Four ways to boost the health of small businesses

19 May 2015 -


Experts at special CMI event outline how the UK could improve prospects for its startups – and what bosses can do to help their firms grow

Blayne Pereira

Deciding on a common goal that managers and employees all work towards is vital for attracting talent to small businesses: that was the message from the latest CMI Growing Your Small Business event, held last night at University College London, and chaired by CMI chief executive Ann Francke. During the evening, a panel of speakers gave their best anecdotal advice to owners who are trying to make the most of their firms amid continuing economic challenges.

Overall, the speakers were united in the view that effective talent management in small firms, and the retention of skilled staff, are best secured by establishing the company’s character from top to bottom and rallying every staffer around that vision. But there were other crucial points that the panellists touched on about how prospects for small businesses in the UK could be improved…

1. University challenge

Many of the speakers felt that higher-education bodies must do more to prepare their students for running small businesses. “There’s too much focus on the big employers and not enough attention on SMEs,” lamented Martin Spiller, partner at Jenson Solutions. “Universities have made steps forward – but they are still too academic in some respects.”

Spiller added that business schools also needed to work on teaching their students in basic entrepreneurial skills, and there was a consensus among the panelists that new graduates are less likely to be equipped to deal with the increased responsibility they’d have in smaller companies, compared to what they would learn about management and leadership in larger firms.

2. Voices of experience

Ignore the wisdom of older talent at your peril. One of the most common HR issues affecting small businesses is that many employees – especially young graduates – view small businesses as stepping stones or stop-gaps; places where they can gain experience before moving on to larger companies. “Hire older people,” said Francke. “They have the experience and they are less likely to leave.” Federation of Small Businesses policy adviser Chris Walker agreed, stressing that 90% of people going from unemployment to work are taken on by SMEs – presenting a valuable opportunity for older workers who are trying to claw their way out of redundancy. “There’s clearly a flow into larger companies,” he said, “and that’s not always preventable. It’s the high-skilled trade-off: they’ll be valued commodities in the job market.”

You won’t always be able to stop employees from moving on if they’ve made up their minds – but how can you best stem the flow? Walker’s advice: “Sell the fact that you can give employees freedom in an SME.” That notion of “giving staff responsibility” found wide agreement among the panel.

3. Social strength

As he stressed the importance of building a shared vision for your company, Spiller noted that employees at the opposite end of the age spectrum would be crucial to that process – particularly in the realm of social media, which can really help to communicate your firm’s identity. “Let young people use the skills they have which you don’t,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alastair Moore – deputy director at UCL Advances – highlighted the benefits that social media can bring to recruitment. “With LinkedIn especially,” he said, “if a candidate has worked well with someone else you know, you’re more likely to hire them.” Moore also highlighted the role that part-time staff can play in helping to temporarily fill in the gaps in your business. In his own project, for example, he is using a part-time CFO.

4. Knowledge is power

Never underestimate the amount of learning you will need to do to run an small firm – especially if you are a lone gun. Chances are your services will be required by firms of wildly varying shapes and sizes, so even though you’ve set up on your own, you will still need to keep an eye on current and emerging business trends. Paul Taylor – chair of CMI’s London and South East regional board – left his job in the City to launch a firm by himself. “One-man businesses need to understand about different firms and cultures,” he said.

As you get busier, Taylor warned, you may also have to delegate. “You need to organise the chaos of running everything, focus on your end goal, and accept that you might need to employ someone else if necessary.”

Find out about the forthcoming events in the Growing your Small Business series.

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