a small firm. Everyone knows your business - including your triumphs and disasters. The upside for the employee is that you can get more appreciation for your role and more support from your colleagues in a smaller set-up.

However, you are more exposed, says Rob Scott. "If you are a sales person, then everyone knows your sales results - whereas in a big company, individual performance may not be common knowledge. Also in a big firm, there is often a culture of covering up your mistakes. In a small firm, people are more open and if mistakes are made it's understood that staff will learn from them and move on."

Being a team player and a self-starter

Small firms are increasingly looking for part-time and freelance staff that can provide the skills they need in a more flexible arrangement. "We have lots of self-employed freelance people that are part of the Enterprise Nation team," says Emma Jones. "They have to be happy to work in isolation and also be a team player. Lots of small companies are growing in this way."

So what should you look for in a freelancer? "You have to think how you would feel if that person was out and about with your business card, representing your brand," says Emma. "Working away from the office, they have to be self-motivated but still have a team spirit - and that's our responsibility as well as theirs. We have monthly team meetings and use the project management tool Basecamp to ensure everyone is up to speed."

Entrepreneurial flair

Young, would-be entrepreneurs perform well in a small firm - they relish the chance to learn and take on more responsibility. As a result, they embrace the opportunities on offer and can really help the company grow.

In fact, if you want to set up your own enterprise, working in a small firm is a fabulous training ground. And it's not unusual for small business employees to want to start a business of their own. The founders of Peppersmith, for instance, previously worked at smoothie makers Innocent.

John Sollars and Emma Jones have both seen staff getting the entrepreneurial bug in their own teams. John says, "We had one intern who worked with us for a year and he has now gone off to set up his own business. I was chuffed to bits."

Finding your next employee

"The majority of small businesses don't have an HR department and they can't afford to use expensive recruitment agencies," says Emma Jones. "Most recruitment decisions are made by the founder - often based on gut instinct. Which is no bad thing - head hunters may not be in tune with what a business wants."

The best way to find new staff is networking, says Emma. "We tend to find people through word of mouth. It's good to get recommendations from people you know and trust."

Using tools like LinkedIn can be a great way to expand your network and find potential candidates.

Employing interns, apprentices and freelancers is also a great way to "try before you buy".

But however you find your next staff member, always remember to bear in mind equal opportunities legislation and other recruitment legalities.

The perfect small business employee…

  • has a can-do attitude - happy to pitch in, regardless of their job description
  • embraces new opportunities and relishes the chance to take on more responsibility
  • is as ambitious for the business as the owner and enjoys working in an entrepreneurial environment
  • works well as part of a tight-knit team
  • is innovative, always coming up with new ideas or better ways to do things

Need not apply: jobsworths, pessimists, clock-watchers

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